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Back Bay Brewing Co.
The Hub's newest brewpub aims high and hits its targetBack Bay Brewing Company
755 Boylston Street, Boston; 424-8300
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily; opens at noon on Sun
Beer and wine
Fully handicap accessible
All major credit cards
by Stephen Heuser
A decade ago on the opposite coast, the word "brewpub" suggested a cozy place frequented by beer hobbyists, bearded Bay Area types who practice their low-key connoisseurship below the radar of haute food culture. But these days, in Boston as elsewhere, brewpubs are almost uniformly pitched to a post-collegiate, after-work crowd, thirsty pre-execs too old for Milwaukee's Best, too young for martinis.
As the genre gains steam, its exponents gain ambition. Until now, the pacesetter has been Brew Moon, a yupscale Theater District watering hole with chic décor and portobello-mushroom appetizers. Now the Back Bay Brewing Company ups the ante with two floors, two bars, a view onto Boylston Street, and a swank restaurant with an ambitious (and pricey) dinner menu.
To judge by the crowd, that variety plays well in the Back Bay. Even mid-week you might end up waiting for a seat at the bar; on weekends, the crowd fills the barstools, the tables, and the little corners where the unswept barley malt would collect if this were one of those real bearded-guy pubs.
The BBBC has managed to avoid beginner's syndrome with its beer, the overzealous flavoring that seems endemic to new breweries. Its lighter beers may even be overcautious -- a cereally, slightly bitter-finishing lager; a bland reddish amber -- but its strong ones are nice. The IPA is a restrained version of the usual hopfest; the seasonal special is a Russian imperial stout -- a tremendous winter tipple that's rich to the point of being winey.
There are enough appetizers ("tapas" on the bar menu) to amuse anyone trying to match beer to food. With the IPA, a good choice was the hummus crostini ($5), with smooth hummus filling little pita sandwiches arranged around a greenish baba ghanoosh. A glass of porter made a classic marriage with the buttermilk fried oysters, enticingly gooey inside and served with a snappy Cajun remoulade ($6).
The huge bar entrees aren't priced much higher. A barbecued beef brisket sandwich ($7) wasn't particularly briskety -- the meat was as soft as pulled pork, heaped so high the sandwich was hard to assemble. Carnivores will have to choose between that and the mushroom cheeseburger ($8), a looming mound of rare beef with maple-cured bacon, cheddar cheese, and shiitake mushrooms served on a fresh crusty bun.
The baby penne with veal and wild-broccoli sausage ($12) was one of those pasta ideas that's more a welter of tasty items than a single dish: garlicky pasta, kalamata olives, strips of cherry pepper, and a loose sausage that barely tasted of broccoli. The smoked chorizo plate ($11) was unapologetically hot, with almost as much red chili as meat in the sausage, and a remorseless (but tasty) tomatillo sauce. For relief, it comes with a mild "burrito": a pastry tube cut on the bias, standing on end, filled with an appealingly gooey mixture of corn and jack cheese.
Stuffed, we still couldn't resist finishing with the pound cake ($5). It came toasted, with a bit of candied fruit and a sauce that it was moist enough not to need.
The restaurant section of the BBBC is tucked away on the second floor, past the steel-and-copper tanks, overlooking Boylston Street. If not for all the noise leaking over the half-walls, you wouldn't imagine you were still in a bar at all. Generous booths, upholstered seats, restrained wall art -- we're a long way from Cheers.
On the plate, presentation is the story. The food is "done" to an extent I've rarely encountered in Boston. The hop-smoked salmon ($7), for example, came perfectly fit to little wedges of grilled brioche, tiger-striped with cream, accompanied by julienned cucumber, salmon roe, and delicate straws of whole chive.
The most popular appetizer, our waiter assured us, was the warm maple- and almond-glazed Vermont brie ($5.95). There's nothing like warm brie on a cold day, but the glaze tasted a bit too much like dessert.
The showpiece entree was the cracked-black-pepper-crusted tuna ($18), which was a glib take on the vertical-food fad: the tuna steak came balanced on end, supported by a fried pastry shell folded like a bishop's miter and full of toasty, cheesy polenta. The tuna was unimpeachably rare; beneath the zip of the peppery crust, the rich rose fish fell away in concentric flakes, to be dipped in smoked corn-and-tomato salsa.
Chef Ed Doyle is a champion of muscular undercooking. That's an asset when we're talking about the tuna or the sirloin ($22), which came with a pile of mashed potatoes so heavily garlicked we actually found a giant clove inside. We shied away from ordering the steak rare ("You'll get it bloody," warned the waiter), but even medium-rare it came juicy and red, accompanied by a sweetish homemade barbecue sauce.
Undercooking scallops is a somewhat dicier proposition, and so is underserving them. The pan-roasted sea scallops ($16) were nearly raw in the middle and less than profuse: there were five, in fact, and I'm afraid no amount of plumpness or nice crusty exterior can make scallops worth $3 apiece. They came with a pretty tangle of julienned onions and a cider reduction sauce that seemed, like the brie glaze, a bit too sweet.
The wild mushroom tart ($15) had other problems. Hard as it is to screw up good mushrooms, these were just plain dull. We liked the companion array of earthy baby beets, pencil-thin asparagus, and buttery brussels sprouts. But half the plate was taken up with a bland "five grain pilaf" which consisted of wild rice, lentils, and barley.
Redemption arrived with dessert. The ginger crème brûlée ($5) was a novel take on the classic, with the crème in a wide, flat dish, caramelized only softly, served with two tall, angular wafers whose juxtaposition suggested municipal sculpture.
The don't-miss dessert is the chocolate porter mousse mug ($6), which was so damn cute it was almost a shame to eat it: a perfectly formed dark chocolate beer mug, full of grainy bittersweet mousse -- chocolate alloyed with gutsy porter -- sporting an asymmetrical "head" of half-sweet whipped cream. The final touch: the stylized "B" logo of the bar stenciled onto the plate in bitter-chocolate powder.