Cambridge's BISq restaurant and wine bar is celebrating its one year anniversary after opening in Inman Square last June. The modern American small plates restaurant is the sibling to Bergamot, the beloved neighborhood staple helmed by Chef Keith Pooler and Servio Garcia. Pooler’s Bisq kitchen is run by Chef Dan Bazzinotti, who says the restaurant’s first few months were its most formative.
“It was my first time running the first show so the first couple of moths felt like a year in a general,” the Lawrence native remembers. “Everything had to be more than perfect and over-the-top.”
We chat with Bazzinotti about BISq's first year, the magic of Tiger Milk and what he eats when he's home.
What made those first few months so stressful?
We weren’t in a groove yet because we had never cooked in this kitchen before and we were using this new equipment. On some days, old equipment is better, because it’s reliable. This oven will have computer issues sometimes, and when you’re opening and running a restaurant and learning the new equipment at the same time, it’s a lot. Plus, you have a lot of people to impress, not just reviewers and critics, but chef and restaurant friends. Lydia Shire or the people from Sycamore [in Newton Centre] or even our owner — they'll come in to eat and that was a big thing, to say to these guys in the industry, “This is what we’re doing, we’re finally here, this is what we’re about.”
What about those first months shaped the restaurant as we know it today?
I think I had 30 items on the menu [in the beginning] and it was intense. We had sausages that needed to age for three weeks before they were served. So we were in there three or four weeks before, prepping sausages and calf liver mousse and training people we hadn’t worked with before. It was high stakes.
At Bergamot, we had only 14 menu items, so keeping up with  was crazy. I looked at our owner on opening night and he was like, "Are you alright?" And I stopped and was like, ‘Why am I so nervous? I know how to make good food. What the f—k is going on here.’ We ended up serving about 140 people — the restaurant seats 49 and we packed it three times.
What’s the status quo now?
We’ve got our stride now and have figured out what works and what doesn’t. We’re still getting to know the neighborhood, though. We want to provide good service. We’re not fine dining in the way that we plate. But with the technique in the kitchen we are. We’re all French classically trained, but the plating is fun and family style. It needs to look great, but also taste awesome. We’ve been finding more of ourselves than ever before in the past four or five months.
What about the menu has stuck over the course of a year?
With menu writing it’s good to come full circle [over the course of a year] and see what works and what doesn’t. We just put the green gazpacho back on the menu. We had that one on our opening menu, and that and the shrimp toast are the two we brought back. It’s just that good. It’s refreshing and we’ll put cornbread bits and a drizzle of creme fraîche on top. We’ll hopefully be doing a watermelon ceviche in July, and probably keep it vegetarian — just with melon instead of fish.
How does that work?
You treat it as you would the protein [for ceviche]. We’ll cut it a few different ways and marinate it in our Tiger Milk and these Peruvian hot peppers I have grown by a friend's with a greenhouse. Those peppers aren’t only spicy — they’re VERY spicy. But you can taste the pepper itself. I went to Peru, tried them, and knew they were awesome. That’s the difference between Mexican and Peruvian peppers. The seeds [of the Peruvian pepper] are dangerously hot and when we make our Tiger Milk we have to take out all the seeds. I tell the cooks to wear gloves. The seeds are black and crazy looking.
What goes into Tiger Milk? Is that the acid element that cooks the protein?
Tiger Milk is the cooking liquid… it’s the aphrodisiac… it’s the hangover cure. We’ll mix it with beer and it becomes Panther Milk. But mostly it’s just cooking liquid. We hand-squeeze limes. We don’t use a juicer because you miss the bitterness of a lime zest. A lot of love goes into this — 200 limes to get four quarts of juice. Then the peppers — we taste each of them because they’re all different. Then garlic, and my mother-in-law’s secret: a little bit of ginger. It rounds it out but adds a touch that some people can pick out. For the fish, we season it with salt and onions, and the Tiger Milk will cook it. It’ll turn a little bit white. It should be a little cooked on the outside and then a nice crude texture on the inside.
Is this something you’re making for yourself at home too?
[Laughs] No, not at all. I’m very simple. I try not to cook when I’m at home. It’s pasta, tuna salad and hardboiled eggs. Or if I’m grilling with my wife and our friends, we’re doing steak tips, lobster, corn and asparagus so I don’t have to clean a kitchen. That’s my motto at home: How much can I grill?