555 Talbot Avenue, Dorchester
Open Mon–Thurs, 5–10 pm; Fri, 5–11 pm; Sat, 10 am–3 pm and 5–11 pm; and Sun, 10 am–3 pm and 5–10 pm
AE, DI, MC, VI
No Valet Parking
A lot of people are interested in Ashmont Grill because the owner is Chris Douglass of Icarus fame. I was interested because his designated chef is Bill Flumerfelt, who wowed me at the late, lamented Tea Tray in the Sky in Arlington and again at its brief successor, Elements. Some people were interested in Ashmont Grill because it had dozens of partners and had been through a long and difficult renovation. I was more interested because I had a source who ate at the previous and pre-renovation Ashmont Grill, a dive with pink-and-green lighting that made even the Salisbury steak appear an unwholesome gray. My own memories go back to a small diner that used to be parked in the middle of the five-way intersection. It wasn’t so great either, but it reinforced the feeling that Douglass and Flumerfelt have brought bistro culture to diner-and-dive territory.
The truth is more complicated and less successful than that. First of all, the boys have tried to keep the place in line with the neighborhood, even as it has changed. So the place is well lit and isn’t very loud, and the menu has items for kids, as inexpensive as a hot dog ($5). The bistro dishes that are there rest uneasily on a base of soul food. Neither Douglass nor Flumerfelt have a lot of experience with gumbo, ribs, or side-dish macaroni and cheese, and it shows. Execution was also uneven.
Certainly the opening impression is odd. Instead of a breadbasket, there was a little cup of bridge mix with pretzels on top. For real appetizers, a plate of home-cured olives ($3.50) was as good as anything I’ve eaten all year. And a salad of pears and escarole ($8) was also brilliant. But a bowl of "roasted" mussels ($8.50) was mostly undercooked, although the sauce of tomatoes and Andouille sausage was a good one. And chicken-gumbo soup ($6) was made with milk, mushrooms, and leeks — no okra, no file, no Andouille. I kept wondering if I’d somehow been served clam chowder instead of gumbo, but those were chunks of chicken, and there was a little extra pepper in it. It was a large and excellent bowl of soup (might have been served hotter), but a surprise to anyone ordering gumbo.
Among the entrées, bucatini with mahogany clams and Andouille sausage ($16) was disgracefully overcooked pasta, although the clams were very good and the Cajun sausage pretty authentic. St. Louis pork ribs ($11/half order; $16.50/full order) were more fatty than smoky, with a sweet sauce. A half rack was four ribs, but meaty ones.
We were happier with wood-grilled flatiron steak ($17), which was medium-rare as ordered and tasty as flank steak, which it resembled in grain and style. Broiled cod ($16) was also a fine piece of fish, correctly cooked.
Entrée prices are deceptive because they come with only a bit of arugula salad, so you’ll need side dishes. Of these, a dish of butternut squash ($4) was made of distinct pieces (cubes and rectangular blocks) and not too sweet. Baked beans ($3) were too sweet, but I rather liked them after a bite or two. Macaroni and cheese ($3.50) was dead white and dead simple, a concession to the neighborhood rather than a wholehearted embrace of comfort food. Broccoli in garlic sauce ($4) was good, not grand.
Ashmont Grill has collected some unusual sodas and a decent list of microbrewery beers, as well as a short list of some very intriguing cheap wines. We grabbed a bottle of Côte du Rhone ($30), which turned out to be an old friend (Guigal) in a new vintage (2003). Light but real wine, more earthy than fruity, and perfect for this food. The kitchen also did well with tea ($3), served loose-leaf in a metal filter pot, and decaf ($1.50), which was unusually good, as well as cappuccino ($3). But Flumerfelt’s previous restaurants had French-press coffee and a tea list longer than the whole menu of Ashmont Grill.
A pity, since the cheffery really does shine through on some desserts. The brownie sundae ($6), which was also a specialty at Elements, is underdone and fudgy, with high-quality ice cream and whipped cream on top. The apple bread pudding ($6) was served hot and could even be described as "light," but was as satisfying as non-chocolate desserts can be. I also liked a lemon roulade ($6), which was some mousse wrapped in a lot of pound cake, with a subtle ice cream on the side. And the flourless chocolate tort ($6), running more to mousse than soufflé, was just right, with superb coffee ice cream. Only a "New York cheesecake" ($7) fell below the level of the others, and it wasn’t sub-par, just a little ordinary with a garnish of dried and reconstituted fruits.
Service at Ashmont Grill was generally good but had some pauses, especially between entrées and dessert. Coffee was served well after dessert, which seemed wrong. Servers wear blue jeans and black versions of the signature T-shirt, which involves colored dots — a pun on Dot (pronounced "Dawt"), the slang abbreviation of both Dorchester and especially "Dawt" Avenue, which runs right by the restaurant to the Ashmont T stop. The atmosphere is family, yet the crowd is young and, oddly, almost entirely white. There’s nothing about the restaurant I can see as off-putting to people of color or the mixed couples one always sees in the South End, Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and Somerville. They won’t take reservations and the place packs right up, but isn’t too crowded. Maybe the second seating is more diverse? Certainly the food needs more consistency, but it’s a short enough menu that anyone can find favorites and stick with them.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.