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Dining out

Dinner is served at The Hyde

Chef-partner crafts a homey, alluring menu

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 10, 2009
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By day, it's a mild-mannered diner, serving eggs and coffee and BLTs to the residents of Hyde Park. But The Hyde has a secret double life. At night, this space of humble little tables and chrome-and-vinyl stools fills with the smells of crab cakes, pan-roasted salmon with sushi rice, and thick-cut organic pork chops. In the lexicon of diner slang, there are no terms for these dishes.

For decades, this space was Dottie's Delicatessen, until chef Brian Roskow partnered with longtime owners Dottie White and Donald Hussey in February, taking over operations. In March, he added dinner to the menu - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights only for now (and cash only for now, too).

Roskow has had the sense to modernize the menu without putting a dent in the old-fashioned feeling of the restaurant. Sausage patties and gravlax are made in house; pancakes and French toast come with real maple syrup; hamburgers are made with beef free of hormones and antibiotics. But he kept those diner stools - including a corner of extra-low ones just for the kiddies - and the plaques in vintage lettering asking you to turn off the light when you leave the bathroom. In the center of the room, there's still a setup for a soda fountain, sadly not in use. (Roskow, once a chef at Cambridge Brewing Company as well as 224 Boston Street, hopes to eventually brew beer in the basement and run lines up to the bar.) These are the kind of details many a new restaurant has tried to emulate to kitschy effect. Here the retro is real. You can feel the difference.

The food beams honesty, too. Roskow is cooking solid dishes, well prepared, at reasonable prices. He and general manager Chris Johnson take care of customers, talking with them about the food, the restaurant, the '80s music emanating from the kitchen. The two man the place by themselves at night, sometimes with the help of a waitress. The dining room is sparsely populated, so it's possible to operate with a skeleton crew; perhaps people haven't caught on to the fact that The Hyde is now serving dinner.

Heads up: It is. And it's good. A fish chowder one night is more old-school than we expect, thick and creamy rather than brothy and light. It's delicious. Another evening, the soup of the day is split pea, a humble and satisfying affair. To sit down to a bowl of homemade soup at the end of the day is one of humankind's basic pleasures.

Crab cakes are dark brown from balsamic vinegar and slightly sweet; a crab cake connoisseur proclaims them excellent. They're accompanied by avocado, greens, and mango sauce. An appetizer of grilled brie comes with fantastic house-made jam, wine dark and bursting with berry flavor. Unfortunately, the jam overwhelms the flavor of the brie, which is so mild it could probably overwhelm itself, and the crostini would be better if they were toasted more.

They lack crunch, but an iceberg salad does not. The wedge is so crisp it might be thirst-quenching, if it weren't for the salty bacon and blue cheese adorning it. The bacon is left in whole strips over the top, and tomatoes and red onion complete the picture. Nothing fancy, just the right elements in the right proportions.

A salmon burger is light, tasting cleanly of salmon with hints of Cajun spices. It's served simply with lettuce and red pepper aioli on a bun. But it's the beef burger that really has legs. A half-pounder, it's one of the standouts on The Hyde's menu. The beef has wonderful taste and chew, with a judicious amount of salt in the hand-formed patty. It comes on a grilled bulkie roll with the option of toppings: cheese, mushrooms, onions, bacon, avocado. A bacon-Swiss-avocado combo sounds mighty fine, but even plain, this is a burger worth eating.

Meat loaf follows in its footsteps, an almost steak-like slab of dense, flavorful pork, veal, and beef. The slice is grilled and served atop mashed potatoes with spinach and caramelized onions. The homemade pan gravy is deep and intense.

The mashed potatoes come with several other dishes: roasted Statler chicken, juicy and topped with more good gravy, served with green beans; a monster pork chop with a smoky flavor, more green beans, and a balsamic vinaigrette applied with a heavy hand. The vinegar overwhelms the meat. There are only six entrees, plus specials such as sushi-grade yellowfin tuna rubbed with spices and left wonderfully rare at the center. A kids' menu features grilled cheese, pita pizza, and the like.

Dessert is simple: a white chocolate creme brulee that doesn't taste like white chocolate but is certainly bruleed; the sugar is slightly scorched while the custard beneath is too cold. Bread pudding is light and custard-like, though with the texture of dough reheated in the microwave.

Beer is clearly the focus here over wine, no surprise from a would-be brewer. The menu offers Allagash white, Brooklyn lager, and several other choices; for wine, there is simply one featured white wine and one featured red. I like this idea. So many people are stymied by what wine to order, and a restaurateur could take the opportunity to carefully choose and showcase reasonably priced, interesting bottles. Here, though, the wine choices need to be more inspired and better spelled out; on a recent night, all our server knows is that the white is a pinot grigio. Roskow later says he's working on expanding the offerings.

Service is casual but smooth at night, when there's no crowd, but brunch is a different story. We have to ask for glasses of water and orange juice repeatedly, maple syrup for our pancakes, the gravlax that's supposed to come with our bagel, which arrives solo. It's a long, long wait for food - it looks as though one person is plugging away at the grill by himself, while others aren't doing much. The grill master acquits himself admirably, however. The buttermilk pancakes are excellent, fluffy, a bit chewy, crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. If eggs Benedict are a smidge overcooked, the over-easy ones we order with a slightly gristly pork hash are perfect.

In some ways, The Hyde is still getting up to speed. That may not work during diner hours, but at night it lets you feel like you're in on something: The restaurant is still taking shape. As you listen to Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure and finish your last bites of dinner, Roskow may come out and tell you about his menu. He'll likely explain that many things at The Hyde are organic and homemade. He's talking about the food, but the description applies to the restaurant, too.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

THE HYDE

5 Fairmount Ave., Hyde Park. 617-364-9814. Cash only. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $3.50-$9. Entrees $11-$18. Dessert $3-$4.50.

Hours Breakfast and lunch Tue-Fri 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Thu-Sat 5-10 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy, though you may be tempted to sing along to "The Killing Moon."

May we suggest

Soup of the day, hamburger, roasted chicken breast, meat loaf, buttermilk pancakes.