SURFS UP: The Green Street clam bake is conventional but well done.
People always send me press materials about new chefs and new menus, but it’s my experience that restaurants are what they are. I almost never bother to see what all the fuss is about unless I hear tell of substantial changes, as is the case with Green Street Grill, the once-chic Caribbean dive bar and restaurant. Following a change of ownership, this cozy Cambridge spot has been reborn as an upscale gastro-pub with an emphasis on New England comfort food. All told, it bears little resemblance to its former self.
Case in point: the first time I reviewed Green Street Grille, John Levins was the master of the kitchen, turning out incendiary but brilliant Caribbean fare. Later, Levins (now an Arlington caterer) was replaced by Mark Romano, who brought a tamer but equally vibrant Caribbean style, with Afro-Cuban jazz jams on weekend nights. In early 2006, however, the restaurant was sold, and chef Peter Sueltenfuss stepped in to reinvent the space. And what a job he has done; even in May, when local produce is in short supply, it’s featured heavily on the menu. You can’t get much less Caribbean than that.
The only item that hasn’t changed since Green Street’s Caribbean days is the breadbasket, which contains excellent glutinous sourdough bread with Cabot butter — a New England product even when foil-wrapped in portion-control pats. The emphasis on local food is more apparent with an appetizer like “One New England Cheese” ($8), a raw-milk artisan Hooligan from Colchester, Connecticut. A sweet-tasting, ripe-smelling masterpiece, it goes with all its trimmings: cracker bread, ricotta toast, sweet onion jam, and pickles.
Another “name” New England cheese goes into the Grafton cheddar tart ($8), a flavorful pie halfway between pizza and quiche, with far more flavor than either. Native pea salad with Ben’s mushrooms ($7) is fully seasonal. These are English pea tendrils, not the sweet snap-pea tendrils favored in Chinatown, which means they have a “grassy” fresh flavor but enough pea sweetness to set off the crunchy assortment of wild mushrooms.
Corn chowder ($8) references all the classic flavors by adding fried local clams as a garnish on top. The corn isn’t seasonal or local, but it does provide the classic sweetness and flavor of New England August sweet corn. It’s served with bacon, potatoes, and a lightly flavored broth. The only appetizer we tried that didn’t do the region proud was one we share with the Caribbean islands: salt cod cakes ($8). The version here had the right flavor and softer texture of New England Sunday-night fish cakes. But the tall cylinder shape was alien and made the cakes too soft. I did, however, like the root-vegetable slaw side dish, which featured celery root.
Entrées were less innovative, but kept up the local-food theme. My favorite was the pan-roasted skate wing ($24) — a truly local fish — served on the cartilage and crisped on top. Underneath was a square of scalloped potatoes and cheese, and more of the pea-tendril salad. I also liked the vegan option: “crispy” potato gnocchi with fava beans and fava leaves ($17). Here, they’re fried on one side, like Peking Ravioli, making them appropriately crunchy. The beans are bright green gems, even more flavorful than the first peas of the season. And while fava leaves are a novelty, their rougher texture makes them a less terrific pre-asparagus spring green than pea tendrils. For some delicious comfort food, try the macaroni and cheese ($17), which is elevated by bits of confit duck that work their way into the shells and a creamy cheese sauce. Don’t worry, vegetarians: the kitchen can omit the duck.
The Green Street clam bake ($25) is a more conventional entrée, but well done, with half a lobster in the shell, mussels, cherrystone clams, fingerling-potato slices, and wisps of fennel in a surprisingly sweet, buttery broth. Seared Long Island duck breast ($21) is sliced and cooked medium to order, with a meaty “au jus” sauce and sautéed onions and potatoes.
The wine list doesn’t heavily feature New England wines (the best of which would stretch to Long Island right now), but the selection is well-suited for this type of food. And the mixology, supervised by owner Dylan Black, is very good. Decaf coffee ($2.38) was superb, and tea ($3.33) is served loose-leaf in china pots, as it should be.
Dessert is the one course that is something of a letdown, except for the brownie sundae ($7). This typical dating-bar mess was elevated by homemade banana ice cream, candied-nuts and brickle mix-ins, and a half-cooked brownie that melted appealingly on the palate. Butterscotch pudding ($7) is a New England classic, but I found this one thin and chalky, though I kept eating away. Pineapple upside-down cake ($6) had nice fruit, but a nondescript and soft underlying cake. The menu lists cider sorbet ($6), but the one in stock was raspberry; three scoops are served with a molasses cookie. It’s good but nothing special.
The atmosphere at an early dinner was dark and minimalist, but pleasant and respectable. A few West African barber signs are the last remnant of the Caribbean-dive days. Most of the framed art is now historic photos of Cambridge, especially of Green Street, such as one would find on a bistro wall. I couldn’t quite place the folk-country-techno background music, but I enjoyed it. Later in the evening, there are live jazz and disco nights.
Green Street Grill | 280 Green Street, Cambridge | Open Sun–Wed, 5:30–10:30 pm; and Thurs–Sat, 5:30 –11:30 pm | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking; | Inexpensive city garage One block away | Sidewalk-level access to some tables | 617.876.1655
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