WHO’S IN CHARGE Executive chef Jay Murray is the culinary mastermind of Ellis Square Social, the latest upscale restaurant and craft-cocktail bar to arrive in downtown Beverly. It opened last year in the Cabot Street space just vacated by Barrel House, which had the same ownership.
Where Barrel House was aimed at bourbon connoisseurs, Ellis Square Social has a livelier, more flexible approach to food and drink. “I’ve changed the menu practically every week since we opened in August,” said Murray, formerly chef of Grill 23 & Bar. “The only thing still on the menu from then is the pork belly” (an $11 serving of Berkshire pork belly with eggs, fried rice, and walnuts). It’s not that the other offerings have been unpopular, he said. “I get sick of things really quickly. I have a short attention span.”
As with Barrel House, the drinks menu is a big part of Ellis Square Social’s lure. Devised by bartender Todd Maul, formerly of Cafe ArtScience and Clio, it takes up four pages to the food menu’s two. Why order the same old beer when you can try an unusual cocktail like a samurai jack or an atomic garden? Well, some of the cocktails here cost $15, so the bill can add up quickly, as our party of five discovered to its regret.
THE LOCALE Ellis Square Social — the name is a suggestion that this is a place to relax and socialize — has the same slightly gloomy black exterior that Barrel House had. Inside, the mood is anything but gloomy. Arriving during a downpour, our group nestled into cushioned seating that wrapped around a front corner, next to tall picture windows with a grand view of the St. Mary Star of the Sea Church directly across the street. Around us inside were brick walls with recessed lighting and lots of dark wood; above us, stylish lighting fixtures and an antique ceiling that looked like pressed tin.
This is a place that’s serious about food and drink, but not so serious in other ways. Dishes were set down at our table with oddball phrases on small cards like, in the case of our charcuterie plate, “Aliens Attack.” Writing and designing these things is one of the pastimes Murray indulges in when he’s not cooking. Covering a wall of the men’s room is a large photo mural of an unruly-looking Ernest Hemingway at a bar gripping a seltzer bottle and yelling something. Coco Chanel is the corresponding muse in the women’s room.
ON THE MENU Our server was attentive and knowledgeable about each of the dishes on the menu, right down to the sources of the meat and dairy products. We ended up ordering nine small plates and a single entree.
The latter was an 8-ounce Holstein flatiron steak ($29) that came out on a plate all by itself. Even so, it was totally satisfying: tender, cooked medium-rare as ordered, and accompanied by two little dishes of sauce for dipping or drizzling.
The charcuterie plate ($21) included house-made terrine, sausage, cured meat with mostarda (a sweet fruit condiment with a mustard-flavored syrup), and a deliciously rich chicken-liver mousse.
A general favorite, which we all shared, was a generous bowl of purple-potato soup topped with chive sour cream and, floating on top, a delectable bit of cured pork ($11). Another favorite we shared was avocado toast — thick slices of toast with lemony avocado and prosciutto-like slices of serrano ham on top of that.
A small plate of lamb meatballs was spicy and crisp ($12). The lamb arrived with bulgur, garlicky tsatziki, and fried garbanzo beans, and it disappeared quickly. So did a small plate of duck-confit arancini ($12), which were fried balls of rice seasoned with spices and duck meat. The rice seemed bland at first, but the confit added richness, flavor, and texture. “I could live on these,” said one of our friends.
Said another friend when we finally emerged onto the sidewalk, where the rain having stopped: “Every single thing we had was good — flavorful, thoughtful, tasty. And after we finished eating, we stayed at the table for 20 minutes talking because we felt good.” No doubt the cocktails helped, too.
Ellis Square Social, 252 Cabot St., Beverly, 978-998-4450, www.ellissquaresocial.com.Coco McCabe and Doug Stewart can be reached at email@example.com.