Pleasure and pain: East Coast Grill

BY ALEX SUNDSTROM

Every restaurant should have a little bit of the pure testosterone that drives the East Coast Grill’s annual Hell Night. A waiter dressed as a devil – in horns, a mask and a big red cape – runs around screaming at patrons, a fog machine belches behind the bar, and patrons throng to see who can, by eating much-too-spicy food, experience the most pain possible.

It sounds pretty stupid, and it is; but, especially for those fresh off of the end of OCI, the atmosphere is easy to get caught up in. Just as a 40-hour workweek has become déclassé, it’s not terribly prestigious or impressive to order a mere two- or three-bomb dish. Those dishes are basically just regular restaurant dishes that would be better if they weren’t so spicy – a whole mackerel features moist, succulent meat for $20, and is pretty flavorful if you keep the acrid hot sauce away from the meat while peeling back the skin of the fish. A pork chop ($21.50) is more moderately spiced, but not terribly exciting.

The real challenge is the Pasta From Hell ($8.50) – not only is it seven bombs, but the devil comes around and yells with appreciation, drawing attention to the person who orders it. There is also a release form, which promises everything from gastrointestinal distress to eye damage. A very stoic man next to me ordered the pasta and chomped away methodically; nothing seemed amiss save the solitary tear running down his cheek.

My experience was a good deal worse; it’s always a bad sign when merely sniffing a dish clears your sinuses. The actual pasta is kind of gummy, and the habanero sauce (studded with habanero sausage, no less) is watery and distinctly without flavor. Capsaicin, the oil that makes peppers hot, does not mix with water… after two bites of pasta, a trip to the bathroom to dab at your tongue with paper towels is basically the only way to keep from collapsing from the pain.

When I was eight or nine, my father liked to test my ability to eat spicy things; I remember spending a lot of time running around confused that my ears were ringing too loudly to hear anything. The attitude of East Coast Grill chef Chris Schlesinger as he stops by your table to inquire if the pasta is hot enough for you is similar. Is this how a chef reassures himself that his cooking can still make an impression on people?

If you like your eating experiences to involve pleasure rather than self-inflicted pain, the cheerful spirit that makes East Coast Grill host events like Hell Night makes it excel at a broad range of meats, fish and other things to which heat is applied. The various types of barbeque – particularly the North Carolina shredded pork ($13.50/platter) and Texas style beef brisket ($14.50) – well exceed the standard set by Boston barbeque institutions like Redbones and Blue Ribbon. The moist meat gains a great deal of flavor from being smoked over an oak fire; the vinegar-based sauce of the North Carolina fare is less acidic and tangy than the best versions found in rural parts of the South, and the cornbread is a bit mushy and tasteless, but it is still the only version around with any vestige of authenticity.

Seafood is a key ECG strength; mussels steamed in coconut milk ($8.50) absorb all the flavor of the creamy broth and are excellent for sopping grilled bread in. Like all fish, grilled spice-crusted mahi-mahi ($19.50) is considerably improved by high-temperature grilling. Occasionally the high-energy rush of the kitchen sends something out damaged or charred, but the restaurant is scrupulous about quickly replacing a dish whenever there’s a hint of a problem.

Food generally works best when rooted in a particular tradition, and spicy food isn’t any different – chile-studded Indian food is great precisely because the peppers play off the flavor in the curries. Sheer extreme spicing, however, seems to degenerate into a big hazing ritual. But hazing ritual or no, Hell Night proves that you can’t spell “masochism” without “machismo.”

The East Coast Grill & Raw Bar1271 Cambridge StreetCambridge, MA 02139 Sunday – Thursday 5:30-10Friday – Saturday 5:30-10:30

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