REVIEW: North Street Grill

A bar food hangout becomes a restaurant
by Alison Arnett • ©The Boston Globe

Basic bar food could soon be considered an endangered species, as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. When collectors of culinary history search for remnants of onion rings and hard-fried nachos topped with shredded yellow cheese out of a package, bemoaning these lost foods, you’ll know that an era has passed.

An old bar food stalwart, the North Street Grille, was bought last September by Robin and Sol Sidell, who also own South Street Diner. The brother and sister duo began the transformation of the place by spiffing up the interior of the little 38-seat room and installing Michael Scelfo, formerly of Umbria
and Tea Tray in the Sky, as chef, in February. Where there might once have been chicken wings as the piece de resistance, Scelfo composes a dazzling rare tuna tartar with handmade potato chips, or puts out fried whole clam bellies in a clever wooden-slatted clam box. Seared striped bass,
beautifully cooked so that it has a crisply topped crust and moist interior, comes with farro and fava beans. A simple salad of Boston lettuce is garnished with roasted chestnuts and Maytag blue cheese.

Such fare might send a bar patron spinning, but even he or she couldn’t argue about Scelfo’s talent. Scelfo, who says in a phone interview that he cooks solo in the little kitchen while also running the front of the restaurant, manages to offer an imaginative menu that changes often. But he keeps the prices below $20, even for a grilled ribeye. And for those still seeking bar food, he held on to several ”classics,” such as a well-turned-out burger topped with cheese and served with abundant fries and grilled onions.

North End, which is beginning to bloom now that the Southeast Expressway is gone, is, as any diner knows, dominated by Italian restaurants, making North Street Grille an anomaly. The conversion from bar to restaurant isn’t apparent from the outside, and though it’s comfortable and even stylish-looking inside, there are still oddities, such as a pillar that bisects the room, marble-topped tables that seem too long for their booths, and a TV screen over the bar that looms into the room — handy, however, if one of your companions is following the Sox game.

But the lone waitress is friendly and competent, bringing a pre-appetizer snack of crostini topped with blue cheese, chestnuts, and red onions while we wait for a late guest, and quickly filling our drink orders. The wine list isn’t long, but there are plenty of choices below $45 to match the food.

Even though he’s working by himself, Scelfo is a fiend for detail, and those little pieces are what make several of the dishes so delightful. The fried clams are excellent, greaseless examples of this New England favorite, but the salad of onions, celery root, and shaved fennel is what we all dive into.

Peanut chicken spring rolls are too heavily fried, but who cares when the pickled carrot slaw is fantastic? A salad of burrata mozzarella and prosciutto over greens and grilled bread is earthy and highly flavorful. Even the sweet pickles with the burger, homemade as the menu says, are
especially tasty.

Scallops have a lovely caramelized crust and milky-sweet interior, but it’s the creamed corn with Vidalia onions underneath that set them off to their best advantage. Hush puppies perched atop the scallops are a clever touch, but unfortunately are overly browned. Fava beans and asparagus with the
striped bass speak of early summer, and farro manages to be a starch without feeling heavy.

Sometimes Scelfo overreaches on the accompaniments. Grilled ribeye steak would be perfectly fine without prosciutto draped over it; it oversalts the steak and interferes with its flavor. Apple cider-brined pork tenderloin captures the essence of pig, but might be more memorable without Gruyere
macaroni and cheese. (When you eat mac and cheese and something else, which do you remember?) In any case, it’s delicious mac and cheese. Quesadillas from the bar menu feature tangy-sauced pulled pork, but the cheesy tortilla crust is heavy. Forking the pork out of its covering is the best way to enjoy it.

The missteps only highlight the way Scelfo’s food shines when it’s simpler. Marinated and grilled lamb is meaty and flavorful, and a slightly vinegary fingerling potato salad with eggplant and olives is the perfect foil for the lamb’s strong flavor. And, though he says he’s staying away from too much
Italian, the scent of truffled lobster risotto causes all of us to turn our heads when the waitress brings it to the table. With sweet peas and just enough Parmesan, the dish rates high in my memory bank of finely made risottos.

On a recent weeknight, as we share a pleasing coconut and vanilla creme brulee and a rather dense chocolate torte, we notice that the little restaurant, which we’ve had pretty much to ourselves for a couple of hours, is suddenly beginning to fill — and it’s 10:30 p.m. The diners seem to know what they want — not burgers, but rather the more ambitious dishes, which are delivered to several tables and to patrons at the bar. ”Restaurant workers,” I think to myself, and when I ask Scelfo about this later, he agrees that North Street has become an industry hangout, where cooks and waitstaff come for their dinners after getting off work.

Since those in the business presumably know good food, that’s not a bad recommendation for a bar that’s become a restaurant.

North Street Grille
229 North Street • Boston, MA 02113