Potbellies Kitchen

With food this good, you won't mind the bulge
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 29, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars
GO FISH: The scrod at Potbellies is sweet, local, and tasty.

Potbellies Kitchen | 87 A Street, South Boston | Open Mon–Fri, 8 am–10 pm; and Sat, 5–10 pm | MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up one step from street level | 617.269.2233
Two trends are currently sweeping through the food universe: lavishly upscale steak houses and modest bistros featuring local produce. But local produce is at its peak right now, and steaks age well, so you may as well head for the bistros. Certainly Potbellies (which only seats about 20, so don’t all rush there tonight) is rolling with the tomatoes and green beans, serving excellent comfort food at diner prices. But this diner-cum-bistro also illustrates one of Nadeau’s old adages: the worse it looks, the better it tastes.

Actually, Potbellies’ platters do have a certain minimalist chic, though not a lot of time is spent on garnishes or sauces, so your food tastes like food. That’s a good thing.

For example, the tomato salad ($6) brings simple tomatoes, not heirlooms, selected for ripeness and enhanced with just enough Italian-table-cheese shavings, balsamic vinegar, and red onion. There’s nothing clever about the Caesar salad ($6), either, except its freshness. And an order of spicy green beans ($5), cooked in some red oil and garlic, has a kind of Asian theme.

A heap of mussels ($9) were seasonally small — they spawn in the summer months — but were fresh and done up in a garlicky wine soup. It was served with slices of fluffy white Italian bread, perfect for dipping, so you’re not in want of olive oil or butter. Fried calamari ($8) came fresh and hot, with fried peperoncini and a sharp salsa-like dip. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was the chili ($5). Although it involves tomatoes, onions, and hamburger (all banned from my own chili pot), it wasn’t overly sweet or overly spiced, and I thought it was rather good.

Main dishes begin with sandwiches as low as $6, and top out with an $18 steak. This is a flatiron chuck steak, usually rubbed with spices, but our night there was a special with a soy marinade, so that’s what we had. It was cooked to order, full of flavor, and served with two side dishes. My favorite side was a carrot-fennel salad in sweet vinegar, like Japanese pickles. (East Coast Grill’s Chris Schlesinger himself couldn’t have done much better.) Cucumbers in vinegar were also very good. Mashed potatoes were honest but a little dull, and broccoli rabe was killer, seasoned with garlic and salt. A roasted half chicken ($12) was somewhere between diner- and bistro-quality fare — impeccably cooked with a crisp skin and tender meat throughout, but unimaginatively seasoned. One almost wanted gloopy gravy, as with the potatoes.

As for the fish, mako ($14) was a lovely piece, lighter and tastier than most commercial swordfish steaks, and served with a dab of mint chutney — a rare bistro gesture for Potbellies. Scrod ($12) was the sweet local stuff, and also very nice.

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