Perhaps you’ve experienced the feeling. You’re eating at a brand new restaurant when a strange malaise creeps in, a sense that you have been here before . . . and never wanted to return. You put your fork down unhappily. What just passed over you was the Ghost of Bad Times Past, shackled by its ankle to the room. You did not know you were coming to dinner at a Cursed Restaurant, one that cannot shake the bad vibes incurred by a concept that occupied the space before it. No matter how much sage the new operators burn, they will never quite overcome what lingers. That sad space is destined to eventually become a bank.
Having witnessed how difficult it is for some restaurants to bring new life to previously occupied venues, it is all the more impressive when one opens and completely erases what came before. This is what Park Restaurant & Bar does handily, breezily, in the Harvard Square space that previously was Redline, a stop on many bar crawls but not known for its food. The Grafton Group (Russell House Tavern, Temple Bar, Grafton Street) still runs it, but the space has been reimagined. It’s now a warren of discrete seating areas, comfortable yet stylish, with couches and plaid armchairs, red leather booths and wood tables, chalkboards listing specials and a horseshoe-shaped bar. It feels like the hangout Harvard Square has been waiting for, and dinner here instantly bumps it to the top of the list of neighborhood spots.
Executive chef Mark Goldberg (Woodward at Ames Hotel), with sous chef Matt Bailey and team, creates food that lands somewhere between a British tavern redolent of antique varnish and a hawker stall in Southeast Asia, with a long layover in New England.
The menu generously accommodates snacking, and it kicks off with classic canapes, toasts with assorted toppings. The Tasting of Toasts — topped with tomato confit, mozzarella, and arugula pesto; garlicky roasted mushrooms and Taleggio cheese; and the winner, pickled shrimp with smoked tomato jam — is tasty without distracting anyone from the conversation. But the irresistibly named Bacon 3-Way stops chatter for a moment. There is a riff on breakfast, toasts topped with runny fried quail eggs, lamb bacon, and Gruyere. There is a nod to the BLT, with house-cured maple bacon, confit tomato, and arugula. And there is a refreshing spoonful of prosciutto and melon diced together, drizzled with balsamic. Hail to versatile bacon.
Starters feature bright flavors in clever combinations. Cleverest is crispy mussels. These are given the clam shack treatment, freed from their shells, battered, and fried into crisp, greaseless, juicy bites. Almost better than the shellfish are pieces of preserved lemon, also battered and fried, sweet and tart. Together they spill out of an authentic cardboard carton, white with red stripes. It’s summer by the sea improved, with a creamy and pungent horseradish dipping sauce on the side. If there’s any left over, keep it for your fries.
Salt and pepper shrimp is not the version found at your local Chinese restaurant. A bed of cabbage slaw is topped with a row of shrimp and sprigs of cilantro, along with pickled jalapenos and red onion. There is Sichuan pepper and there is sea salt, and warm jalapeno heat creeps across your tongue with each bite. And confit chicken wings with sambal and honey glaze are an addictive bar snack, spicy and a little sweet.
The kitchen is adept at taking heavy ingredients and pairing them with something light to keep them from feeling too rich — say, a substantial pork chop with garlic-spiked greens and stone-fruit mostarda. (It also does the opposite, lending heft to seared scallops, corn puree, and shaved asparagus by generously drizzling the dish in bacon vinaigrette.) A particularly fine entree features grilled lamb belly, the fatty meat already balanced a bit by the smokiness. The meat is crisp, then succulent, and completely delicious, but what makes the dish is the freshness of the succotash beneath, a mix of peas, corn, and fava beans. The savory sweetness of Madeira jus adds another layer of flavor.
Also irresistible is the meat pie of the day, which goes quickly: On each visit, there’s only one left when we order it. It’s gratifying when you get your fork into one. These are substantial packages of flaky, golden pastry filled with something different each day — meatball marinara and mozzarella; roasted pork, fig, and pistachio; scallops, lobster, and shrimp; cider-braised brisket with root vegetables. On the side is a bright green dish of minted mushy peas, the appropriate accompaniment to a meat pie.
Not all is bliss. A well-intentioned summer tomato tarte tatin is heavy, the tomatoes almost jammy. Perhaps it will fare better when the fruits are in season. A chickpea veggie burger suffers the fate of so many veggie burgers, mushy on the inside, and the side of Sardinian couscous salad lacks the point-counterpoint of flavors the kitchen often pulls off so successfully. Slow-roasted brisket is almost inedibly dry, although the white bean cassoulet it comes with is appealing. And the few sweet desserts — a “seasonal” fruit pie (peaches and blueberries are in season somewhere, I suppose) and a chocolate terrine with cherry and hazelnuts — are serviceable but not stellar. (I suspect the way to go is the plate of local cheeses with compote and toast, which I did not have the chance to try.)
But with a beer selection that keeps one’s interest, a deemphasized but not entirely dull wine list, and some appealing cocktails — the Tom Terrific, made with gin and beer; the Maximilian Affair, balanced nicely between mescal, St. Germain, and Punt e Mes — Park already feels right at home in Harvard Square. If it’s haunted at all, it’s by the Ghost of Good Times Yet to Come.
Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.