Since 2006, Mission Oak Grill has been a dining destination in a renovated former church next to Brown Square in downtown Newburyport.
Steakhouse fare ranges from $19 for a five-ounce sirloin to $39 for a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye, with sauces and sides ranging from traditional (Madeira truffle demiglace) to very of-the-moment (julienne agave-lime carrots). Excellent food for cheaper-than-Boston prices, for sure, but not everyday fare for all.
What’s getting the Mission Oak buzzed about lately, though, is the bar menu, which has been around for years, but has somehow caught a new wave of enthusiasm among area diners. It hits the small-plates trend right in the bulls-eye at reasonable prices, mostly $10 to $15 for dishes prepared with all the skill the kitchen applies to pricier entrées.
But wait, there’s more. Every day except Saturday, from 4 to 7 p.m., most bar menu items are half price. No wonder the joint is often jumping by 5, and it’s hard to land a seat after that on a Thursday or Friday.
After hearing (and overhearing) locals rave about it or multiple occasions, we went to check it out for ourselves. Three of us arrived just after 5 p.m. and found every one of the comfortable seats at the bar taken and all of the half-dozen or so tables overlooking the dining room also full.
We got a round of drinks — a Fourteen Hands Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.50), a Grey Goose and pineapple juice ($9), and a Newburyport Brewing Plum Island Belgian White on draft ($5.75) — and stood strategizing, finally striking up a conversation with a couple who was paying the check and encouraged us to take over the spot.
Eventually we ordered more drinks and four plates to share three ways. We watched another frigid weather forecast on the bar TVs, and then the food came to warm us up.
The stuffed Chatham quahogs ($4.50 each at full price/$2.25 from 4 to 7 p.m.) were jumbo-sized, with chopped clams, grilled chorizo and crumbs on top, splashed with lemon and Tabasco. Tasty, but not exceptional, in a pretty good seafood-eating town.
You can get a 10-ounce burger ($12/$6), but we went for the same amount of meat split into a trio of sliders ($13/$6.50). The patties came each on its own toasted brioche-y bun, one with blue cheese, one with caramelized onions, and one with a heap of seared wild mushrooms on top. These were moist, beefy, done to a mid-shade of pink that satisfied everyone at the table.
The empanadas ($12/$6) lacked the curb appeal of the sliders — two big turnover-like pastries resting in a bowl and drizzled with a lattice of yellow sauce. But just bite into one. The boneless beef short-rib meat inside the toothsome pastry had been braised to fork-tenderness. The yellow sauce was aji amarillo, a Peruvian pepper sauce. Salsa criolla — built from the braising liquid, a Peruvian pepper paste, red jalapeños, and other ingredients — added a bit more heat.
A fierce battle ensued over every bite of the empanadas, which would have been a bargain even at full price.
We were almost as enthusiastic about the chorizo con cassava ($10/$5), which brought grilled hunks of mildly spicy Spanish chorizo with grilled onion, with a dollop of agave-lime and a tumble of thick, sweetish yucca fries.
Other choices on the bar menu include a Margherita pizza, fried calamari , and a generous bowl of mussels.
We wrapped up our satisfying and surprisingly filling meal with a dessert plate of beignets ($6, not available half price), the famous deep-fried sugary snack, drizzled with honey.
It must be said that for these prices, you can’t expect the formal service you get in the dining room on the other side of the railing. Dishes came when they came, with a minimum of ceremony. Didn’t bother us one bit.
Maybe that’s because the tab for a perfectly satisfying early meal for three came to $52 before tax and tip (we paid the bartender separately for the first round of drinks). No wonder people talk about it at the coffee shop the next morning.