There’s a cocktail at Northern Spy called the Northfashioned, a potent little tipple of bourbon, rye, applejack, and bitters. It tastes like an Old Fashioned that’s had an apple cider doughnut dunked in it. An old-school classic updated in a way that’s both utterly regional and a bit unexpected, it is a perfect namesake drink for the Canton restaurant named for an apple variety.
Northern Spy is located inside the old brick Copper Rolling Mill, part of the original Revere Copper Company, at the heart of the Paul Revere Heritage site. It’s a pretty, verdant spot, and one can stroll along the Neponset River before sitting down to dinner — one eye on the landscape of the past, the other on the condo complexes of today. The restaurant is run by the team behind Loyal Nine in Cambridge, another spot that puts New England on the menu. But where Loyal Nine takes it as a jumping-off point for experimentation, Northern Spy nestles in.
“The goal was to have it be a neighborhood restaurant, a place for the community to gather,” says chef and co-owner Marc Sheehan, who grew up one town over in Milton. “Our ultimate goal would be if we could open the place people went the night before Thanksgiving and hung out at the bar. Then it would have achieved what we wanted it to achieve. There was no conversation about Michelin stars. It was literally if people will come eat wings at the bar the night before Thanksgiving, and they’re good wings.”
The menus at the two restaurants often center around the same ingredients, and what happens next illustrates how they diverge. At Northern Spy, for instance, those wings are glazed in house-made beer and grilled; at Loyal Nine, they’re stuffed with mushroom duxelles and prepared with spicy burnt tomato puree, preserved lemon, and dukkah. At Northern Spy, seared scallops come with corn, tomato, oyster mushrooms, and bacon; at Loyal Nine, they’re served with sauteed cantaloupe, house-cured pork belly, and golden trout roe. Neither restaurant is more ambitious. The ambitions are just different. You’d bring the date you want to impress to Loyal Nine; to Northern Spy, you might bring the same date but also your family to celebrate Nana’s birthday.
There’s a lovely patio that beckons for boozy weekend brunches, with a menu of crab eggs benedict, brioche French toast (with apple butter, naturally), and other dishes that bridge the morning-afternoon divide. But the heart of the restaurant is the wood-fired hearth. On many of the dishes, at least one element bears its smoky kiss, fragrant and outdoorsy, nostalgic as a childhood camping trip.
The scallops might be my favorite dish on the menu, absolutely classic and comforting, but also occasion-worthy. The corn and mushrooms are grilled on the hearth; the tomatoes are smoked for hours, then dried a bit over the flames. There’s bacon in there, too: smokiness layered upon smokiness, offset by an underlayer of creamy, craveable corn grits. It’s all for naught if the scallops aren’t cooked perfectly. They are.
If there’s one dish that defines Northern Spy, it might be the steak tips. The beef is grass-fed, from Massachusetts. It goes on the grill, comes off smoky, rests a while in beef jus spiked with Worcestershire sauce. Striking a balance between tender and chewy, the steak tips come with grilled scallions, some peppery cress, and fries.
Fries: the afterthought of bar food, the long-suffering bearer of a misbegotten notion that any fry is a good fry so why spend the time. Northern Spy spends the time, and it shows. “It’s a two-day process to get a French fry,” Sheehan says. The potatoes are cut and set to soak the night before. Then they are blanched and cooled, blanched and cooled, blanched and cooled again. After they’re fried, they arrive looking hand-hewn, rustic, dark gold and brown, crispy and crunchy and tasting deeply like potatoes. They don’t even need ketchup, although they don’t object.
The supper menu — no one has “dinner” here — includes seasonal starters like burrata with roasted peaches, summer squash, crunchy seeds, and croutons, a panzanella for summer’s end. Flatbreads come topped with smoked tomatoes or braised beef. Smoked bluefish pate with brown bread, baked clam dip with potato chips, and New England clam chowder with salt pork and house-made crackers take diners into fall, which feels like the perfect season to visit Northern Spy as it heads toward its first anniversary. (It opened the day after Christmas 2020.)
There are potato dumplings with smoked fennel and grilled asparagus; there’s also creamy mac and cheese. There’s baked stuffed haddock and roast chicken with artichokes and a Caesar salad of grilled Little Gem lettuce; there’s also a hot fish sandwich and a double cheeseburger. There are nearly a dozen vegetable sides, and a kids’ menu with slightly spiffed-up versions of the usual, from grilled cheese (on house-made brioche with aged cheddar) to baked fish sticks. (At lunch, the menu is slightly truncated, but with a chicken sandwich.) For dessert (dinner only), there’s strawberry buttermilk pie, warm chocolate chip cookies, and more.
It’s the kind of place where someone would be happy to suggest a wine pairing — the list from wine director Rebecca Myers is helpfully divided into flavor profiles like “lush, fruit, flowers” and “bright, tart berries, fragrant” — but you could also drink New England beer. Or stay with the theme and order a bottle of cider. Wine and cocktails are available to go, along with the food. It’s a substantial menu executed by a tiny crew: Sheehan and chef de cuisine Paul Clark essentially split the cooking, while Loyal Nine pastry chef Kasey Geremiah prepares the sweets.
There’s something warmly nostalgic about eating at Northern Spy. It’s like the really nice, modernized version of a restaurant you might have gone to on a class trip to some historic site. It’s like the really nice, modernized version of a restaurant you might have gone to with your parents growing up. It’s becoming harder to find places like this, where the dishes are crowd-pleasing but not rote, prepared with care; where multiple generations can gather at a table without anyone grumbling about the food. The notion of family has evolved, and so have family tastes. It’s time for more family restaurants to evolve with them.
4 Rolling Mill Way, Canton, 781-989-1850, www.northernspycanton.com