528 Comm Ave, Boston
Open Sun–Thu, 7 am–11 pm, and Fri–Sat, 7 am–1 am
AE, DC, MC, Vi
Valet parking at Hotel Commonwealth, $14
I know we were just on this block in last week’s review, eating delectable Japanese bar snacks at the Foundation Lounge while others watched the Red Sox. This suggested a game-night strategy similar to one I have used in the North End, which is to reserve a table for just after game time, when a rush of diners leaves for a sporting event. The tricky part is parking, and here I thought the valet arrangement with the Hotel Commonwealth (for which Eastern Standard does 24-hour room service) would see us through.
However, despite phone confirmations, it did no such thing. Next time, we trolley like fans.
The idea here is to present a modern bistro or brasserie, somewhat French-country in menu, while covering all the bases of a Boston hotel restaurant — including lots of seafood — and serving as a Kenmore Square sidewalk café. That’s a lot of goals for one kitchen, and our meal had strong and weak points — though more strong than weak. The architecture couldn’t be better, with the duplex space, black-and tan décor, and red-leather booths of the old hotel dining rooms; yet also photomontages for modernity, raw seafood laid out on crushed ice, and even a couple of silent plasma TVs that didn’t break the spell.
Food began with platters of rolls, French in style but over-kneaded so that they were as tough as microwaved bread. There were also some slices of crusty white bread, which I preferred. With this came salted butter in ramekins, and also a Japanese-style pickled salad of thin-sliced carrots, onions, and such.
My favorite appetizer was an update on salt-cod fritters ($10), here five or six fried balls of mostly potato served cutely in a wooden salt-cod box, with dips of ketchup and tartar sauce. The only difficulty is that the ketchup is spiced up. Pepper is still the most popular spice, but fair warning should be given.
Raw seafood was delectably fresh. Clams at $2 each were just above littleneck size, still not too chewy and a good buy. Oysters in the R-less months were more than double that price ($4.50). The reason was apparent when the plate came out (we had two each of Wellfleet, Duxbury, and Glidden Point oysters). All were as plump and delectable as winter oysters. This is accomplished with specially bred stock that doesn’t spawn in the summer, and that stock costs more to the growers. All three were lovely, with perhaps extra points to the Glidden Points (from Maine) for size, depth, and a bit more sweetness.
Less-familiar appetizers might be typified by the "Good Plate of Offal" ($9). The name threatens tripe or brains, but the rotating selection seems to focus on small squares of processed innards. Our night it was a square of rather tame head cheese, another of meaty rabbit sausage, and one of homemade "liverwurst." These were served on a bamboo cutting board with little piles of sliced gherkins and currants, and another plate of sliced baguette with smooth and grainy mustards.
Another invitation for bad jokes is the beet salad with hooligan cheese ($6). No, the cheese doesn’t have to be stolen, only purchased from a Connecticut farm that makes a creamy raw-milk cheese with a taste as funky as bits of ripe Brie. I liked the cheese; I’d like more beets; the greens were a little stringy; and the combination had no kick. Better to go back to a conventional goat or feta.
For a more successful weird appetizer, order up the roast bone marrow ($6). It’s two hollow bones set on end, with an actual marrow spoon and a bit of Maine sea salt. Maine sea salt is rather pure and pretty, but the combination of salt and marrow is one of the great decadent feasts.
Entrées include sandwiches ($8–$12) more suited to the outdoor tables, but we stuck with real entrées, and some were very good indeed. Veal schnitzel ($19) is breaded and fried, but from veal with actual flavor (and thus probably not from an animal that was penned up tightly). With it come waxy fingerling potatoes and a sautéed artichoke. It’s a terrific platter.
A lamb shank ($20) is a big one, fork-tender, served on smooth grits with baby carrots. Gray sole ($22) is a series of small fillets arranged on a scoop of spinach and surrounded by lemony sautéed grape tomatoes, a wonderful garnish. The only weak feature was a side dish of couscous, again with more pepper than one might expect.
Spaghetti carbonara ($18) was properly al dente, subtly flavored with meaty pieces of smoked bacon, and not too eggy or greasy. Fresh peas aren’t classically part of this dish, but maybe they should be.
Eastern Standard has an interesting wine list, although neither of our selections was fabulous. I suspected that a glass of 2003 Crosspoint pinot noir ($9/glass; $36/bottle) might be acidic enough for the sole, and it was, but I also expected more fruit. The J. Moreau Chablis ($34), from the record-hot summer of 2003, ought to have been a richer wine for oysters. Instead it was classically tart Chablis. Good, not great, with oysters. The family-owned J. Moreau wines of the past are now made by a larger firm; Christian Moreau is the label to seek out for the richer style I remember. Tea ($2.50) is brewed loose in a metal pot; decaf coffee ($2.50) was somewhat bland but neither thin nor bitter.
There are only five desserts, and they are familiar, but generally very good. My favorite here is the Boston cream pie ($7), which is nothing like Boston cream pie, of course, but a layered yellow cake cut into a cylinder with plenty of bitter-chocolate sauce and luxurious caramel sauce to enrich it. Grand Marnier crème brûlée ($7) has little flavor of the orange liqueur, but is a fine version. And chocolate mousse ($7) runs a little toward milk-chocolate in flavor, like the best chocolate pudding you’ve had in years. The seasonal-berry tart ($7) currently includes kiwi and giant blackberries and strawberries. The crust is more cookie dough than pie crust, and there is a thick layer of pastry cream, but it’s a tasty tart.
Service at Eastern Standard was quite good, other than the valet betrayal. Our servers were enthusiastic and active. The wood floors and hard surfaces make it a bit noisy, and so the background track of jazz singing is only semi-audible.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.