In almost any neighborhood with fewer restaurants than the North End, the North Street Grille would be a real jewel. But even in the North End, it has its fans. The formula here is to put a serious chef (Michael Scelfo) behind some bar food and some fancy food, in a setting modest enough to be comfortable. And there is a certain risky fun in having only a few Italian influences, with more touches of Asian fusion and ’50s comfort food. But what would seem amazing at Café D, in Jamaica Plain, seems just expensive at the North Street Grille.
There is lots of good eating here, though, and real pains have been taken to pick some good, inexpensive wines. A list that starts at $14 per bottle and $4 a glass, served in oversize glasses to bring out all the aromas, is a strong core concept for many diners.
The breadbasket has a single slice of crusty peasant bread, quite a large slice at our table of five. It comes with an herbal compound butter with plenty of garlic. This same bread is grilled to top a large bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels ($9), served with a simple marinara touched up with chives and pieces of raw garlic. This would make a good supper for some people, as would any of the salads ($8) with optional grilled chicken ($12). The mixed-greens option featured thin-sliced Vidalia onions, blue cheese, pecans, and apricots for an appealing note of sweetness. The heirloom-tomato salad brought the last of the Cherokee purples and giant yellow tomatoes, with feta cheese and some greens. A special appetizer described as Buffalo chicken in potato skins ($9) has five small, crisp skins filled with spicy barbecued meat.
The brief list of bar classics may lead you to spend a little too much on very fine versions of old favorites. For example, “North Street’s monthly burger” ($10) was quite a large piece of meat, closer to rare than the medium-rare ordered, but delicious; it’s served on a bun as rich as challah or brioche, with an enormous plate of thin, crisp, salty French fries. Dry-spiced steak tips ($12) had the same basic layout, minus the bun, plus a little salad. The tips came medium, as ordered, and the spice rub wasn’t overpowering with salt and pepper.
“Seconds” are a short but expanding list of economy bistro platters, some with very nice touches. “Crispy-skinned Coho salmon” ($17) had the lean, meaty quality of wild salmon, with skin crisp enough to enjoy on its own. It came with an underlayment of “lobster hash” — lobster meat with a cake of onion and potato — and roasted asparagus. Alaskan halibut ($18) had a similar vertical presentation: a nice piece of fish with crisp skin, this time on a pancake with artichoke, an asparagus base, and a grilled shrimp on top.
The North Street “ribeye steak fritte” [sic] ($19) was a very tender, well-marbled entrecote, with blue cheese (or perhaps gorgonzola), and more fries. Baby-back ribs ($18) were a half rack, about six ribs, unfortunately poached and then grilled with a hoisin-based sauce. This double treatment makes the meat fall off the bone and renders out some fat, but also removes flavor. The plate was saved, however, by perfectly placed slices of sweet potato and spicy coleslaw with peanuts and cilantro.
Wine prices start in the teens, although most of the action is in the high $20s. The La Posta de Vinatero Estela Armando bonarda 2003 ($28) (my second taste of this Argentine varietal) was a lot closer to what I’ve been reading about: complex, spicy red wines with the profile of an Australian Shiraz or a fruitier California zinfandel. Coffee and decaf ($2.50) were very good; if you arrive early, the lone waitress makes you the first pot.
Only two desserts are offered, but they will satisfy most tastes. The bar food follow-up would be the peanut-butter s’more ($6), actually peanut-butter-chocolate-chip ice cream somehow topped with a broiled marshmallow, like Baked Alaska. The bistro dessert was a trio of fine pastry pouches ($6), stuffed with chocolate and raspberries, pear and raisin, and apple compote.
The room may have been carved out of a very old warehouse, but it’s small and relatively quiet, with large gray tiles that resemble slate, big windows, blue walls (with some granite columns peeking through), and polished-granite tabletops. The paintings on the walls are ’50s moderne and jazz-related, while great selected jazz — perhaps a recorded radio program — played in the background. It doesn’t get much better than original recordings of “A Night in Tunisia,” “Giant Steps,” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” A small television over the bar is tuned to sports.
Service on a weeknight was excellent. I feel as if we are still a few menu tweaks away from the right ratio of bar-food-by-chef and chef-food-on-the-cheap, but if that settles in right, North Street Grill could become a legendary small restaurant, despite being among so many fine, small Italian competitors.
North Street Grille, 229 North Street, Boston | Open Mon–Thur, 5:30–11 pm; Fri, 7 am–2 pm and 5:30–11 Pm; Sat, 8 am–3 pm and 5:30–11 pm; and Sun, 8 am–3 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Up two steps from sidewalk level | 617.720.2010
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com