Apart from the dramatic effect of Shakespeare and Co.'s frilly Victorian interior of sugary pink, purple and powder blue, with light turquoise cherubs dangling above the bar, there is no hint of The Bard. After fruitlessly pondering the name, I asked the manager. He said it was inspired not by the great playwright but by the owner's wife's love of the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company.
Back at Broadway and Short in Lexington, however, the real tome probably is the 22-page cloth-bound menu. It offers all-day British and American breakfasts, global appetizers and entrees, Mediterranean flatbreads, French crepes, Italian pastas and pizzas, salads, sandwiches, soups, a wide variety of beverages and a nice selection of wines by the glass.
This eclecticism sets the stage for certain improvisations leading to the occasional surprises between expectation and reality.
The pretty Cobb salad — classic with avocado and iceberg lettuce, slices of grilled chicken breast and crumbled bacon — was renewed with sun-dried tomatoes, a wonderful vinaigrette and a great bean medley of gigantes (enormous limas), garbanzos and edamame. The tomato soup was light and lovely, refreshing and visually delightful with a squiggle of cream.
The restaurant chain originated in Dubai — Lexington is its only U.S. location — so flatbread is a natural fit and at its best simply sprinkled with za'atar, a salty blend of earthy dried herbs and sesame seeds, folded in half and toasted to a crisp. The open-faced "Mediterranean" version is generously topped, but the olives taste as if they came from a can.
I've sampled a couple of good sandwiches, like the tidy club — a toasty, dainty bite spread with mayonnaise and layered with bacon, turkey, lettuce, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs — and the unfussy but wonderful combination of avocados and prawns.
The shrimp were less interesting in the appetizer that billed itself as having piri-piri sauce — Portugal's spicy and marvelous union of very hot chili peppers, garlic and olive oil — but delivered little more than a tangy tomato broth. Accompanying potato "croquettes" evoked cheese-stuffed tater tots — not necessarily a bad thing, just another misnomer of sorts.
Overall, three visits have confirmed my preference for the breads, soups and salads at Shakespeare and Co. For example, the lasagna entree was frosted with a thick sheet of bechamel, preventing a successful mingling with the meat sauce. A mushroom sauce piled on pieces of grilled chicken was heavy as well. Alongside the chicken was a mold of mashed potatoes that were neither especially interesting nor flavorful; the mushroom sauce kicked it up a notch.
Craving vegetables to go with the pasta, I ordered a side of caponata, which turned out to be Shakespeare and Co.'s version of this Italian dish: In addition to the basic eggplant and onions, the kitchen included chunks of squash and peppers, and some raisins. Instead of being simmered and stewed in a sweetened vinegar, though, everything was placed in a creamy sauce. It lacked those traditional ingredients that would really make it pop: capers, green olives, anchovies or parsley.
Of all the dramatic license taken, this was the greatest disappointment.
One small distinctive touch I adored, however, was the delicate chocolate chip cookie served with the coffee. The scale was just right and the consideration very civilized.
The whole world might be a stage, but Shakespeare and Co., with its merry expression of excess, is the perfect set for its prominent location. It's supposed to be fun, so to get the most out of it, go in with that perspective and check the culinary purism at the door.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.