This is the month when people who don’t live in Salem think about visiting Salem. The city gets its scare on, and those in search of spirits fill the streets. But most of the year, Salem feels somewhat like the Cambridge of the 1990s: quaint brick buildings, flannel-clad skateboarders smoking cigarettes, eclectic coffee shops, restaurants from vegetarian to Mexican to Italian.
The dining scene here is evolving, good news for locals and visitors alike. In recent months, for instance, two new restaurants opened blocks apart on Washington Street.
The first, Naumkeag Ordinary, may feel familiar to anyone who has spent time at Coda in the South End; co-owners Matt Brady and chef Dan Bitler previously worked there. Their new venture is very much in the same vein: a gastropub featuring comfort food based around local, seasonal ingredients.
It’s an appealing menu, if not a groundbreaking one — charcuterie and house-made pickles, classic bistro salads, and entrees that range from mac and cheese to coq au vin. Snacks are the best part. Deviled eggs have tangy, creamy yolks. Baked brie is a buttery extravagance, the cheese oozing from the flaky dough. Fig jam and spice-encrusted crackers are assertive sidekicks.
Naumkeag Ordinary offers a taco of the day, an excellent notion. A recent version features pork belly on a flour tortilla. I prefer the usual corn, but this is warm and fragrant, hard to argue with. Sriracha aioli brings real heat.
Such snacks demand beer, and the lineup here shines. There is a rotating draft selection, increasingly darkened by autumn’s shadow: Ithaca Beer’s Country Pumpkin Ale, He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. (an excellent double IPA with rye malt), Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout. There are more options by the bottle, as well as wine and cocktails, some classic (Aviation, Jack Rose), some not (Dirty Pickle, vodka with pickle juice and sriracha). But beer is the best reason to drink, and eat, here.
Indeed, the design of the restaurant puts drink front and center. A generous three-sided bar takes up much of the space. Behind is a cozy sliver of a dining room, lit low. So perhaps it’s no surprise that entrees aren’t as strong as beer-friendly snacks. There is a fine cheeseburger, hefty on its brioche bun, pink at the center, topped with cheddar, Swiss, or blue; you can get it with greens, but the fries are worth ordering, salty and addictive. But a pork chop is dry as cotton, as are the meatballs, supposedly stuffed with ricotta. The cheese seems to have diffused into the veal, pork, and beef mixture, and the accompanying fettuccine doesn’t have enough marinara to disguise the dish’s flaws.
The biggest disappointment is the macaroni and cheese, made with cheddar, tasso, and peas. It’s similar in concept to an excellent version at Coda, but it falls far short, topped with a dust storm of loose, throat-catching bread crumbs. One person later compares the gummy texture of the pasta to spackle. The apple crisp shares many of the same problems, with a topping sharp enough to cut the inside of one’s mouth.
Midweek, there’s a wait nearby at Gulu-Gulu Cafe, but Naumkeag Ordinary is fairly empty. Right now it is a fine place for beer and snacks. It has the potential to be more.
A short walk away is Opus, a restaurant that is both quirkier and more fully realized. It’s a project of the established Serenitee Restaurant Group, behind Alchemy and Latitude 43 in Gloucester, among others. General manager Danny Giddings, who comes from Alchemy, was previously at UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge.
Chef Blake Straubel oversees a menu heavy on small plates, divided by category: vegetables, fish, and so on. (Opus will be introducing more traditional entrees in the near future, according to Giddings.) They are as diverse as kale salad, sushi, duck poutine, and tacos; Opus is by no means a Korean restaurant, but it happens to make some of the best kimchi I’ve had in ages. There are also larger dishes for sharing — from charcuterie boards to rack of lamb. Somehow servers manage to be knowledgeable about all of the many offerings.
One can eat well here without going near meat — Salem in general is vegetarian and vegan friendly. At Opus, samosa-esque turnovers are filled with curried potato, sweet and savory, fried crunch yielding to soft insides. A sushi roll special one night incorporates braised squash, plum hoisin sauce, ginger-soy syrup, basil, and crushed walnuts. The combination works beautifully, the flavors savory and warm.
Seafood plates can be elegant as well. Almond-crusted scallops, sweet and delicate, come with spaghetti squash, strands perfumed with vanilla. Blood orange beurre blanc is both tart and rich.
Dishes are sometimes better on paper than plate. Fried chicken thighs look like unappealing lumps, and the buckwheat waffles they’re served with are overpoweringly sweet; the pork belly in the tacos is shriveled and dry. A black bass bouillabaisse is confusing, bouillabaisse in name alone, the bowl stocked with an abundance of white beans and the shellfish stew lacking kick. Too, the whimsical menu demands desserts more interesting than creme brulee and bread pudding.
The atmosphere is also whimsical. Approaching, a sign with the restaurant’s “O” logo gleams through the dark, promising nocturnal high jinks. Yet the restaurant is oddly bright inside. Liquor bottles perch on a track that hangs above a glowing circular bar; brick walls are chockablock with assorted artwork. A downstairs space features a movie screen, cushy leather chairs, and low tables; it feels like an expat bar one might find while traveling through Southeast Asia. Referred to as Opus Underground, this space will eventually host regular, free live music, Giddings says.
Opus also pays attention to its beer list, with draft offerings from outfits such as Pretty Things, Jack’s Abby, and Berkshire Brewing. House cocktails are a draw, too — a twist on a Manhattan, made with Old Monk rum; a just-girly-enough concoction of peach puree and rye; a sort of Korean negroni made with soju instead of gin.
Salem: Come for the spirits, stay for the spirits. And don’t forget about dinner while you’re here.
87 Washington St., Salem.
All major credit cards accepted.
Prices Small plates $5-$16. Plates for two or more $15-$28. Desserts $8-$9.
Hours Dinner Sun-Thu 5-
10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. (last hour bar menu only). Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-
3 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Bar menu
3-5 p.m. daily. Opus Underground daily
6 p.m.-1 a.m.
What to order Samosa turnovers, scallops,
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.