East Coast Grill (Brunch)Cambridge, MARestaurant
4-Star Restaurant (our ratings)
A latin adventure lunch more than a comfort brunch.
It was good that I arrived early at East Coast Grill for a review of brunch — not dinner — and was able to speak with manager Robin Greenspan before they opened, because at 11am, the place goes from zero to full in 10 minutes. “We want a restaurant that has the absolute best food,” Robin told me, “but in a relaxed environment that doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s informal and you can dresss down. I love it here. I’m going to [work here the rest of my life and] die here.”
East Coast Grill does seem to have arrived. The owner, Chris Schlesinger, has become a restaurant phenomenon who has written 8 cookbooks, which are displayed around the restaurant. That’s impressive and lends credence to the idea that the East Coast Grill is a nationwide landmark, not a local dive. Chris is always traveling and bringing back ideas, Robin told me. The theme of East Coast Grill? They serve seafood and barbecue, with tastes from all over North and South America, including the Caribbean. Nobody else does live fire grilling, Robin said, or has such exceptionally fresh seafood.
The only other big seafood place in Cambridge is Legal Sea Foods, which like any chain, so Robin told me, has to play it safe. The most respected seafood places in Boston can be pretentious, lacking a grounded personality. I see that. Personally, I only go to Legal Sea Foods when my parents come to town or I want to take out an important client. If you go on a date or with friends, it can impress, but also backfire, with its stilted atmosphere preventing you from being yourselves. Once at Legal Sea Foods, when I was dying of thirst, I asked a waiter to bring me two glasses of water or a full pitcher. He refused, seeming insulted by my implication that he might not refill my one water glass quickly enough. Right or wrong, that made it hard for me to feel at ease.
East Coast Grill flips that idea on its head. It’s comfortable, making it a great hangout and date location, yet still a place you can bring family to. It seats more than 100, including seating at the bar, but the bar doesn’t dominate: it’s very much a restaurant, not a gallery of sports televisions. It’s upscale and modern, with blue and green sea colors, heavily varnished tables, and a self-service bloody mary bar to the left of the main bar itself. The music is joyful and upbeat, and it’s too dimly lit for a morning meal, but there’s direct sunlight peeking through the shades, which helps. Thankfully, the tables aren’t packed impossibly close (like at Red Bones in Somerville). The customers make a pleasant buzz but it’s not too loud to have a conversation. It’s visually magnificent to watch the chefs work in the open kitchen, but distracting that they shout to each other.
Arthur Muller, the brunch captain, offered me some fresh squeezed orange juice that has big chunks of pulp: just how I like it! It’s like God’s own juice (but at $5.50 for a large glass, it should be). And he told me about the menu. When I think of brunch, I imagine good old American comfort food: pancakes, french toast, eggs and sausage. Eating all those carbs might put you back to bed again on a sleepy Sunday morning. East Coast Grill surprised me. They offer a latin american brunch, with few “ordinary” dishes. The menu prices range from inexpensive to upscale.
The first meal I tried was the smoked pork stuffed banana, which I’m sure is delicious, and I get it — the coolness of the banana offsets the hot spices. Unfortunately it was way too spicy. The first bite I took of the mustard sauce made me gasp, still with food in my mouth, so much that I got the hiccups. And had to blow my nose. Wow! That will really clear out your pipes!
So, points for an original dish concept. But it is sad to be a restaurant reviewer who can only taste burning. It took a few minutes with milk and corn bread to get back onto the job. I couldn’t taste the corn bread, but it was served warm and smelled good. It didn’t seem sweetened, like a cake, which I’m told is the way it’s supposed to be. (I like it Jiffy Mix sweet, but hey, I’m not from the South, so I don’t get to decide these things.)
My favorite brunch dish at the East Coast Grill was the cheese and duck stuffed tortillas. It was perfect in every way, with a jack cheese that was interesting and not generic, a salsa that didn’t take over, and the duck and flaky tortilla shell mixed into truly one grand flavor. And you have to try the key lime pie, which I can only describe as A Powerful Force For Good in the Universe. It is too rich and sweet for one person, though — make sure to split it with someone.
Less to my liking were the fried fish tacos, which are served with slaw and beans. I loved the sweet glaze, and the chunks of fish were hearty… it had a mouth feel like real meat, not “bite size” niblets. And I found the smell of the beans and moist rice a reminder of home. However, in my opinion the sweet sauce didn’t mix well with the bitter vinegar taste from the slaw, which was mixed in rather than served on the side.
So there were meals at East Coast Grill that I liked and meals that I didn’t. But unlike my review this week of India Castle, where I just didn’t find the food superior, I am starting to “get” the East Coast Grill. Here is their secret: even though I’m a white bread European-American and I think I know everything about brunch, I am wrong. The East Coast Grill is challenging me out of my comfort zone. And there’s nothing wrong with that. All the food there is excellent — but like any ethnic restaurant, some of it will be for you and some of it will be too exotic. Imagine that: a brunch that’s exotic!
Of course, I’m not necessarily seeking an exotic brunch on a Sunday morning, if I was up late the previous night. I might choose then to go to Zaftig in Brookline or Johnny D’s in Somerville. I tried the french toast at the East Coast Grill: it was solid but average.
But I highly recommend the East Coast Grill for a brunch that’s a unique experience, something that wakes you and shakes you, for those mornings that you don’t have a hangover and find yourself with the energy for an adventure. Whether you call it a latin brunch (I think it’s more of a lunch, personally) makes no difference. It’s clearly popular with the locals, and you may find yourself lining up in the cold before the restaurant opens, like the 20 people I counted on my way in!
I may try to return to do a straight dinner review. East Coast Grill is the only alternative sea food place in Cambridge that I can think of besides Legal Sea Foods and Blue Dolphin. That by itself makes it worth a visit.
1271 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA