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East Coast Grill

1271 Cambridge Street (Inman Square), Cambridge; 491-6568
Open Sun - Thurs, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. (Brunch, Sun 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
AE, Di, MC, Visa
Full bar
Sidewalk-level access

by Robert Nadeau

Earlier this year, author-chef Chris Schlesinger sold the Blue Room, in Kendall Square, saying that he wanted to expand and revamp his original restaurant, the East Coast Grill. He has now expanded it, doubling the seating by taking over two adjoining storefronts, including the one he was using for Jake and Earl's barbecue takeout.

Revamp -- well, I was nervous about that. The original East Coast Grill was a room of some style, heightened by the effect of placing a fire-spouting grill and heaps of raw meat right out among the tables. I'm always thrilled by a performer who can be both completely serious about his craft and so masterful as not to take it too seriously -- think Sonny Rollins, Cary Grant, Jimi Hendrix. There aren't many chefs who have paid the price for deep craft, yet still remember that it's only food for people to eat. Chris Schlesinger and Cary Wheaton's original East Coast Grill had too much authority and too little pretense to need revamping.

But it has changed, and mostly for the good. The grilled meat and barbecue are still there, but the emphasis is now on fish. A blackboard lists the daily specials, which are what you should order; another blackboard lists the species and where they were caught or dug. This might remind you of the original Legal Sea Foods, which was located here in Inman Square and relied entirely on a blackboard menu of superlative fresh fish.

Over the past 15 years, a lot of restaurants have added a few token fish dishes. But no one has committed a successful barbecue restaurant to seafood. And no one is doing seafood with so much flavor on every plate. The commitment is so strong that the kitchen has cut back on spices, reduced the range of salsas (despite Schlesinger's world-class standing as a developer of condiments, in my opinion), and added a big-flavors wine list built around spicy whites.

Our dinner started with a complimentary plate of mustard pickles that reminded me how great Schlesinger is with highly flavored side dishes. We zipped over the appetizers to save room, knocking back the house smoked fish ($7.50) and a plate of five barbecued oysters ($7.50). The latter were very tasty with beer, but the delicate sea flavor of the Wellfleet oysters was lost in the smoky barbecue sauce. The smoked fish was salmon, and it was as different from the usual restaurant smoked salmon as a pulled-pork sandwich is from a pork chop. This was real salmon in chunks, with a full flavor of wood smoke and a dusting of Jamaican jerk seasoning, served with horseradish sour cream and a "cracker" that was as good as a fried crouton in a French restaurant.

On the blackboard dinner menu, the grilled jerk-rubbed salmon with banana-guava ketchup ($18.50) was one of the best pieces of grilled fish I've had this year -- a year when I spent a lot of time on Cape Cod. The ketchup was more banana than guava, and also more salsa than ketchup, and the whole platter was almost stolen by the fried large wedges of sweet potatoes, so succulent I'd recommend them as a side dish ($2.75).

You also get them on the "All Vegetable Experience of the Day" ($14.50), which throws together almost all the side dishes into a dinner-for-three antipasto platter: grilled banana ($1.75 on its own); tidewater coleslaw ($1.75); the stunning, vinegar-dressed "seared collard greens" ($1.75), which also include mustard and beet greens; a Korean-style "sesame spinach" ($3.75); and fantastic mashed sweet potato ($2.75). The plate also has grilled pineapple ($1.75), rice and black beans ($2.75), sweet red kidney beans ($2.75), cornbread ($1.75), and enough assorted grilled vegetables to make a vegetarian special on their own. (A key vegetable not on the "experience" is the fried plantains with banana-guava ketchup, at $2.75 -- flattened, twice-fried "tostones" that you might have to fly all the way to the Caribbean to equal.)

Grilled coriander-crusted swordfish ($19.50) was perhaps even better than the salmon as an example of grillwork and crusting. It wasn't perfect-looking fish, but nearly perfect-tasting. The spit-roasted, garlic-and-herb rubbed half-chicken ($14.50) showed that the East Coast hasn't lost its touch grilling land creatures, either. The skin wasn't crisped or burnt -- a gentle smoky flavor and juicy texture had worked in throughout.

On the barbecue side, we passed on the specialty of the maison, shredded Carolina-style pork, in favor of Texas-style sliced beef brisket ($13.50), so juicy and tender a Texan might not fully approve, with an un-Texas mustardy-sweet-hot barbecue sauce. The Memphis dry-rubbed spare ribs ($13.50, or $2 a rib, or $20 a slab) were done to a light-smoked, juicy turn similar to the grilled chicken and the brisket, emphasizing the meat and a kind of cleaner smoky taste.

With this more natural-tasting cuisine, a wine list becomes a real possibility. But we were more interested in the selection of microbrewery beers. "Big Daddy's Leaping Bluefish IPA" ($4) is a unique specialty on tap -- a clean, hoppy pale ale custom-made for this food. Blue Moon Belgian Wheat ($4), out of Denver, is in a lighter style, with an unusual aftertaste of coriander seeds.

Desserts are kind of an afterthought, but the best of them go with the tropical subtheme. Key lime pie ($5.50) was impeccable, very creamy, on raspberry sauce; and flan with guava sauce ($5.50) was better than impeccable, transcendently smooth with a contrast of cinnamon and guava sauce. Grilled figs and bananas ($5.50) were good except for one chewy banana, but the crisp of the day ($5.50), apple-berry, was spoiled by fermented crust.

So, with flaws here and there, why is the East Coast Grill such an important restaurant? Not merely because wiggling rubber fish in the bathrooms, turquoise-and-orange decor, and a lively staff carry you along. And it isn't the usual flourish of exotic ingredients and creative combinations. This is the rare kind of great restaurant that transfixes you with full flavors, underlines the point by refusing all formality, and leaves you wondering how the best of it was done so simply.