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
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
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
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
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
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.