It’s another snowy night in the middle of a cold spell that has made most sane humans reluctant to leave their homes. A “House of Cards” binge and reheated leftovers look awfully good.
But in a brick-lined space where the North End and West End meet, a crowd has gathered. Ward 8 creates its own microclimate. The new restaurant, which opened in December, is around the corner from TD Garden. Celtics or Bruins game that night? The place is busy. Nothing scheduled? The place is busy. Justin Timberlake concert? The place is going to be busy.
This is owner Nick Frattaroli’s first restaurant, but he grew up in the business. His family runs Lucia, Filippo, and Ducali in the North End. He clearly knew what the neighborhood was missing. Ward 8 doesn’t serve Italian food. It’s the kind of place one might find anywhere in the city, offering bistro-inspired food, craft cocktails, and modern-industrial decor — only in a part of the city one doesn’t generally find that kind of place.
Executive chef Kenny Schweizer, formerly of the Bristol Lounge, puts together a menu that covers all the bases, from snacks to a proper dinner — roast chicken, steak frites, and other hits from the upscale-comfort-food catalog. (There’s no dessert yet, but ask after it and servers will describe the currently unavailable sweets they will soon be offering: not fair.)
A special one night, lobster bisque, is a satisfyingly warming bowl, a bit fancy without being pretentious; creamy, with bites of meat, it’s more of a chowder. A salad feels summery, with a grilled wedge of lettuce, a skewer of grilled shrimp, avocado, and orange segments, but the roasted root vegetables and Brussels sprouts on the plate bring us back to reality.
An invention called “fried cheese steak dumpling” is pure winter fare, however, the bikini’s natural enemy. An egg roll and a greasy sandwich had a baby, and no one can even pretend the hefty clod is cute.
For something seasonally appropriate, one is better off with tender, flavorful braised short rib, surrounded by a generous drift of snow-white cauliflower puree. It’s served with green beans and topped with a thatch of fried leeks. They taste good, but they make for prickly eating.
Of course mac and cheese appears on the menu, the pasta coated in a thin cheese sauce, with pieces of ham and a mound of garlicky spinach on top. And of course there is a burger, topped with cheddar and an onion-bacon jam that is a few degrees too sweet; the burger, ordered medium, comes without a trace of pink at the center. But there are more-unusual suspects, too, like cod bouillabaisse — a nicely seared piece of fish and a fried oyster in a thin, orange broth that lacks flavor. It bears little resemblance to any bouillabaisse one might have seen before.
Ward 8’s lobster “hole” is a heap of fine lobster salad over buttery griddled brioche with truffle mayonnaise; on top sits a jaunty little cap of brioche. It’s a welcome take on the lobster roll (if on the pricey side at $23), with the seafood the star of the show and the bread the supporting player it ought to be. It comes with sweet potato fries, which at Ward 8 are better than the standard fries. Those are in the style of McDonald’s, but consistently underdone.
Compare the two varieties via a fry sampler, with ketchup and a bright, citrusy mayonnaise for dunking. Everyone seems to be ordering this and the steak tacos, tender meat with guacamole and pico de gallo in old-school crunchy shells. “They taste like the tacos we had growing up, with the spice packet,” one person comments, happily nostalgic. Both appear on the part of the menu devoted to snacks, which are served until 1 a.m. Also popular: bacon-cashew caramel corn and maple-chili duck wings. These last look suspiciously like legs, but the result is the same: sticky, sweet-spicy bites that pair well with drinks.
This is really what you want from a place like Ward 8. The food might seem run-of-the-mill in a part of town where good old roast chicken isn’t a rare bird. But the cocktails would stand up anywhere. (As would the plaid shirts, apparently now obligatory garb for bartenders, having replaced vests.) Bar manager Mike Wyatt comes from Eastern Standard, which is known for its drinks. Ward 8’s list, divided by type of alcohol, offers up frothy Pisco sours, balanced mint juleps made with cognac and rye, and, of course, highly drinkable Ward 8s. Each comes in the proper glass — the julep in a wee copper mug; the Painkiller in a kitschy, tiki drink-appropriate cup that looks like a coconut; the ladylike Il Pompelmo (tastes like grapefruit but doesn’t contain any) in a ladylike cocktail glass, chilled to a frost. It’s a small thing, but the attention paid to these vessels is telling. There’s also a good selection of beer on tap, with many local choices, and enough reds and whites to keep wine drinkers happy.
Real attention is paid to hospitality, too. This is the kind of place that could likely get away with casual-bordering-on-perfunctory service. No one comes here feeling formal. But servers are polite and attentive, better about appearing when needed and holding back when not than those at some more-formal restaurants around town. It’s a reminder: No matter how relaxed the atmosphere, hospitality is always important.
And that, as much as anything, is what the crowds are responding to on these cold nights when the couch beckons. Clustered around the four-sided bar, laughing and talking, local residents find a warm place to gather.
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