A sincere form of flattery
A new gathering spot in North Andover pays homage to the East Coast Grill
Yes, at East Coast Grill. This isn't a rip-off, however, it's a tribute. High Street Grill owner and Andover native Kristi Morris was previously general manager at the Cambridge restaurant, and some of its dishes - and a bit of its aesthetic - have migrated with her. East Coast Grill's Chris Schlesinger is a partner and consulting chef.
If you live nearby, High Street will make you very happy. This is a great place to hang out. Opened in October in a former mill building, it features brick walls, old gears still affixed to the wood-beamed ceiling, occasional live music, and a patio awaiting warmer weather. There's Sunday brunch (yes, with a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar) and a friendly, lively bar scene. On a recent evening, two apparent strangers get to know each other quickly: "I didn't have any chest hair till I was 30," the younger man tells the older. "Now look at me!" Averting our eyes from his prolific tufts, we turn our attention to cocktails. A "mo'garita" with house-made sour mix in a pint glass hits that elusive sweet-tart balance. One could drink a bunch of these. (They're much better than the classic margarita on offer.) A Sazerac is perfectly mixed.
Appetizers will make you happy, too. Chef Paul Callahan has a way with small plates, starting with the complimentary dish of sweet pickles that begins the meal. (He was formerly at Au Soleil, the catering arm of L'Espalier and Sel de la Terre, and the Butcher Shop.) Buffalo shrimp are lightly fried rather than heavily breaded so you still get plenty of delicate shrimp flavor and texture, with vinegary Buffalo heat. They come with Great Hill blue cheese dip and celery sticks. Fried oysters, a special on several nights, are cased in hot, crisp batter, their juices contained so they burst in your mouth when you bite into them.
Black 'n' blue tuna is crusted in chili powder then seared, served with arugula, avocado, pickled jicama and ginger, and potent wasabi. The cooling and spicy elements play off each other; the dish has great balance.
High St. chili seems a clever way to repurpose leftover barbecue - it's a bowl filled with sauced hunks of smoky meat, topped with sour cream, melted cheese, and corn bread croutons. Xiao Jianming's wetbones - named after a Chinese chef - are sticky, tender ribs with a surprising strong ginger taste. Smoked jumbo wings come coated in hoisin, Buffalo, or barbecue sauce. They are true to their name - giant, and intensely smoky, as if basted in Liquid Smoke.
Entrees aren't as strong as appetizers. "Real deal" barbecue is smoked on premises in a smoker shipped from Texas; platters come with undercooked, molasses-heavy baked beans, coleslaw, watermelon, and corn bread. The BBQ Trio features a too chewy rib, pulled pork that's more meat than shreds, and dry brisket. A Kansas City-style slab - "with nuthin' but the ribs" - another night is better, fatty in spots but good sticky, messy eating.
A shaved steak sandwich features cheddar, smoked onions, and peppers. Its flavors are subtle; more onions or salt, or perhaps a spicy condiment, would be welcome. Chipotle-braised short ribs are tender, light on the chipotle and tasting mysteriously more like brisket. They come with delicata squash and gummy spinach risotto.
Strip steak with Great Hills blue cheese butter is accompanied by good garlic mashed potatoes and a generous helping of asparagus, a classic dish. Meatloaf ought to be classic, too, but the presentation is unusual: a football-shaped ball of meat topped in deeply flavored tomato sauce, with the same mashed potatoes and a generous helping of green beans. Scallops are the one complete disaster: cooked till they've shriveled and split, served with stone-ground Monterey Jack grits that taste delicious but have the consistency of cement.
Chocolate bread pudding, however, could become an addiction, custardy and not too sweet. Cappuccino pot de creme has a pleasantly mild flavor and comes with just-baked mini chocolate chip cookies.
Earlier in the evening, there are a few families having dinner; later there are tables of 20- and 30-something friends listening to guy-with-guitar pop covers. At a big, round table, a gang of senior citizens has gathered for beers. It's a homey, comfortable feeling, a social hub for the community.
And then, a little after 10 on a Friday night, people put on their coats and disappear; waitresses begin moving chairs and mopping floors. "Are you closing?" we ask our server, a sassy blonde who would have been a great addition to the "Alice" cast.
"Welcome to the country," she says, and laughs.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.