After more than a year of hazy uncertainty for the restaurant industry and the world — to say the absolute least — Cloud & Spirits in Cambridge’s Central Square (795 Main St.) welcomed its first diners last weekend. Here, different influences coalesce in chef Katie Cheung’s buoyant menu: New American meets new Korean, influenced by Cheung’s training in French and Italian cuisines.
The restaurant, in the former Cuchi Cuchi space, features a 36-seat main dining room and an 11-seat bar, with warm wood tones and light from the huge street-facing window. It’s also the first full-service spot from Blackfin Collective, the team behind quick-service restaurants Love Art Sushi, Poke by Love Art, and more.
While the news of any restaurant opening right now is something to celebrate, this one was almost a far more impermanent experience. When the Blackfin Collective signed the lease in June 2020, the team originally planned an incubator space for rotating resident chefs to breeze in and try out menus — the “cloud” in the name symbolizing the chef, with the “spirit” nodding toward the fleeting nature of the concepts.
But just like the weather changes, Blackfin and Cheung — formerly of Oishii Boston, Menton, Hojoko, and Kamakura — decided on a permanent project with Cheung at the lead. The ephemeral tone of the restaurant’s name now refers more to the shifting of the menu based on local and seasonal ingredients. (And there are “spirits,” too, in the more literal sense, with creative cocktails by beverage director Michael Gander.)
“We’re going with new American with heavy Korean influence,” Cheung says of the menu. “Some of the dishes you could categorize as new Korean, but basically the dishes are a combination of my heritage and my training and experience in kitchens here in Boston.”
Though she’s cooked at a host of kitchens since training at the now-closed Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge and worked on menu-writing while at Menton and Kamakura, Cheung is excited to have “complete, full control” over a menu for the first time.
Perhaps more accurately, this is the second menu she’s totally designed, after the “hibernation opening” of Mikkusu — a ghost kitchen that dished out to-go sandwiches on pillow-soft Japanese milk bread — which ran from last fall to this past winter in the same space. The sandwiches, like the fried pork katsu, were available in limited batches and sold out each day.
“It was a great opportunity for us to get used to the space and to give ourselves a preview of understanding who we all were as a team,” says operational partner Ron Liu of Blackfin Collective. “That way, we can kind of move into the [Cloud & Spirits] opening with much more experience working with each other.”
To start, there’s a pared-back chef’s menu, but in a few weeks, the full menu will see seven smaller, meant-to-share plates accompanied by five entrees and two desserts. (See the limited opening menu as well as the soon-to-come fuller menu below.)
Missed out on Mikkusu? The shrimp toast is your chance to try Cheung’s milk bread, topped here with shrimp, américaine (a classic buttery and boozy French sauce of tomato, garlic, fish stock, and more), and dried fish roe. The steak tartare finds balance with pear and sesame, with spicy gochujang sauce made by Dorchester-based Rhei-Maid.
Of the entrees, a favorite of Cheung is the samgyetang, which is a ginseng chicken soup. “Samgyetang is one of my favorite things to eat at home and not really something that you see on menus at Korean restaurants anywhere around here,” she says. “That’s the dish that I’m excited to share with people.”
Usually, the dish features a Cornish hen stuffed with sweet rice, chestnuts, garlic, and jujube in a ginger, ginseng, and jujube broth, though Cheung’s spin sees chicken roulade in place of the stuffed hen.
The menu also features a bibimbap, which is “very hyper-seasonal, so it’ll change often with whatever produce is available at the time,” she says. The opening bibimbap features yeolmu kimchi made of baby radish, along with sugar snap peas, pea tendrils, green bean sprouts, and maitake mushroom.
The singular spaghetti offering is Cheung’s chance to flex the pasta-making skills she honed at Menton. “Pasta-making is one of the things I love most about cooking,” she says. The dish riffs on her favorite instant ramen recipe, combining parmesan, a sauce of pureed kimchi and butter, and her house-made noodles.
All in, the menu is a balance of art and precision, which makes sense given Cheung’s past history as a computer scientist before she switched careers to food — though she dabbled in graphic design and photography, too. “Cooking was sort of the perfect fusion for me, combining my love for food and the arts,” she says.
As for the surroundings, past fans of Cuchi Cuchi will recognize the towering ceilings with exposed beams and ceiling fans. Blackfin Collective tackled the design and installation work in-house, carving out a modern and minimal oasis with slight tropical leanings. The space overflows with wood tones and natural touches, from the pine slats creating a three-dimensional screen-like effect on one wall to the abundance of plants in the dining room and adjoining bar.
Cloud & Spirits will initially serve dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Service will expand to brunch in the near future, with an outdoor patio also in the works. Reservations are available.
Here’s the current limited menu:
And here’s the larger menu, coming soon: