A few years ago, a Boston Globe reviewer suggested that Green Street Grill, then a somewhat-shabby dive, be repainted in Caribbean yellow to match the brilliant cuisine of Caribbean-born chef John Levins. This is exactly what happened, but Levins recently ended his long run at the restaurant, and has been replaced by Mark Romano. Levins’s cuisine had powerful spices and fruit layered as thickly as van Gogh layered paint. The effect was not for the timid, but Levins could keep everything working, and the flavors seldom became muddy or confused. In any town that he didn’t share with Chris Schlesinger, Levins would have been seriously famous.
Romano, though he worked with Schlesinger and has kept the Caribbean references at Green Street, is a more conventional-minded chef. He has brought in some Ameri-terranean ideas from his previous stint at the Blue Room and has a fine flair with salads. The results don’t match Levins’s intensity, but should please a wider circle of diners at what are now relatively modest prices. The food still reflects the Grill’s other identity as a jazz bar, and food hours are deliberately limited to make more room for listeners and dancers. We stayed up late to catch Kilombo Mambo, the regular Friday- and Saturday-night Cuban-jazz jam, because we’d met the hot young trumpeter Yasek Manzano in Havana last year. A whole dancing-aficionado scene has found Kilombo Mambo, but if you want to eat and then listen, you’ll have to wait around quite a while.
Food begins with a basket of sliced French bread and packaged butter. Romano makes a very neat salad of Boston lettuce ($6) by cutting a whole head in half so the leaves are still connected at the stalk. Between each leaf goes a nice vinaigrette with some kind of sautéed onions or shallots and bits of roast beet, blue cheese, and spiced pecans. Mesclun-greens salad ($5) really features grapefruit and avocado, with spears of jicama and a citrus vinaigrette.
Romano’s version of pork ribs ($8) is far more Blue Room than either Levins’s or Schlesinger’s. They’re pretty and polite little ribs, a little fatty, with nice hints of allspice and smoke. Fried calamari ($8) are fresher, crispier, and saltier than most, interspersed with rather mild pickled hot peppers, and accompanied by a spicy vinegar-based dip. Pan-fried bluefish cakes ($8) are made meaty and loose, like many crab cakes, with a nice fish flavor, but again most of the spice is in the hot, smoky salsa dip.
Our standout entrée was grilled skirt steak ($18) served with an Argentine-style chimichurri sauce (basically, a lot of chopped parsley despite the tropical-sounding name). Skirt steak can be tough, but it’s always highly flavored. The long steak — medium-rare to order — was laid out over a couple of cheese-flavored potato cakes, with a nice heap of fresh cress and another of roasted red bell peppers.
A grilled pork chop ($17) has a different set of ethnic references: a pile of white grits, black-eyed peas stewed with onions, and sautéed bitter greens. The Caribbean-style seafood-and-vegetable stew ($17) is where Levins would have piled Scotch-bonnet chilies on sour orange juice and lots of allspice, but Romano sticks with a mild curry and a little underdone yucca root among the sweet potatoes and greens. All the seafood was terrific, however, especially the codfish, but also the scallops, shrimp, and littleneck clams. I had much the same feeling about the coconut-curried lamb shank ($18): I always like a good lamb shank, but we’ve come a long way from Levins’s soca-ready curried goat.
In fact, the new chef is more like the old chef on side orders such as rice and beans ($4), with cumin in both the jasmine rice and the lively black beans, and fried (very) sweet plantains ($4). The mashed sweet potatoes are so buttery that they taste like white potatoes, however.
One wants Caribbean beer with such food, but the list of European imports and microbrews will do, as will some of the wines by the glass. We tried Heron chardonnay ($7), which is a little too good for the spicier food, and Rutherford merlot ($6.50), which is solid merlot, but again better with steak than curry. On our musical visit, we had a hard cider that would go well with all the food.
The dessert list is short and sweet (sorry). There’s nothing wrong with the warm chocolate cake ($5), actually melty and a little under-baked, but full of chocolate, with a real chocolate sauce and whipped cream. But the orange crème caramel ($5) is the standout, a little less eggy than some, but much larger and firmer, so you don’t run out. Surprisingly good decaf, though not very strong. Espresso is what to order with that dessert.
The new décor is still somewhat dark, despite the yellow walls, white ceilings, and added track lights. The table spacing seems better at dinner time. The walls feature very good paintings and photos on the jazz theme, as well as distinctive neo-primitive masks by artist Vuzi Maduna. The background music at dinner is a mix of classic soul, pop, and jazz. You can guess which category wins the most notice. When the real music comes on, tables are removed from the upper level, where the bands set up, to make a little dance floor. For Kilombo Mambo, at least, all the dance floor gets used.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com