BY DAVID WANG
Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue, announced in his Traphagen Lecture that restaurant reviews are the lowest form of food writing. Your humble reviewers were naturally gratified by this validation of what they have always striven to do, and the faithful reader will appreciate the attention devoted in the past few issues to the traditionally under-reviewed.
Indeed, in a joint production with R.S. Frumpy from the Harvard Drama Society, your reviewers were going to essay whether Gannett House bagels can indeed advance the production of legal knowledge, and also, of course, set the record straight where it is left in the least ambiguity. For example, in your reviewer’s opinion, bagels are best not when “just young enough to be firm,” as the Drama Society would have it, but rather “just old enough to be hard.” But no matter, such plans had to be shelved, after the Politburo informed your reviewers that while nouveau fare may be good enough for Vogue, such heterodoxy is too revisionist for the RECORD. Thus the forced march to East Coast Grill.
East Coat Grill’s décor, appropriately enough, is an unfortunate mix of seventies Eastern Bloc Kitsch and frustrated John Waters camp: lots of turquoise, lots of dark wood, lots of furniture bought at everyday underprices. In the rear dining room, the wall is graced with a bas-relief volcano, with red streaks representing lava that are ominously illuminated from time to time. There is also music — a very odd bit of Chinatown kitchen noises set to the tune of a videographic intimacy manual — which was apparently Irish in origin. Menu items are equally alarming. The “catch-of-the-moment” was a mysterious “Boston Red Fish” of unknown provenance, and the raw bar, highlighted by the catchy slogan “From the Ocean, Into Your Mouth,” simply sounds unsanitary.
Once one recovers from the color scheme, the food is actually not bad. The sides are especially worthwhile. None of your reviewers would be able to tell whether the cornbread is like “Mama used to make,” but it is sweet, buttery, warm, soft and incredibly tasty, especially when dipped in a Tomato and Saffron soup with Mussels and Clams ($8.50). The grilled sausage, covered in tangy lime juice and fresh scallions, is an unusual but successful accompaniment to a plate of oysters ($11). Some of the main courses are a bit off — for example, the guava in the Guava Flan ($5) is mostly imaginary, and the pomegranate in the Grilled Wild Striped Bass is evanescent. But again the sides make up for it. The coconut couscous is so creamy and fragrant that having to order the bass with it is worthwhile.
This reviewer was fortunate enough to reserve his taste buds for the proper items on the menu. Some of your other reviewers were not so fortunate. Those who claimed to have a penchant for the picante eagerly consumed some rather colorful red and green relish-like things in an appetizer. The result, in one case, was a deeply pink Asian blush on a Delaware dandy, and, in the other, a rather leisurely sojourn at the local water closet. According to the latter’s account, his tongue remained hot and numb long thereafter, so the faithful reader is well advised to take his enthusiasm cum grano salis.
As Davis inserted his sausage between two halves of moist cornbread, I began to question the wisdom of coming to East Coast Grill; I also began to reflect on how much all three of us have suffered this year in our dedication to unbiased, honest restaurant reviews. But all great artists suffer for their work, I suppose — why should we be an exception?
In something of a cruel joke, we were seated in the non-Wallpaper*-compliant kitsch room, where the volcano-adorned back wall “erupts” every 15 minutes or so.
The choice of seating proved prophetic, for a few minutes later both David’s and my own mouth burst into flames. The culprit was a hot pepper from the appetizer appropriately named “Hell” — a super-spicy pork chop, topped with hot peppers, on spicy corn bread. Even the mango chutney accompaniment was spicy. That said, the pepper produced a pleasant light-headed feeling for the rest of the meal. I did not attempt to discover whether the sauce on the pork chop could polish a penny like Taco Bell’s hot sauce can; I therefore leave this as an exercise for the reader.
East Coast Grill’s menu reflects a certain benign form of schizophrenia. Half of the menu consists of fish, and the other half is Texas-style barbecue. While rather an odd combination, the end result is not at all unhappy — although it does strike one as the culinary analogue to the phrase “I was fixin’ to pahk my cah.” Nonetheless, as we know, such inner conflict can, under the right circumstances, produce brilliant results. This was not such an extreme case.
Shortly after we were seated, we were presented with an amuse-bouche consisting of various types of pickles. While East Coast Grill seemed quite proud of this offering, giving the pickles prominent billing on the menu, they struck me as a distant runner-up to their more flavorful brethren available at the Carnegie Deli in New York. Personally, I think more restaurants should apply GE’s philosophy to their food: Be number one, number two, or just don’t bother. Perhaps East Coast Grill should explore strategic alternatives with respect to their pickles.
For my appetizer, I chose the oysters, which were surprisingly good: They were large and of near-perfect consistency ($11). They win hands-down as compared to their rather unfortunate counterparts at Metro. My Brisket ($14.50) — served with baked beans, cole slaw and watermelon — was also a well-prepared comfort-food offering. And I needed the comfort after the twin traumas of the volcanic pepper and watching Davis with his sausage. That said, it was not as flavorful as the brisket at Redbones (Davis Square) or even Tennessee Mountain (SoHo). My margarita was disappointingly nondescript and too small to deaden the pain from our trip to Hell. The desserts that we sampled — the Banana Split and the Guava Flan ($5 each) were too boring to be worth the calories.
The East Coast Grill may not be the most exciting restaurant, but it is competent at what it does. If you are a big kitsch fan, the volcano room definitely merits a visit.
After our editor’s helpful “suggestion” that we review an actual sit-down restaurant this week, I was most eager to return to East Coast Grill. The chef, Chris Schlesinger, was honored in 1996 with the James Beard Award as the “Best Chef in the Northeast.” While this seems most unfair to the hardworking meat-spooners at Taco Bell, the last time I was at East Coast Grill I was favorably impressed with the Grill’s two specialties: a variety of fresh fish specials, and an unusually large and uniformly excellent collection of side dishes. Having enjoyed my lobster special the first time, I was looking forward to returning with a larger group to sample more of the menu.
Alas, it was not to be, as I was waylaid early on by a colorfully conceived appetizer, set off from the others by three small illustrated bombs, and entitled “Boston Bay Jerk Pork from HELL” ($7.50; $10 at Marty’s). Loyal readers will no doubt know of my enthusiasm for things hot, so when I bit into the pork, even with copious amounts of “green stuff,” I was less than impressed. Sartre’s hell, perhaps, but not Dante’s. Then, naively, unwittingly, shockingly stupidly, I popped into my mouth what I thought was a cherry tomato.
Suffice it to say, everything at East Coast Grill looks and smells wonderful, the waitstaff was frien