Swampscott has never been known as a dining mecca, lacking the restaurant corridors that have bolstered nearby communities such as Salem and Beverly. But as the demographics have changed, so have the town’s restaurants, particularly in its main shopping district, Vinnin Square.
For decades, chains like Friendly’s, Bickford’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken dominated the local sit-down and take-out business. Over the last 10 years, all have closed.
Aleksandr Bakhrakh knows Vinnin Square well and always thought it needed a fine restaurant. At 32, he has worked in kitchens throughout the North Shore, beginning in 1994 with busboy positions in Marblehead shortly after his arrival in Lynn from his native St. Petersburg. Just a couple of months ago, he opened City Bar & Grill in the former Friendly’s site on Paradise Road (Route 1A), and seemed to create a buzz in town almost overnight.
Situated in a suburban strip mall that includes Marshalls and
Once seated, diners have their choice of what Bakhrakh calls proper “New American’’ food. The menu is overseen by chef Michael Taylor, who ran kitchens at the Bostonian Hotel and in Thailand, and rose to executive sous chef at the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.
While flipping through the menu, we sampled the focaccia, which was moist, plump and sweet. We eagerly dipped the flat bread into a dish of olive oil.
Our salad showed careful preparation and presentation. The portobello mushroom carpaccio ($9) arrived with two chives supported by crisp herb Melba bruschetta forming an inverted V, and was a visual delight. Some restaurants like to serve the meaty mushrooms whole, but Taylor slices them down to 1/32d of an inch, marinates them in port wine, roasts them on the grill, and finishes them with an oven relish. The dish is topped with baby field lettuces, and its star is a tomato that’s been steeped in shallots, garlic, thyme, and virgin olive oil, then cooked in an oven for more than a day to eliminate moisture. The sweet, natural plum tomato is delicious when combined with the delicate yet meaty mushroom.
One of the most popular entrees has been the black-bread-crusted Atlantic cod ($24). Taylor presses the bread into the flesh of the cod, and pan-roasts the 8-ounce fillet with the bread side down. The cod is served on top of warm, sweet yams, sautéed baby spinach, and topped with a citrus nage sauce, making this is a hearty dish. Because of the caramelized bread crumbs, the cod did not flake, and the crust added a sweet crunchiness.
The wild Atlantic salmon ($22) also was fresh and delicious. Taylor cuts his fillets each day. They are quickly grilled, and he toasts buttered corn kernels for the accompanying risotto, creating a sweet and filling combination.
The homemade vanilla cheesecake ($7) also revealed a sophisticated take on an old recipe. The folks in the kitchen adhere to a French style, using Tahitian vanilla beans rather than vanilla extract. Also, they combine regular cream cheese and crème fraiche to create a fluffy, moist cake that is served at room temperature, allowing the flavors to stand out.
Bakhrakh said he has plans to add a Sunday brunch and chef’s table at City Bar & Grill. This is a step above what people have accepted for fine dining around here for decades.