Ashmont Grill, Bella Luna, Central Kitchen, Deep Ellum, Eastern Standard, Franklin Cafe, Green Street, Highland Kitchen, The Independent, JM Curley, Kingston Station, Lincoln, Mul’s Diner, The Neighborhood, O’Sullivan’s, The Paramount, Qingdao Garden, Redd’s in Rozzie, Santarpio’s, Theo’s Cozy Corner, Union Bar & Grille, Victoria’s Diner, West on Centre, Xinh Xinh, YoMa, Zaftigs.
Name-check your favorite here. What would we do without our neighborhood restaurants? They might not have famous chefs or national profiles, but they get our repeat business, week in and week out. They keep us comfortable and feed us when we don’t feel like feeding ourselves. And they say something about the neighborhoods in which they are situated, sum them up in some true way. A meal is worth 1,000 words.
Into this alphabet of regular haunts, insert the Abbey in Cambridge, the follow-up to the Brookline restaurant of the same name. (Insert that one, too.) The new Abbey opened in May, just outside Porter Square in Cambridge, in the space that was formerly Addis Red Sea. The menu closely resembles that of its older sibling; the management team is the same, and chef Jon Cameron and other staffers were brought over from the original. (Cameron also previously worked at Rendezvous and Green Street.) Second acts are so underrated.
“Thank goodness this opened here,” one woman says to another, seated a few scooches down the banquette at the next table. She lives off Mass. Ave. and is here for supper solo. “Can I get some ice cubes for my wine?” she asks a server, then shrugs: “It’s just the way I like it.” Then she tucks into the daily special, a grilled heritage pork chop with sweet potato mash, and gets back to her crossword puzzle.
The Abbey is the kind of place where you can make yourself at home, with no pretensions and no frills. It’s laid out neatly on two floors, each with its own bar; walls are plain stretches of brick, and wood floors and tables gleam with varnish. As for food, frilly is out of fashion. Dishes here are comfortable yet far from boring, with details that keep them from being stodgy or basic.
Like the lobster-corn-tomato chowder. It sounds standard, but it arrives with a sunny overlay of curry powder, like food porn that comes with its own Instagram filter. The spicing is gentle but adds warmth and dimension. The brimming bowl is stocked with tender potatoes and bites of lobster, farmers’ market cherry tomatoes and kernels of corn. There is a homemade quality to it — it feels not so much like restaurant food as something a good cook might make on a chilly afternoon late in the week at the rented Cape house, in a dented tin stock pot, without a recipe.
Or a grilled sardine drizzled with a loose paste of black olives and olive oil, the most bare-bones tapenade. It’s Mediterranean beach food, uncomplicated, with dense, moist flesh and plenty of flavor.
Mussels shine in a sauce of wine and butter over rice black with squid ink, the whole affair smoky and fragrant with chorizo. Even when there are other dishes on the table, it is hard to stop dunking grilled bread in the skillet.
Braised short rib becomes a savory little hash, combined with cubed potatoes and topped with a runny fried egg. Lamb lollipops feature juicy bites of meat attached to cleaned bones that serve as handles (“lollipops” sounds cuter than “frenched lamb chops”). They are tasty, but the elements that promise to make the dish interesting — goat cheese brulee and mint oil — only appear on the plate in nubbins and drips.
At a place like this, the burger is all important. The Abbey’s isn’t fancy but it is delicious, if cooked rarer than ordered (so, too, is the flat-iron on a plate of steak frites). A half-chicken is juicy and tender, with succotash of summer vegetables and an overly tangy jus. Grilled Arctic char with beautifully crisp skin and moist flesh gets a classy presentation over Israeli couscous, with drizzles of bright yellow pepper dressing.
Bison Bolognese was a cult hit at Washington Square Tavern, where Abbey founders Josh Sherman and Damian Dowling worked before opening their own place. They brought it down the street with them to the first Abbey, and now it crosses the river. It’s better than ever, a tower of linguine tangled with a savory meat sauce and topped with a shower of Romano cheese. But a dish of roast cod I loved in Brookline suffers with the move; it’s still served atop a
potato-scallion pancake with shallot cream sauce, but the pancake is scorched and the fish overcooked. As for grilled flatbread, which changes toppings daily, it’s just the same as at the Brookline shop, and that’s not good: It’s not flat at all but puffy and bloated, with too much cheese.
A side of baby corn with jalapeno-avocado butter tastes plain, without spice, the undeveloped kernels too tiny to offer satisfaction. Make this with August’s grown-up corn and plenty of chiles and avocado, and don’t serve three half-ears protruding vertically from the plate. It looks both silly and cheap; throw that fourth half on for good measure.
The Abbey in Brookline doesn’t serve dessert, but the Cambridge branch offers a few simple sweets: a basic but pleasing chocolate mousse with cinnamon whipped cream, and a dense orange bread pudding that would be better for brunch.
There is a substantial beer list, heavily local, with a baker’s dozen on draft. The cocktail list makes up for the imagination the wine list lacks, with creations like the pineapple jalapeno margarita and the Fearless King (Irish whiskey, basil, and grapefruit juice). Bartending needs to be more consistent, however. On one visit, drinks are weak and out of balance; on another, the same drink ordered twice is not the same drink at all.
But the Abbey is a neighborhood asset, always open, the kind of place where you make yourself at home. It ought to be part of your alphabet when you’re near Porter Square.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.