Jeremy Sewall is executive chef and co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar, one of the hottest places in the city for seafood. Eastern Standard and the Hawthorne, where he is consulting chef, are always buzzing. And this fall Island Creek spinoff Row 34 is coming to restaurant-neighborhood-of-the-moment Fort Point, where it will stand alongside projects from celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Ming Tsai.
In leafy Brookline, Lineage feels as though it’s a world away.
But Sewall’s lowest-profile restaurant — which he owns with wife and pastry chef Lisa — rivals the others with which he is involved. Lineage’s seafood dishes are as strong as Island Creek’s, sometimes stronger. Its service is gracious. Its cocktails are excellent (try the crimson Fiore, made with a cardamom-scented hibiscus liqueur called Hum). Seven years after it opened, it glides along, quiet but sure.
Now it has a new chef de cuisine, Alex Sáenz, who won me over at Ten Tables Provincetown when it opened in 2011. (He has also worked at the former Great Bay, Spire, and Straight Wharf in Nantucket, among others.) At Ten Tables he turned out dishes that combined New England seafood with the flavors of the world — think grilled bluefish with clams, chorizo, red peas, eggplant, and herbed yogurt. Sáenz grew up in Lima, and South Carolina, and one can taste whispers of both in his food.
The Low Country influence is clear in a dish of shrimp and grits that is the final entry in a three-course seafood-tasting menu but can also be ordered a la carte. The shrimp are roasted, so their flavor is concentrated but their texture still tender, served on rich grits. Chorizo gravy is rich, too, but spicy, so it doesn’t feel too heavy. A sprinkling of fines herbes provides counterpoint. It’s a beautifully composed and executed dish.
That tasting menu feels like a deal at $38 (even without a $14 wine pairing, but especially with). One might begin with an elegantly plated fluke ceviche with Meyer lemon, basil, and crisped grains of quinoa for textural interest. The second course could be Woodbury clams with peas, pea greens, and red jalapeno, the flavors light and fresh (but the clams unfortunately gritty). The wines — a refreshing sparkler from the Loire, made from the folle blanche grape; Willamette Valley pinot gris; and a Spanish rose — pair well with the food, add interest, and are poured just generously enough.
As for Peru, Sáenz puts together the country’s aji amarillo, a yellow chili, and the yogurt cheese labneh. It’s a lovely idea for a dish without borders: The Middle Eastern labneh and Peruvian chili go with Maine salmon, the red peas of the Carolinas, and English peas. The flavors aren’t as vibrant as the cultural influences, however. The aji amarillo’s presence is muted, and the salmon is overcooked and underseasoned.
But for the most part, Sáenz and crew continue doing what Lineage has done well from the get-go: taking seasonal, regional ingredients and presenting them in clean, satisfying, sometimes inspired dishes, refined but relaxed. The idea of “letting the ingredients speak for themselves” has taken hold, and of late some restaurants have taken it too far. Barely adorned vegetables and grains can make for dull eating. Lineage gets the balance right. Earthy stalks of roasted asparagus sing with the aid of tangy sauce gribiche. Salads are simple but well composed — tender lettuce with blood orange, pistachio, and buttermilk ranch dressing; baby arugula with snap peas, thin-sliced beets, whipped goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. And the wonderful Island Creek oysters are always a draw, classic with mignonette and cocktail sauce.
There is a serenity, a maturity, to many plates — say, perfectly seared Scituate scallops with artichokes, fingerling potatoes, and ramp vinaigrette, or chewy little handmade ricotta cavatelli with asparagus, ramps, and mushrooms. But the kitchen also has some fun. Lobster tacos have long been on the menu, crunchy shells filled with seafood, avocado mousse, and mango salsa, with just enough spice to make your tongue tingle (on one visit, we are hard pressed to find much lobster there, but that appears to be the exception rather than the rule). Monkfish cheeks are fried in tempura batter, served with delicate potato crisps, tartar sauce, and greens, a playful take on fish and chips. And a burger made from prime steak is topped with pimento cheese and bacon bits, its presence a reminder that Lineage works as both a special night out and a neighborhood restaurant. Yes, there is meat here — grilled hanger steak and wood-roasted chicken also appear. But although Lineage isn’t a seafood restaurant, per se, seafood is what it does best. Sewall, who has deep roots in Brookline (thus the restaurant’s name), comes from a fishing family.
Even the pudding shows a certain maturity — the must-order butterscotch is lush, not too sweet, topped with whipped cream and candied pecans.
In addition to a new chef, Lineage has a new look. It has been made over by the same team that designed the Hawthorne, with soft gray walls, eclectic artwork, and subtle nautical accents. It is modern without being trendy, like Lineage itself: The place still believes in tablecloths, in a volume level that encourages conversation, in plates not expressly designed for sharing (although sharing is welcome), in dishes that offer protein, starch, and vegetables. It’s got a real wine list, thoughtful and succinct. Servers take the extra step to make diners happy, and general manager Amy Audette is a sunny, solicitous presence. It’s the kind of place you can take your parents after graduation, meet a friend for a beer, romance a date, or celebrate a birthday. It’s not high-profile, but it doesn’t need to be.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.