A comforting feeling
Life is sweet. Life breaks your heart.
Since they met a decade ago, James Ludwig and Sarah Murnane have dreamed of opening their own restaurant. Parents of two, they’ve long worked in the industry, Ludwig at establishments such as the B-Side Lounge and East Coast Grill, Murnane at Daedalus, the Independent, the Thirsty Scholar, and more. This would be their year. They leased a space in Kendall Square and in February began construction. They named the restaurant Abigail’s, after their oldest daughter.
Then, in May, Ludwig suddenly “keeled over,’’ Murnane says by phone. Rushed to the hospital, he was diagnosed with aortic dissection, bleeding of the aorta generally caused by a tear in the inner wall. On his 36th birthday, he went in for surgery. He almost died. When he woke up, he was paralyzed from the chest down.
It could have been enough to derail Abigail’s. In the best of times, opening a restaurant is a difficult undertaking. But powered by the good will and hard work of its whole team, Abigail’s began serving in August. Jason Lord (East Coast Grill) heads the kitchen. Rob Iurilli (B-Side) is in charge of the bar. Ludwig, Murnane, and their children are all together again, Ludwig finally out of the hospital. Two weeks after the restaurant opened, the family moved into the wheelchair-accessible building next door. Ludwig isn’t cooking, but he is back at work fine-tuning a new fall menu. And the restaurant is already the kind of place that becomes a mainstay of a neighborhood, serving daily fare, nothing fussy, made from local ingredients. There are craft brews and cocktails. On Sundays, there’s a barbecue-themed brunch. General manager Murnane is a sweet presence in the room, a narrow space with a long wood bar, a dining area with brown leather booths, and a pale wood ceiling curved like a train tunnel. She greets customers, stops by tables to ask how everything is, thanks those departing for coming by. Somehow, her smile is genuine.
There are traces of East Coast Grill on Ludwig’s menu, as telltale as a barbecue-sauce thumbprint. Dinner kicks off with raw bar - crudo or ceviche of the day, oysters, shrimp cocktail, littlenecks. Pickled shrimp are steeped in olive oil with sliced lemons, onions, and spices. They’re terrific cocktail fare, too rarely seen in area restaurants.
There are also small plates such as BBQ’d chicken livers. The morsels are battered, deep-fried, and coated in a Kansas City-style barbecue sauce touched with warm spices. They’re served with mashed potatoes, simple and good, not too buttery, as well as spinach with bacon and fried onions. It’s a mini dinner, more complete than some entrees at other restaurants.
Gouda fries are the B-Side’s blue cheese fries evolved, born into the post-poutine era of the Boston gastropub. (The post-gastropub era, too. Despite its qualifications for the title, the B-Side was ever a lounge.) In addition to runny gouda, the fries are topped with bacon and chicken gravy, in a little pitcher for pouring over or dunking into, as you see fit.
It’s not all fried and fatty. It’s a stretch to refer to a simple salad of tomatoes, basil, nothing-special fresh mozzarella, and crunchy croutons as panzanella, which usually involves more bread, soaked in tomato juices and vinaigrette. Still, it works as a complement to some of the richer fare on the menu.
And sandwiches are available with either fries or a salad. Vegetarians will appreciate the green bean sandwich, the vegetables sharing a roll with white bean puree, tomato, garlic, parsley, and mint. Meat eaters might gravitate toward the brisket, with horseradish-mustard butter and pickled red onions. Salads and sandwiches would benefit from a slightly heavier hand with condiments and dressings to add more flavor. Abigail’s burger is a flat-top patty composed of brisket and chuck, served with familiar ingredients - special sauce, iceberg lettuce, American cheese, and grilled onions - on a squishy potato bun for $8. There’s nothing to argue with here. It goes down easy with a beer, and you still get change for your $20.
Entrees that sound promising don’t always quite come together. Seared yellowfin tuna is served with panzanella and a thin corn sauce that adds little flavor. (Abigail’s menu is about to change, and many dishes will disappear.) A bone-in pork chop is dry, and the black pepper dumplings it’s served with are a disaster - hard pucks of dough. A main attraction of the dish, in theory, is the honey-roasted grapes listed on the menu, but there aren’t any on the plate. Yet a dish of perfectly seared scallops is wonderful, the seafood kissed with tart, sweet, salty orange-caper butter, served with spinach and a tangy, inventive salad of crunchy celery and tender heirloom beans. (It’s on the menu as Arctic char, but each time I went, scallops were the evening’s substitute.) And juicy roast chicken with lemony gravy, mashed potatoes, and broccoli rabe is everything you want from comfort food.
Dessert is not Abigail’s forte. Instead of cold, hard rice pudding or oddly dry flourless chocolate walnut cake, save your calories for cocktails such as the Pompeii, for bitters lovers only. A mix of Campari, Averna, Meletti, orange bitters, prosecco, and soda water, it tastes like a wonderful cologne might smell, warm with notes of spice and citrus. Not all the house drinks are its equal, but there is good bartending here.
Abigail’s isn’t out to blow anyone’s mind with its menu. It serves good food to eat in good company, while relaxing and catching up. Over an elaborate, 12-course tasting meal, we think about the dishes and talk about the dishes. That is theater, dinner and the evening’s entertainment rolled into one. Over a bar burger or roast chicken, we think about one another and talk about politics, music, our lives. This is sustenance, the kind of night we count on and take for granted. That is as it should be. It means we are fortunate. But leaving Abigail’s, be sure to thank those who are providing it here with incredible grace.