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North East Brewing Co.

On-target with beer and food in Allston

North East Brewing Company
1314 Comm Ave, Allston; 566-6699
Hours: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
AE, CD, DC, Di, MC
Beer and wine
Sidewalk-level access

by Robert Nadeau

In general, new brewpubs in Boston have had either good ales or good food, but the development of both sides of the menu has taken time. North East Brewing Company is one of the first to open with everything in order, and I can only attribute this to owners with brewpub experience. This is not to say that everything is flawless, but rather that the flaws are, at worst, advanced ones.

For example, the usual opening-batch problem with ales is a spoiled aftertaste, usually more evident in the lightest ales. At Northeast, I picked up this ugly finish only in the difficult "triple black wheat" beer, flavored with three kinds of fruit (each bearing plenty of wild bacterial cultures). The usual difficulty is caused, I suspect, by making beer with a winemaker's attitude. But fine beer is not an organic product, or a farmhouse kind of thing. Experience teaches tougher sanitation, and that cleans up the vulnerable lighter ales in established brewpubs.

But in a sampling of the first ales from North East, the light Bostonia Blend was clean-tasting, and the amber Nor'easter Pale Ale was as solidly flavored as a factory-bottled Samuel Adams. Where I didn't like the aftertaste was in the Lobsterback IPA and the high-alcohol MacFearsome Scotch Ale -- and what I didn't like wasn't a spoiled taste but an excessively bitter finish. (Is it possible that someone has actually produced a beer so over-hopped that even I don't like it?)

The Black Sow Stout was a flawless product by any criterion. The menu compares it to the dry Irish stouts (Beamish or Murphy's would be examples), but I thought it had a powerful, balanced combination of malty sweetness and hoppy aromatics that put it in a league with Guinness itself. This is the kind of brewing where the on-site brewmeister can really deliver on the brewpub's promise of premium ingredients and small-batch freshness.

Ales were $3.25 a glass and $4.25 a pint, with slightly higher prices for the stout and the Scotch ale. All six of the ales come in the $5.50 sampler of four-ounce glasses. An inexpensive wine list provides an escape for those who can't abide beer.

The food anticipates all tastes, from Jamaican jerk pizza to corn risotto. Again, there were only a few advanced flaws. The bread is a wonderful sourdough whole wheat. We appetized with excellent crab cakes ($5.95), plenty meaty and rolled in cornmeal for extra crunch. The sauce is a red-hot, smoky chipotle mayonnaise. That corn risotto ($5.50) is a very good job, too: chewy and creamy at the same time, with flavors of cheese and chives. Cold leek-and-potato soup ($3.50) is correctly named -- it would have to be served much colder to be good enough for the common name, Vichysoisse. (This is what comes of those trendy, superwide-supershallow soup bowls.)

One of the most impressive appetizers is the simple green salad ($4.75), which is a not-at-all-simple mixture of exotic greens with a lively feta-lemon dressing. The Caesar salad ($4.95) is good enough, with a loose anchovy on top, but not as special. From several thin-crust pizzas we chose a fairly normal one: pepperoni, smoked tomato, garlic, and basil ($11.25). It wasn't a standout, but had an acceptably crisp outer crust.

Some critics use a basic grilled chicken ($13.95) as a measure of a chef. If so, North East Brewing Company is slated for national celebrity. Not only is the chicken grilled to a turn, with the full flavor of the fire, but it has a savory herbed polenta beneath, and a dressing of game-farm wild mushrooms with a lemon-juicy gravy. All great eating.

Other entrees were more prosaic. A grilled chunk of salmon ($16.95) showed the same fine hand as the chicken, but grilled tomatoes and underdone asparagus were less exciting than the chicken sides. A swordfish steak ($16.95) was merely mortal, and didn't really go with the mango-pepper salsa/relish/chutney. Grilled slices of roast pork loin ($14.25) were better matched with curried apples and roast potatoes.

It was as though an inspired chef grills the chicken, while the rest of the entrees were assembled out of a cookbook. But perhaps the inspired chef has been working on desserts, for out comes chocolate ecstasy ($6.50) that reaches for the stars. Architecturally speaking, it is the most postmodern, tall-food treatment of brownie, ice cream, and fudge I have yet seen. Abstracting the fudge into a long chocolate bar with pignoli-nut reinforcement and propping it against a very stiff, thin brownie, this dish reaches an ecstatic 12 to 14 inches in height. Underneath somewhere is the ball of dreamy caramel ice cream. It's a rendering of "chocolate ecstasy" that is not only delicious, but almost Cubist as well.

An applewood-grilled pineapple tart ($5.25) is a similar, if less extreme, subversion of one's expectations of upside-down cake. Pineapple grills almost as well as it broils, and here it is chopped into a good pastry shell. The underlying sauce is toasted coconut tossed into pastry cream. I think I prefer these flavors muddled together more, but this is certainly a nice dessert as conceived. A berry tart ($5.25) with some of the same thinking lost points for its heavy and pasty shell, although the blueberries, strawberries, and few fresh red raspberries were good in a kind of sour-cream sauce.

The space, which has been several large restaurants, shows off the copper vats well, though much of the actual brewing and aging is in stainless steel in the basement, which has yet to be redeveloped. The décor cannot decide whether to be industrial and loud (the bare brick walls, glass-enclosed brewing vessels, framed photos and paintings of historic brewing) or fern-bar cool (half-dead plants, inlaid wood tables and booths, black chairs). The background music was inaudible over the din of a busy night; at lunch, it was a long Dylan-related tape. Live music is scheduled on regular nights.

The initial crowds were so varied I cannot predict whether this will become the premium Allston youth bar or a cross-generational meeting place. The menu and the brewpub theme are broad enough to support both, and things are done well enough that everyone pleased.

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