Best Burgers

Alden & Harlow

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Casablanca Restaurant was the epitome of Harvard Square – quirky, informal, colorful, and a haven for anyone who worked, lived, or otherwise hung out in Cambridge’s most famous neighborhood. It opened as a bar in 1955 and evolved into a restaurant known for Mediterranean fare and mural-covered walls that depicted scenes from its namesake film. In December 2012, after more than a half-century of serving students, professors, actors, writers, and a host of eccentric characters, Casablanca finally succumbed to rising rents, increasing competition, and the impending retirement of its longtime owner. The Harvard Square institution closed its doors, leaving its oft-crowded space eerily quiet and empty.

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In many ways, the bar and eatery that opened at the same Brattle Street address a year or so later couldn’t be more different from its famous predecessor. With its upscale, contemporary look, inspired food menu, and top-notch cocktail program, the space now occupied by Alden & Harlow might not even be recognizable to a former Casablanca regular. At the same time, something about that dark, subterranean atmosphere and unpretentious attitude seems comfortably familiar.

At the bottom of a flight of stairs leading down from Brattle Street, Alden & Harlow has a tucked-away, almost hidden quality to it; despite its popularity and critical acclaim, being in there kind of feels like you’re in on a really cool secret.

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The bar area is dimly lit, with illuminated wooden slats on the walls and hanging caged lighting. There’s a fairly enormous, wraparound bar with upwards of 25 seats. A few tables and booths round out the bar area, which has a small, intimate feel about it.

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Low, wooden ceilings with exposed beams and a weathered concrete floor give the space a cozy, almost rustic appearance. Beyond the bar is a roomy dining area, overlooked by an open kitchen.

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Since its January 2014 opening, Alden & Harlow has garnered near-universal praise for its innovative cuisine. Led by chef Michael Scelfo, formerly of nearby Russell House Tavern, the menu features locally sourced, farm-to-table goods, with a special emphasis on vegetable dishes.

Charred broccoli is served on a bed of butternut squash hummus, topped with Bianco Sardo cheese and crumbled cashews. The sweet and savory hummus would be delicious even on its own. But combined with the smoky broccoli and the full-flavored cheese, it’s like a small feast for the palate. The cashews add not only flavor but texture to this excellent pre-dinner snack.

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The menu also boasts an unusual abundance of pickled products. Scelfo has explained in interviews that his grandmother made her own pickles, and he learned the art from her. That passion for pickling shows up all throughout the menu, like in a complimentary serving of pickled green beans. Drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted sesame seeds, the crispy green beans have an acidic, vinegary zip and a warm, nutty essence.

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Heirloom eggs feature pickled fiddleheads and boquerones, which are Spanish anchovies soaked in vinegar.

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Things turn playful with the pickled corn pancakes, which are drizzled with maple syrup, accompanied by shishito peppers, and topped with – of all things – popcorn. It’s an unexpected combination, and at first glance, seems kind of silly. But the flavors work surprisingly well, and the airy, crunchy texture of the popcorn serves as a clever contrast to the soft, fluffy pancakes.

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Of course, there’s also plenty for carnivores to love. The chicken fried local rabbit (which I have yet to try) has become something of a signature item. And the “secret burger” is a legend unto itself. It’s a concept chef Scelfo experimented with while at Russell House Tavern, where he created a wildly popular burger recipe that wasn’t listed on the menu and was instead promoted only on social media. At Alden & Harlow, the “secret” burger isn’t so secretive; it appears on the menu, but the description’s a little…vague: “Our 8-oz Creekhouse grind, your faith, house-made roll.”

When it comes to burgers, I am a man of faith. So I didn’t ask what was on it, and the bartender didn’t offer any details. I was just happy they hadn’t run out yet; only a couple dozen or so are made every day, and they go quickly.

It’s easy to see why.

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The burger patty is made from a combination of brisket, short rib, and beef plate. It’s topped with salted onions, the chef’s grandmother’s special sauce recipe, bread and butter pickles (no surprise there), and a crispy slice of baked cheddar cheese. Smoky and juicy, with a blend of sweet and savory flavors, the “secret” burger more than lives up to the hype. The kicker is the unexpected crunch of the baked cheese, again making the texture a key part of the experience.

That innovative and ambitious menu has earned Alden & Harlow innumerable accolades. It’s regularly lauded by local publications and outlets, and this past summer, the venerable Bon Appetít named Alden & Harlow one of the 50 best new restaurants in America. And that made me wonder, as I do whenever I visit an eatery renowned for its cuisine, whether the cocktail program will match that level of ingenuity. I mean, if everyone’s coming for the food, why not just offer a few microbrews and a decent wine list and call it a day?

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Fortunately, Alden & Harlow’s cocktail program echoes many of the same principles that have won the restaurant such acclaim. The inventive libations resist categorization and emphasize local products and house-made ingredients. Some of the cocktails even incorporate items you might expect to find on the food menu instead of the drink list.

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[BBH Note: My initial visit to Alden & Harlow was in late summer, and much of drink list has changed since then. Rest assured, their current offerings are just as creative and satisfying.]

Pureed local corn makes the Amazing Grace foamy, creamy, and highly original. Combined with a maple liqueur from Vermont, lemon juice, and poblano pepper, it’s a balance of sweet and sour notes with a rich, peppery aroma.

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A charred apricot garnish lends a smoky essence to the Stone’s Throw. Made with rye whiskey, Punt e Mes, house peach vermouth, apricot, and mole bitters, it opens with a muted sweetness and ends with an herbal bitterness from the Punt e Mes. Mole bitters bring a hint of spice to the mix.

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Apricot also shows up in the Ancient Stone, made with Reyka vodka, mint, and “bubbles.” Bright and sweet, the fresh mint gives this drink a soft, herbal aroma, and the sparkling wine adds a pleasant touch of effervescence.

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But the first “wow” of my initial visit came courtesy of Duane’s World, a blend of Indian rum, Oloroso sherry, cold-brew coffee, Amaro, and urfa tincture – an extract from a Turkish chili pepper. Coffee is the most prominent flavor, but the warmth of the rum, along with the nutty notes from the sherry and the bitterness from the Amaro, make for a rich, wonderfully complex cocktail. The urfa tincture contributes subtle, peppery notes of sweetness and spice. Masterful.

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There are also a couple of nods to the classics, albeit with some novel twists. The Kon Tiki Mai Tai is a tribute to a variation of the tiki classic popularized by the famous Kon Tiki restaurant. Dating back to the 1960s, this recipe calls for two rums, ginger, orange, lime, absinthe, and Angostura bitters. The anise flavor from the absinthe might be jarring if you’re accustomed to a traditional Mai Tai, but the drink is well balanced, vibrant, and not too sweet.

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The Eastern Slopes combines elements of a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, with rye whiskey, pisco, Santa Maria al Monte, orgeat syrup, and orange bitters.

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As I mentioned, most of the above drinks have since gone the way of summer. But now there are plenty of fall-themed cocktails, like the Sandhill Crane. Made with St. George Terroir gin, cranberry sage shrub, lime, and maple, it’s a crisp blend of sweet, tart, and vibrant flavors; a sage leaf rim adds a wonderful herbal fragrance.

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It’s a cocktail worthy of autumn in New England, and if Alden & Harlow is this good at capturing the essence of a season in a glass, it’s almost enough to make me look forward to winter.

Almost.

Last Call

Casablanca devotees (and I know they’re out there) might be a little sad to see anything in the hallowed space downstairs from Brattle Street. But you know, some dull national chain restaurant could’ve set up shop in there. Instead, Casablanca was succeeded by something truly original in Alden & Harlow, and while their respective food and drink offerings are light years apart, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of continuity between the two.

Maybe it’s because they each, in their own way, reflect the culture and character of Harvard Square. The neighborhood may be home to one of the most elite universities in the world, but its streets teem with a wildly diverse, eclectic, mostly laid-back crowd. In the past, some of that crowd may have staggered into Casablanca for a late-night bite and a beer; nowadays, it’s wise to get a reservation for Alden & Harlow. But that doesn’t translate into exclusivity. As ambitious as Alden & Harlow’s menu is, it’s also approachable, affordable, and likely to have broad appeal.

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Even better – success hasn’t gone to Alden & Harlow’s collective head. The atmosphere remains casual and unpretentious, and on every occasion I’ve been there, bartenders have knowledgeably described every cocktail and happily offered suggestions on drinks or dishes.

Case in point – I was intrigued by the “AH House Bitter,” one of two spirits on draft (!!). The bartender explained that it was a house-made Amaro and was called “Alpine Style” because of its foresty blend of herbs and bittering agents. It sounded a little too bitter for me, so I opted for something else. But later, when I was paying the bill, the same bartender brought over a sample of the house-made bitter anyway, apparently deciding I needed to try it despite my misgivings. I was glad he did – with its crisp, pine-like essence, this digestif was complex and surprisingly smooth, with hints of rhubarb among the herbal flavors.

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Thoughtful gestures like that are often what make a visit to a bar or restaurant truly memorable. Couple that with good food and drink, and Alden & Harlow may even outlast its famed predecessor.

Address: 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge

Website:http://aldenharlow.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

JM Curley

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As I think we all know, there’s a difference between being cool and trying to be cool. And a lot of bars (like a lot of people) simply try too hard. You know the kind of places I mean – bars that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their interior look like it’s been around for decades and naturally evolved from a shabby but lovable college apartment. Beat-up tables and mismatched chairs. A deliberately random assortment of reclaimed fixtures and vintage film posters. Staff with “attitude.” A menu with quirky food items and a few well-placed expletives. It’s a nauseating blend of narcissism and desperation that screams “Look how edgy we are!” Then there are those bars that try to effect an atmosphere of cool and totally get it right.

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JM Curley’s been getting it right since its opening three years ago. The Downtown Crossing bar is known for its creative comfort food, late-night menu, and smart cocktail program. But what’s always impressed me about this place is that it manages to be trendy and relevant while seeming entirely genuine and grounded. They nail the “chill hangout” vibe without ever forcing the issue.

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And I feel like it’s the kind of bar that, under different guidance, could do exactly that – go overboard. Devolve into some hipster haven that’s long on attitude and short on substance. The kind of place you have to be in a certain mood for. Instead, it feels like a comfortable neighborhood joint – consistent enough to be familiar but dynamic enough to be a little different every time you go.

Tucked away on Temple Place, the interior of JM Curley is fairly sparse and understated.

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The 14-seat, L-shaped bar is topped with a three-inch-thick slab of concrete that gives it a workman-like, industrial appearance. The well-worn hardwood floor contributes to a lived-in feel.

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Exposed brick walls are adorned with pictures of the bar’s legendary namesake – James Michael Curley, the 20th century Boston politician who is recalled as much for his popularity as for the controversy he courted.

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But it’s the chalkboard to the left of the bar that is easily the most celebrated of JM Curley’s wall ornaments.

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This chalk-inscribed treatise on bar etiquette discourages all manner of boorish acts – yelling, passing gas, engaging in public displays of affection, using condescending nicknames for servers. It might be a lot to remember – particularly if you’re the kind of person for whom this list was written – but the theme is concisely summarized at the end: “Just don’t be a douchebag.”

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It’s the sort of tongue-in-cheek admonishment that, in another setting, might feel contrived. Why does it work here? Because there’s something genuine about it. Amid the barbs and witticisms are thoughtful suggestions, like don’t write scathing reviews online before talking to a manager who might actually be able to address your gripes. Without sounding patronizing, the board serves as a reminder that drinks are best enjoyed in a casual environment, and customers and bar staff alike can contribute to that.

That simple request to be cool and respectful makes particular sense in the context of JM Curley’s “Supper” menu, a modest selection of comfort food geared toward small plates and sharing.

A complimentary serving of candied bacon popcorn arrived on our table shortly after my party arrived, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

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I’m not a huge fan of pickles, but fry them up, and I can’t keep away. A tangy, spicy Creole mayo for dipping really steals the show.

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I am, however, a huge fan of deviled eggs, and imbuing them with the flavors of a Bloody Mary is a pretty awesome idea. They manage to pack bacon, celery, tomato, horseradish, Worcestershire, celery, and salt in there, like a heavily garnished version of the brunch cocktail, and the result is a spicy, decadent treat with a nice kick.

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Mac and cheese is a staple of any comfort food menu, but JM Curley gives you the option to “hook it up” with barbecue pork. It’s an inspired addition; the dish isn’t overly cheesy, and the smoky, sweet barbecue sauce makes for a vibrant blend of flavors.

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Not all of the supper options are designed for sharing, and you could be forgiven for wanting to keep every last bite of your burger all to yourself. In addition to the standard house burger (more on that later), there’s a rotating burger special with all sorts of delicious twists. When I was there over the summer, the special was a “bacon-laced” (!) burger topped with smoked gouda, onions, and special slaw, served on a bacon/cheddar bun. This was truly a phenomenal burger – deliciously smoky, with a crispy texture from the slaw. And a bacon/cheddar bun? Brilliant.

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That same spirit of innovation permeates the drink menu, which features some clever twists on the standards and a few totally original offerings.

The Hemingway Heat is a spicy rendition of a Hemingway Daiquiri. Made with Rhum agricole, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime, and jalepeño, it’s a heat-forward drink but isn’t too intense.

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The 21 Temple Gin and Tonic neither looks nor tastes like the simple classic. There’s gin in it, as one would expect, and tonic. But yellow chartreuse, bark powder, and citrus make for a crisp, herbal cocktail that looks like it might be sweet but instead has a fairly muted orange flavor.

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The Whisky Smash looks more like a mojito, but certainly doesn’t taste like one. JM Curley shakes up this old standard by using a white whisky along with mint, lemon, and soda.

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With its layered presentation, the Clover Club is visually striking. It combines gin, raspberry syrup, lemon, and egg white for a fruity, creamy drink with a foamy layer at the top.

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Strega means “witch” in Italian, and that’s where the Witch Hunt acquired its name. The herbal Italian liqueur, which gets its yellow hue from saffron, combines with lemon juice and water for a tart, pleasantly bitter drink. Sage leaves provide a fresh aroma with every sip.

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Speaking of names, “Mendoza Line” is hardly an auspicious one for a cocktail. The expression derives from the baseball world and refers to the subpar hitting skills of one Mario Mendoza, the 1970s-era major league infielder whose batting average tended to hover around the threshold of .200. Ever since then, hitters whose average falls below .200 are said to be below the Mendoza Line. Not a good place to be.

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The Mendoza Line cocktail is far more effective. It’s an unusual, full-flavored mix of tequila, orgeat syrup, lemon, and raisin-infused Angostura. A lavender-mezcal rinse contributes a subtle smokiness and a mild floral essence.

And yet for all the complexity and creativity that infuses the cocktail program, the recipes never go too far. Even the most experimental drinks remain approachable, and some are surprisingly straightforward.

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The Jack Rose is, as one bartender described it, an “oldie but goodie” that hasn’t experienced the same resurgence in popularity as other throwback drinks. JM Curley’s version plays it by the book – applejack, house grenadine, and lime. It’s a strong, full-bodied drink with a mild apple flavor, and the custom grenadine contributes a moderate sweetness.

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After seeing surprising twists on simple drinks like the Whisky Smash and the 21 Gin and Tonic, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Manhattan. I certainly wasn’t expecting…well, a regular old Manhattan. But sure enough, JM Curley’s approach to this time-honored classic honors the tried-and-true combination of Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a cherry.

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A no-frills take on a cocktail that’s been subject to endless experimentation might look out of place alongside so many clever interpretations, but I think it balances out JM Curley’s drink list. And it means that even when they’re sticking to the basics, they can still surprise you.

Last Call

I clearly remember my first visit to JM Curley, a couple years back. It was the first time I tried Bantam Wunderkind cider, and “Too Young to Fall in Love,” a forgotten album track by Motley Crue, was playing. What does this have to do with the rest of the story? Nothing. It’s just an anecdote I’ve been itching to share.

Here’s another one. I stopped in one afternoon last week, and there was a couple sitting at the bar that had just gotten married at city hall a couple hours earlier. I thought that was pretty cool. Some newlyweds go to Aruba, others go to JM Curley.

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And why not? Whether you’re coming from your midweek afternoon nuptials or from the late shift at another Downtown Crossing haunt, it’s a comfortable, come-as-you-are kind of place that doesn’t seem to work too hard at being laid-back.

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And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that every time I’ve been in there, I’ve had excellent service from incredibly nice people. No exceptions. That Law & Order edict may implore you to be a decent human being while you’re there, but it’s not like the staff gives you any reason not to do so, at least in my experience.

Speaking of the notorious chalkboard, there’s one more quote worth sharing: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, we don’t.” The people behind JM Curley might not take themselves too seriously, but they’re pretty serious about their craft.

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The modestly named “5-oz natural beef patty” might lack the flair of the rotating burger specials, but it’s been recognized by the likes of Boston magazine and Zagat as among the best in the city. And bar manager Kevin Mabry was named Boston’s Best Bartender earlier this year by Boston magazine.

It’s the sort of thing that makes JM Curley’s humble attitude all the more laudable.

Address: 21 Temple Place, Boston

Website:http://jmcurleyboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Outdoor Seating, Part 5 – Cambridge

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I dropped the ball. After publishing an outdoor seating story in June, I promised a follow-up in July. But before I knew it, the steamy middle month of summer had come and gone. In a way, I suppose that’s indicative of this fleeting season in New England. But no excuses – it just means twice as much outdoor imbibing in August. So without further ado, we’ll hop on the Red Line and visit a few places in Cambridge. The city on the other side of the Charles is dynamic, unique, and characterized by endless variety. And each “square” in Cambridge has its own distinct rhythm and personality – there are neighborhoods with centuries-old roots, others that are up and coming, and some that are cultural trendsetters.

We begin in Kendall Square.

Belly Wine Bar

Since its 2012 opening, Belly has been defying the notion of what a “wine bar” should be. Instead of dark and serious, it’s bright and airy. In place of the typical cabernets and chardonnays are orange wines and, at the moment, a menu featuring two dozen varieties of rosé.

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That casual, playful attitude extends to the outdoor patio that Belly opened this summer. Like the interior, the patio is cozy and almost communal, with an eight-seat bar and a handful of bright red tables that sort of look like modern picnic benches.

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Overhead, strands of lights form an illuminated canopy when night falls.

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The food menu is as funky as the wine list, with an emphasis on small plates, charcuterie, and house-cured salumi. There are some bold options in the mix, like head cheese, duck liver mousse, and, pictured below, a pork and fennel terrine, accompanied by a spicy mustard. But if your palate isn’t quite that daring, the roasted shallot and walnut spread is heavenly.

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And the cauliflower with capers, pine nuts, and preserved lemon is fresh, crisp, and full of flavor.

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Wine may be Belly’s calling card, but the cocktail list is no less impressive. The Green Neighbor Policy might be one of the most vividly colored drinks I’ve ever been served. Despite its resemblance to a veggie-based smoothie, this mix of cilantro, rum, and lime is a simple, refreshing cocktail with a natural herbal aroma, well suited to a summer evening.

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And summer is clearly what Belly had in mind with the Hazy, Hot & Humid. This slow-sipping drink combines Amontillado (as in “The Cask of”), Cava, lemon, and mint.

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Nutty and full-flavored, with a bit of effervescence, it’s an impressive cocktail and an elegant way to beat the heat.

Address: 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge

Website:http://www.bellywinebar.com/

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Moksa Restaurant

While waiting for a bus after a visit to our next stop, I watched with detached curiosity as a man weaved through a sidewalk full of pedestrians, attempting to sell shaving razors and t-shirts. And by “t-shirts,” I don’t mean short-sleeve outerwear with Red Sox logos or funny sayings – I mean packages of men’s undershirts. “T’s, razors” he kept saying, as if he were a scalper with extra tickets to a Bruins game. What’s more remarkable – within minutes, he actually found a buyer (no, it wasn’t me).

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Central Square offers more than its share of quirks. And as I’ve said before, it isn’t the most obvious neighborhood in Cambridge to put an outdoor patio. Aside from colorful characters selling toiletries and undergarments, Central is gritty, congested, and subject to a near-constant stream of traffic on Mass Ave. It’s also home to plenty of cool bars, restaurants, and music venues, of course; but for all its diverse, bohemian charm, nothing about Central inspires dining al fresco.

And yet somehow, Moksa manages to pull it off.

Nestled between the restaurant and the Central Square Theater, Moksa’s small, brick-lined patio is set back from the street and feels comfortably enclosed. There are about 10 tables with rattan chairs, and the atmosphere is surprisingly peaceful.

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I’m sad to report that mixologist extraordinaire Noon Summers, the beverage director whom I got to know on many of my past visits to Moksa, has left the Boston area for the perpetually sunny climes of Southern California. But her creative spirit still infuses the cocktail menu, with offerings like the Liberator.

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This potent, tiki-like drink combines Sailor Jerry rum, mint, chartreuse, and curacao. Garnished with orange and lime, it has some fruity sweetness, but the bitterness from the chartreuse keeps things nicely balanced.

There’s also a selection of seasonal drinks, like this sangria. Made with brandy, wine, and fruit compote, this take on the classic summertime libation isn’t too sweet, and the brandy adds a little depth.

Yes, I know, it’s indoors. But it was raining on one of my visits, so you’ll just have to imagine how this one would look out on the patio.

Yes, I know, it’s indoors. But it was raining on one of my visits, so you’ll just have to imagine how this one would look out on the patio.

In addition to the drinks, Moksa offers all-you-can-eat sushi every night from 5 to 7 p.m. I can’t say I’ve tried the sushi here, but the folks at USA Today have good things to say about it – they recently named Moksa one of Boston’s 10 best sushi restaurants.

As if craft cocktails and all-you-can-eat sushi isn’t enough, there’s at least one more benefit to sitting on the patio – it’s not too far from the sidewalk, so if you’re having a t-shirt emergency or need to get rid of some five o’clock shadow, you may be able to find a roving vendor.

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Address: 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

Website:http://www.moksarestaurant.com/

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Charlie’s Beer Garden

Calling Charlie’s Kitchen a Cambridge institution is an understatement. This humble, beloved dive has been serving Harvard Square for a half-century or so, and one gets the impression that little about it has changed in that time. From the diner-like bar downstairs to the dark, second-floor lounge, this sturdy classic never diminishes in popularity, seemingly immune to food and drink trends or the shifting dynamics of the busy neighborhood it inhabits.

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Which is not to say that Charlie’s hasn’t seen some welcome additions over the years, and none has been more celebrated than the beer garden that opened in 2008. Tucked away behind the main building, Charlie’s Beer Garden is just as laid-back and divey as its celebrated interior. There’s a small bar with about 8 to 10 seats.

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In the main area are about 12 to 15 tables, most under protective cover to keep the sun at bay and the elements away.

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Charlie’s offers a surprisingly impressive beer list, with a decent draft selection and many more options in bottles and cans. Despite the variety, few beers appeal to me more than a Blue Moon when I’m sitting outside in the summer months.

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And while Charlie’s’ food menu is more expansive and creative than that of the typical dive bar, the double cheeseburger is a legend in its own right.

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In a region that has elevated the art of the burger, with restaurants offering creative nightly specials and publications sponsoring near-weekly “best burger” contests, Charlie’s’ burgers win few if any accolades. But in terms of consistency and longevity, few establishments can hold a candle to “The Double Cheeseburger King.” You can dress it up with all the accoutrements you want, but the original version is refreshingly basic – two hamburger patties with cheese, fries on the side – and wonderfully affordable at $5.25.

In a city steeped in history, this is one tradition that never gets old.

Address: 10 Eliot Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.charlieskitchen.com/

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We’re rapidly approaching the midpoint of August, but there’s still plenty of warm weather ahead (right?). For your reading pleasure, I’m hoping to do one more installment of the 2014 outdoor seating series before the end of the month. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

The Haven

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I hardly ever go to Jamaica Plain. Prior to my Tres Gatos visit a couple of weeks ago, I think I’d been there maybe two or three times in my entire life. And that’s too bad, because I’m always hearing what an interesting place it is, with its own vibe and some very cool bars and restaurants.

The problem is that JP is a pain in the ass to get to. The center of town is just far enough away from the Orange Line to make me think I should drive if I’m going there; yet it’s just far enough out of the way that driving there feels like a nuisance. As a result, the neighborhood feels somewhat isolated. The only people I know who regularly hang out in JP are those who live there. When you consider the accessibility of, say, Davis Square or anywhere in Cambridge, it’s no surprise that those areas draw locals and people from all over Boston in equal shares. When I walk into a JP bar, I get the feeling that everyone inside has been there a thousand times. The patrons and the staff all seem to know or at least recognize each other. Not that it’s unwelcoming or anything; far from it. JP just feels like its own little world, disconnected from the more familiar regions of the city.

But I think that isolation contributes to a distinct culture and a palpable sense of community in Jamaica Plain. JP is known for its diversity, artists, and musicians, and its businesses seem like a natural extension of its culture. When I stopped into a JP bar that allowed dogs, for instance, I clearly got the sense that, well, that’s just the way it works here. The neighborhood exudes a sense of personality and character that you simply cannot manufacture.

Again, I’m no authority on this, so feel free to take my theory with a grain of salt. But there’s no doubt that Jamaica Plain is known for its quirkiness. When I told my friend Jen about Tres Gatos, selling tapas, books, and music all under one roof, she said “Oh, of course, that’s very JP.” So I suppose it figures that in Boston, a city of countless Irish pubs and plenty of English-style bars, JP would be home to the city’s only Scottish pub – the Haven.

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If you didn’t know the Haven was a Scottish bar before you went, you’d figure it out as soon as you walked in. The kilt-wearing host with the Scottish accent would probably tip you off, but beyond that, there are nods to the mother country everywhere – Scottish flags, pictures of Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands, a framed photo of Sean Connery as James Bond on the bar, and an old Rod Stewart album cover on the wall (not sure how loudly I’d be boasting about that one, laddies). All that was missing was a set of bagpipes, though I get the feeling that if I asked, the manager would disappear into the back and emerge blowing “Scotland the Brave.”

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All in all, I get the impression that the people behind the Haven are proud of their heritage, but possess a good-natured irreverence.

The décor evokes images of a Scottish farmhouse. Cozy and rustic, it feels comfortably well worn, with old-looking hardwood floors, walls of wood and exposed brick, and chandeliers fashioned out of elk antlers. There’s a small bar with eight stools, along with two long tables in the bar area, one with benches. The main dining space has about 10 wooden tables, all with old-school chairs reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria. The place is very dark, and candles on the table provide an intimate ambience in an otherwise lively atmosphere.

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But the Haven’s celebration of Scottish culture doesn’t stop at the décor. The menu is highlighted by Scottish cuisine and boasts an incredible array of excellent Scottish craft beer.

I was here at about 7 p.m. on a recent Friday night with my sister Kelly, our cousin Adam, and his girlfriend Danielle (both of whom reside in Jamaica Plain). The bar area was starting to fill up, but we were seated right away. At our table we found a plate of traditional oatcakes with butter waiting for us. I’d say they were like a hybrid of a cracker and an oatmeal cookie and made for a good snack while we pondered our first round.

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Kelly and Danielle opened the proceedings with cocktails. Danielle ordered the Olympian, a sweet and fruity concoction with a heavy kick. Served in a Mason jar, the Olympian is made with Citron vodka, lemon juice, pomegranate liqueur, and Irn Bru – an orange-colored soft drink often referred to as “Scotland’s other national drink” (Scottish whisky, of course, being the first). I assume the name is an ironic nod to Scotland’s lack of an Olympic team, which is apparently a sore subject.

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Kelly went with the Braveheart, a bold mix of honey bourbon, whisky barrel bitters, and fresh lemon juice. As the drink menu said, “We’re claiming the title back from that Aussie psycho.” (Remember when Mel Gibson was awesome? Sigh…) The lemon interacting with honey made for a sweet, sharp cocktail.

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The mixed drinks were all well and good, but when a bar specializes in Scottish beer, that’s what I’m there for.

I’d venture that, as beer goes, Belhaven Scottish Ale is Scotland’s most famous export. That said, it’s not the easiest beer to find on draft around here. And that’s a sin, because it’s a well-balanced, easy-drinking brew, served on nitro, with a rich caramel color.

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I knew I could count on finding Belhaven here, but I didn’t realize that Belhaven came in multiple varieties, including an IPA and a stout. Just one of the great things about drinking in a Scottish bar, I suppose. Adam wisely chose Belhaven Stout for his first beer, and it was phenomenal. Smoky and creamy, with a mild and unexpected sweetness.

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Another good thing about drinking at the Haven is that you find out how many other great Scottish beers there are. (You also find out splendidly high in alcohol content they are, but that’s another matter.) And thus my next choice was the rotating tap – McNeil’s Scotch Ale, a reddish beer with a fruity malt flavor.

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The Haven also offers a broad selection of bottled beers, divided into three sections: “Around the Isle,” “Historic Ale Series,” and “Connoisseurs’ Choice.”

Kelly and I delved into the bottle selection, and it was in the “Around the Isle” category that I found my beer of the night. No offense to Belhaven, but Innis & Gunn’s Rum Cask just floored me with its texture and flavor. The beer is aged in rum casks, giving it an unmistakable rum essence. The result was a sweet, rich, smoky beer, dark copper in color, and all too drinkable.

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Cider fan Kelly went with Thistly Cross farmhouse Scottish cider. She’s been banging the Downeast drum since we had it at Meadhall, but Thistly Cross didn’t disappoint. It reminded us of sparkling cider – sweet, but crisp.

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Danielle stuck with cocktails and got the Maggie May, which also arrived in a Mason jar. It was an interesting mix of pineapple- and lavender-infused gin with grapefruit, honey, and ginger ale. The gin and ginger ale could have made for a harsh combination, but the pineapple and honey flavors smoothed it out, and the lavender gave it a distinct floral aroma.

Adam opted for another Belhaven variety, this time their Twisted Thistle IPA. The beer was crisp and hoppy with an aftertaste I wouldn’t typically attribute to an IPA.

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Even if all the Haven did was specialize in Scottish craft beer, it would be a bar worth visiting. But they also offer a menu packed with Scottish favorites. White pudding with sassitch and mash, anyone?

If Scottish cuisine isn’t your speed, no worries. Kelly went with the Haven burger, topped with bacon-onion marmalade, which was incredible. Adam got the bacon potato salad, which was just as good as it sounds (really, how could you go wrong with that?).

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Danielle and I stayed true to the theme with a few traditional Scottish favorites. She got vegetable bridies, which are kind of like vegetable-stuffed pastries. Bridies are traditionally served at Scottish weddings; the bride (hence the name) eats one first, for good luck. Inside are spring onions, potatoes, and cheese, cooked in a croissant-like exterior. These babies were light, tasty, and surprisingly filling.

I made a meal out of two appetizers, and the first was the undisputed hit of the night – Scotch deviled eggs. The Haven’s version of a Scotch egg is a deviled egg encased in sausage and deep fried. I’m not sure I can adequately do justice to the brilliance of the idea or the excellence of its execution.

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My love of deviled eggs is fairly well chronicled throughout this blog. I’d heard of Scotch eggs before and was always intrigued – and the Haven’s more than exceeded my expectations. The exterior was crispy, the meat was tender, and the deviled egg filling was perfectly spiced. If I’m ever in the unfortunate position of being asked what I’d like for my last meal, I will direct my inquisitor to the Haven and tell him to grab me a dozen (which, ironically, would probably kill me).

So by 8 p.m. or so, the Haven was in full swing. We were all having a grand old time, loving the Scotch eggs, sampling liberally from the drink menu, and laughin’ our arses off.

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DSC09439

And then came the haggis.

Haggis is the most traditional of Scottish meals, so it only makes sense that the Haven would serve it. Yet it probably competes with tripe for the title of World’s Most Reviled Meat Dish. The Haven’s menu describes it as “Haggis and Neeps – house-made lamb haggis, truffle honey mashed rutabaga, Drambuie butter, haggis neeps, and tatties.” Hmmm…lots of talk about “haggis” but no real explanation as to what it is. But! There’s a glossary on the menu that elaborates: “Haggis – the national dish of Scotland – minced lamb offal with oats, onion, and spices.”

How benign it sounds. Appetizing, even. Note how subtly they slip “offal” in there, presumably hoping you’ll either miss it or don’t know what it means. Anyway, haggis is some combination of a lamb’s heart, liver, and lungs, seasoned with the aforementioned spices, encased in the animal’s stomach lining, and simmered for a few hours.

Only a true Scot would read that and say “Mmmmmm!”

I’m only a quarter Scottish, but I’m fully devoted to entertaining you with my exploits, so I went in knowing I had a date with the haggis. (My determination did not exactly inspire my fellow barhoppers; as Danielle said to me prior to our visit, “I just looked it up and almost threw up reading the description.”) Plus, I’d tried tripe just a week or so earlier, and that wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Bring on the haggis!!

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Eating the haggis gave me a lot to think about. Like, how I’d laughed off Danielle’s disgust just hours earlier; how deeply envious I was as I looked across the table at Kelly’s burger; and whether Adam was going to finish his beer.

The haggis was, as I told our waitress…interesting. Everyone tried it, Danielle included, but Adam described it most succinctly – if you converted “new car smell” into a flavor, this is it. (New car smell in a car is pleasant; I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.)

I don’t mean to be hard on the Haven – given how amazing the rest of their food is, I can only assume that, as haggis goes, this particular recipe is superior. The meat wasn’t even that bad, but whatever “flavor” the casing contributed…no thanks. I’ll call haggis an acquired taste. One I probably won’t be acquiring.

They passed around a dessert menu after that, the centerpiece of which was a deep-fried Mars bar served with maple whipped cream. As sweet an addition as it would have been to this post, we were all waaaay past full, and if I’d eaten any more food, I’d have split my pants and needed to borrow a kilt. Although if you wear a kilt on “kilt night,” you apparently get a free Mars bar dessert.

As if anyone would need more incentive to wear a kilt.

Last Call

I don’t know what I find more surprising – the fact that there’s a Scottish bar in Boston, or the fact that there’s only one. I’d venture to guess that, after Dunkin Donuts, there is no institution more prevalent in the Boston area than the Irish pub. Yet only one Scottish bar. Why is that? Scotland’s drinking culture is similar to that of its neighbors, and its beers are no less impressive. Then again, even if there were more Scottish bars around, I doubt any would exceed the charm of the Haven.

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And I don’t know whether there’s such a thing about Scottish hospitality, but the service I’ve had here has been fantastic. From the waitress who took good care of us to the bartender, Will, who was only too happy to talk about the bar, the beers, and anything else, I got the sense that these are friendly people who have an equal fondness for their bar and Scottish culture.

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The prices aren’t too bad. Most of the beers were $6 of $7, which is pretty standard, especially considering that nearly all of them are imports. The cocktails were very reasonable at $8 a pop. Kelly’s burger was a wee bit high at $14, but it was a pretty top-notch burger. The rest of us stuck to appetizers and side dishes, which ranged from about $5 to $9.

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The Haven happily celebrates all things Scottish. In addition to the food and drink, they regularly devote a night to showing James Bond movies (only Sean Connery, I presume), sponsor kilt nights, have live music, and show soccer football games on TV. It's a casual, unique, animated bar that seems right at home in Jamaica Plain.Address: 2 Perkins Street, Jamaica Plain

Website:http://thehavenjp.com/

The Tip Tap Room

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This always happens to me, so I’m sure it happens to you, too: you’ve got a friend visiting from out of town, and you want show him or her a good time in Boston. You’ve got Boston BarHopper fired up on your computer and an evening of good and plentiful beer on your mind. Then your friend throws you a curveball – you ask what they want to do for dinner, and of course, they say, “I could really go for some yak or some emu.” They see your face darken and quickly add “but kangaroo or boar would be fine, too.” Suddenly you’re in a real pickle. You know plenty of places that serve draft microbrews, craft cocktails, and good eats. Yet you struggle to remember the last time you went out for emu or kangaroo. And then it hits you – “Oh, right, that was never, because who the hell serves emu or kangaroo?”

What now?

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outdoors 325

Well worry no more! The next time you or your hypothetical out-of-town friend are craving a good beer and, say, antelope, executive chef Brian Poe and his new Tip Tap Room have got you covered. This Beacon Hill establishment specializes in “tips” of every variety – steak tips, turkey tips, chicken tips, and lamb tips for carnivores, swordfish tips for fish lovers, and even tofu tips for the veggie crowd. But the kicker is the wild game tips, a daily special that rotates among unconventional fare such as elk, antelope, rabbit, goat, buffalo, and more.

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But tips are only half the story at the Tip Tap Room – there are 36 taps covering an impressively broad swath of beers.

Wild game. Craft beer. Dear reader, you are in for an outstanding evening.

The Tip Tap Room opened a little more than a month ago, replacing the old Shangri-La Chinese restaurant – and if you ever had the misfortune of eating or drinking there, you’ll be relieved to know that Tip Tap bears no resemblance whatsoever to the previous tenant. (Just walking by Shangri-La gave me a dirty feeling.) Completely renovated and refurbished, Tip Tap is modern, minimalist, and positively gleaming.

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The colors grab you as soon as you walk in. Bright, shiny hardwood floors are echoed in blonde wood table tops and shingles on the walls, complemented by black chairs, a black bar, a black ceiling, and black-clad wait staff. Muted orange paint on the walls, peppered with intriguing artwork, and marbled blue wood beneath the bar give the room a subdued but striking look.

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Several huge chalkboards behind the bar colorfully display the daily specials and contribute to a pretty casual feel. There are 15 or so seats at the L-shaped bar, six to eight tables opposite that, and a separate dining area with about 20 tables.  Best of all, large, retractable windows, like garage doors, open onto the street when the weather’s nice.

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I first stopped by Tip Tap on the Friday of its opening week, and it was so packed you couldn’t move. Undaunted, I stood by the bar contemplating the splendid draft selection. I eventually settled on San Francisco’s other treat, Anchor Steam. It’s one of my favorites, and not too many bars have it on draft around here.

The taps are arranged on a long wall behind the bar and offer a good mix of familiar favorites like Blue Moon, Sam Adams, and Guinness, to choicer selections such as Long Trail and Boddington’s, along with some higher-end stuff for the beer aficionado. Should you prefer something more basic, they have PBR, Amstel Light, and Heineken.

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If, remarkably, you can’t find a suitable draft option, you can peruse a lengthy menu of bottled and canned beer that ranges from Coors Light and Miller to Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout and Chimay.

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I could come here just for the beer (and since it’s footsteps from my office, that’ll be a regular temptation), but I’d been drooling over the food menu since I first laid eyes on it. So a few weeks after the initial buzz died down, my sister Kelly and I came in on a Saturday night at 8, for dinner. It was busy but much calmer than on my first couple of visits; about 40 people, all told, and we were seated immediately. Forty minutes later the bar area was pretty full, with plenty of standees.

After ordering a couple of beers – Dale’s Pale Ale for me, Seadog Blue Paw for Kelly – we began considering our dining options.

Tip Tap’s entrées understandably get all the attention, but the appetizer menu offers its share of intriguing pre-dinner bites. Kelly and I started with cheese and cracklin’s – fried goat cheese balls, duck fat fried prosciutto “cracklin’s,” and grilled asparagus tips (more tips!), accompanied by a chilled carrot ginger dipping sauce. What a combination of flavors! Needless to say, they disappeared quickly.

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They were replaced by what I’d characterize as highly upscale potato skins. Simply called “potato” on the menu, these babies are served with seven (7!!) types of bacon, including boar, and topped with fried oysters, pickled peppers, and a beer cheese sauce.

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Pardon me a moment. I’m gettin’ all misty eyed!

And then...the main event. Kelly debated between steak tips and swordfish tips, but my mind was made up as soon as I walked in and saw that night’s special on the chalkboard – chimichurri-marinated ostrich tips with smoked tomato cilantro potatoes and Bresaola chive salsa.

With only a once-ordered ostrich burger from Fuddrucker’s to use as a point of reference, I find myself at a disadvantage in attempting to describe my entrée. I do wish I had enough past experience with wild game to say “Hmmm, the ostrich is more tender than bear, but not as succulent as elk,” but I’m just not there yet. The ostrich tips looked like steak tips, but the flavor was clearly different. It was a lean red meat, smokey and rich, and apparently very low in cholesterol. Overall? Outstanding.

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Kelly, the same person who only a few weeks ago, nonchalantly ordered a drink containing tequila and grappa, is not so daring in her food choices. She went with the steak tips, which garnered high praise. The Tip Tap Room’s more conventional offerings are prepared with the same skill and care as the wilder options, so you don’t need exotic tastes to enjoy a great meal here.

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I, on the other hand, will probably try every weird meat that Tip Tap grills up. That said, sometimes there’s a non-wild-game special, like scallops or sea bass. And the specials appear on pretty short notice, so if you have your heart set on elk tips, don’t be disappointed if they only have buffalo.

But cut Tip Tap a little slack. After all, Brian Poe has to make frequent trips to the woods of northern New England, not to mention his travels to south Central Asia, Africa, and the Australian Outback, to hunt these animals down, which he does using only a crossbow or, if he’s craving a challenge, his bare hands. (I have not confirmed this.) That sounds like a lot of work, and between Tip Tap Room, Poe’s Kitchen at Rattlesnake, and another new restaurant in the works, the man can’t be everywhere at once.

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Nevertheless, you can always check the website or call ahead to see what that day’s special is.

And if you find yourself with the “same old” wild game offering on subsequent visits, don’t despair – even if it’s the same meat, it may be prepared quite differently. Ostrich, for instance, was back on the menu about a week after I ate there, but this time it was marinated in basil and Malbec, with coriander grilled peaches, roasted red jalapeno, and blue cheese vinaigrette on Dale’s Ale polenta.

I could talk ad nauseum about the food, but this is a bar blog, after all. And since no post would be complete without a cocktail, I had to make one last trip to Tip Tap. I went in with a few simple, blog-related objectives: order my obligatory mixed drink; maybe try one more interesting beer on draft, and an appetizer if I’m feeling peckish; get a few last pictures to round out the post. In and out in 30 minutes.

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Thirty-six taps aside, Tip Tap sports a very respectable list of bourbon, scotch, and whiskey, and it’s the first place I’ve been to since Five Horses that has moonshine on the drink menu.  Bottles of liquor arranged in a gorgeous ceiling-high display behind the bar are enough to put anyone in a cocktail mood.

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The bartender told me they’re still working on the drink list, which should be ready in a week or so, but that she’d be happy to make me whatever I liked. I opted for my old standby, a Manhattan. It might not be the most original choice, but on a day that was dark and humid, punctuated by torrential rain, it seemed like the right drink. The bartender placed in front of me a perfectly and fully frosted glass; I watched the frost slowly dissipate with anticipation as she mixed up my drink.

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While sipping my cool, well-made cocktail, I had a brief chat with the man himself, Brian Poe, who recognized me from my last visit and asked how the blogging was going. When I mentioned the many glowing reviews I’d seen of his restaurant, he called it “humbling.” Seems like a nice guy, and down to earth. Just like his restaurant.

I then moved on to a Kona Fire Rock; two sips in, I felt like I’d found a new favorite. I’ve had this Hawaiian beer it in bottles, but never on draft. Full-bodied flavor, not bitter.

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Then it happened. As I nursed my beer and soaked up the ambience, I saw on the chalkboard that that night’s game burger special was a yak burger. With bacon. And just like that, my plan to make this a brief visit went right out the retractable window.

A yak burger. A yak burger. It’s topped with a beer cheese sauce, because let’s face it – you don’t make something as unusual as a yak burger and then just throw a piece of Swiss on it. And if you think Tip Tap uses any old bacon, think again. One of the bartenders, Steve, told me that their “Beacon Hill Bacon” is cured right there on the premises and is made with spices used in Boston baked beans (he actually described the process in great detail, but at some point my mind went to a happy place and I missed out on some of the specifics).

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The burger itself was absolutely delicious, and tasted like no other I’ve ever had. The yak meat had an unexpected sweetness, and the sauce and bacon were excellent complements.

Considering all the work that goes into one of these wild game entrées, all the new and interesting flavors, all the thought behind how to best prepare it and complement it with toppings and sides…it would make sense to match the tip with the appropriate tap. Of course, if you’re like me, you might not know exactly what beer pairs well with a yak burger, or, say, marinated rabbit. But Steve helpfully discussed several options with me, and gave me a couple of samples. One of his suggestions was a beer I’d actually been curious about for some time – Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.It’s aged for 6 weeks in a bourbon barrel, resulting in a smooth, strong beer with hints of oak and vanilla. Phenomenal and unique.

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And yes, it worked perfectly with my burger.

Last Call

You can get burgers and beer at almost any bar. You can get a fantastic steak and an expensive bottle of Cabernet at a fancy steak house like Abe and Louie’s. The Tip Tap Room comfortably and creatively fills the space between. Casual, but not like a pub; upscale, but not fancy.

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One of the things that really impresses me most about this place is that it could get by solely on the basis of novelty. Put some kitschy animal heads on the walls, grill up a few unusual meats, snag some curious customers. Instead, the chefs prepare this stuff as if they’ve been eating elk and antelope all their lives. I’ve had venison before; it was served with mint jelly. Very exciting. Yet when venison was on the menu at Tip Tap this past week, it was peppercorn-rubbed and served with parsnip puree, jalapeno jelly, and truffled pommes frites. I’d say that takes some serious culinary know-how.

My point is, plenty of people will order something like goat or rabbit simply because it’s different, and it’s to Tip Tap’s credit that their wild game tips aren’t just different – they’re extraordinary. I mean, even their bacon takes weeks to prepare.

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But again…the food, however unique, is only one reason to come here. It’s an attractive bar with an impressive beer list, and you could just as easily come here for nothing more than a few drinks with your coworkers. It holds great appeal for beer lovers, and the staff really know their products. Both Steve, who offered such great advice on food and beer pairing, and Kristen, another bartender who cheerfully answered my many questions, seemed genuinely excited to talk about the beer list and the food menu. I didn’t get the name of the woman who skillfully prepared my Manhattan, but it was top-notch. And considering the beer options and the uniqueness of the food menu, I can’t wait to see what they come up with for a cocktail list.

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The prices are pretty fair. Most of the craft beer is about $5.60, and you can get a PBR for $3.75. Some specialty beers will run you more, like my Kentucky Bourbon Barrel ($7.50) or La Chouffe for $12.85, but that’s to be expected. My Maker’s Mark Manhattan was $11.50 (ouch).

If you’re going with the wild game special, expect to pay about $20 (and if you don’t like that price, just go to some other place that serves ostrich or antelope tips), while more ordinary tips average about $13 or $14. My yak burger was $11.95, which is only slightly higher than the average price of a “normal” burger in the area.

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Above all – this place is fun. I get the feeling that Brian Poe and the whole staff really enjoy working here, and that makes for a convivial atmosphere. And it’s not often in Boston that you find a menu that offers such unusual options and gives you the opportunity to try something new, bold, and daring.

Address: 138 Cambridge Street, Boston

Website:http://thetiptaproom.com/

Russell House Tavern

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I knew Russell House Tavern was my kind of place was when I had to use the restroom.

Bear with me.

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I went to Russell House Tavern for the first time a couple of years ago, with Melissa, my friend Brian, and Brian's wife, Malika. We were wandering around Harvard Square one evening and happened upon Russell House, which I think was fairly new at the time. The girls went inside to look at the menu (because as long as they had food and beer, Brian and I would have been cool with it) and deemed the dinner options acceptable; more importantly, there was no wait.

While the food was great and the beer selection was even better, the atmosphere didn’t make much of an impression on me. It kind of reminded me of a kitchen. The décor was very bright, with white walls and a black-and-white tiled floor, and the room was a little loud. There were four long, rectangular tables with stools, surrounded by smaller tables with booths and chairs, and a bar off to one side. I mean, it wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; just…nothing special.

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As the four of us finished up, I asked about the location of the restroom and was directed downstairs. Assuming I was just headed to a basement level with restrooms and storage, I was stunned as I made my way down a large, oak staircase into a completely different bar, far removed from the hustle and bustle of upstairs.

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I found myself in a spacious, cool room with exposed brick walls, dark wood, and stone flooring. A large, marble-topped bar with about 25 seats was the focal point, along with a dining area that was much more intimate than the upstairs. Lamps on the bar and lighting fixtures on the walls contributed to a relaxed, living room feel.

The contrast in atmosphere could not be more striking. If upstairs was like a noisy kitchen, downstairs was like a quiet den. If upstairs was the crowded kids’ table at Thanksgiving, downstairs was where the grown-ups sit, with more comfortable chairs and a few bottles of wine.

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A couple of years after that first trip, the downstairs bar at Russell House Tavern has become one of my favorite places to eat and drink in Harvard Square. Brian and I usually have a excellent meal here, matched with a few craft beers, then head across the street to Whitney's for darts, a couple of PBRs, and some local color. (Not a bad night, if I do say so myself.)

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Regardless of whether you’re sitting upstairs or downstairs, you can count on creative modern American cuisine and a well-thought-out beer selection. But whenever I’m downstairs, I find myself mostly in the mood for Russell House’s fantastic cocktails. Maybe it’s the lounge-type feel, or the snazzy vests and ties that the bartenders wear. Or maybe it’s just that their drinks are so damn good. While there are plenty of bars to choose from in Harvard Square, Russell House Tavern is the only one I know of in the area that makes the kind of inventive craft cocktails that have been cropping up in Boston these past couple years.

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Their cocktail list is presented in two sections – Quintessential Classics and Current Conceptions. On Brian’s and my most recent visit, we sampled from both sections.

Of the classics, we tried the Vieux Carre and the Southside. The Vieux Carre seems like a cool variation on a Manhattan. Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters are joined by cognac and Peychaud’s bitters, providing a nice twist on a classic. A sophisticated, slow-sipping cocktail.

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The Southside, in contrast, is the kind of drink you might inadvertently quaff down in two gulps. I didn’t even taste the gin, so I felt like I was drinking lemonade, with the mint simple syrup giving it a subtle earthy freshness. It would be a refreshing summertime cocktail – and a dangerous one.

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The Current Conceptions section hosts a number of libations fit for summer. The Always Sunny strikes me as an ideal drink for this insanely hot weather we’ve been having as of late. Made with Privateer Silver Reserve rum, lime, strawberry simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and house-made ginger beer, it was an easy-drinking cocktail with a tropical flair.

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DSC05506edit

And the Crimson Crow was like a raspberry lemonade, with vodka, lemon juice, and raspberry simple syrup.

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DSC07194edit

As Brian and I perused the dinner menu, we shifted our attention to Russell House Tavern’s top-notch selection of microbrews. There are about eight or nine beers on draft, along with a rotating cask option. Whenever a bar has cask-conditioned beer, I feel compelled to try it...partly because I imagine my friends at Brew Dudes giving me a mildly reproachful look that says I’m really passing on a unique beer-drinking experience if I don’t try the cask offering.

Last time I partook of Russell House’s cask, they were serving High and Mighty Beer of the Gods.

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It was crisp and floral, an enjoyable beer whether you’re drinking it out of a bottle or a cask. The waiter told me they had just tapped the cask that afternoon, along with representatives from the brewery, who were suitably impressed with the cask-conditioned version of their fine beer.

Russell House Tavern also serves one of my all-time favorite beers on draft – Gritty’s Black Fly Stout. Gritty’s is brewed in Portland, Maine, and finding this smoky, creamy dark beer in Boston can be a challenge.

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IMAG0871edit

You could easily come here just for the drinks, but the menu is no less satisfying. Appetizers range from salads to crab cakes to oddities such as beef tongue meatballs, and there are “small plates,” with even more daring choices like hickory smoked lamb’s belly toast, crispy pig’s head cake, and grilled prime rib knuckles.

I'd love to tell you more about Russell House Tavern’s dinner menu, but the only thing I've ever ordered is the grass-fed burger with cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions. Served on an English muffin, this is without question one of my favorite burgers in the Boston area. I still remember my very first bite. It was one of the juiciest, best-prepared burgers I'd ever had. The English muffin gets a little unwieldy once you get about halfway through, leaving you with quite a mess on your hands. No matter! I would eat this thing with my hands tied behind my back if I had to.

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DSC05531edit

Oh, and the last time I ordered it, the waiter asked if I wanted fries or salad on the side…or a little of each. Now is that perfect or what? I get offered a salad and think “I should be good, go with the healthy option,” but I know nothing goes better with a burger than fries. A little of each? Russell House has got you covered.

I unapologetically order the burger every time I’m here. And it's almost too bad, because there are some great options, like the local Berkshire pork trio (loin, belly, smoked shoulder), a variety of seafood dishes, and even a raw bar menu. There’s also a pizza selection, which is Brian’s domain.

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DSC05527edit

On our last visit, he got the Angry Queen, with marinated roasted tomatoes and basil. His assessment: “It got better the more I ate of it. It seemed a little bitter at first. But maybe I’m just drunk.”

What I wouldn’t give to express myself so succinctly and poetically.

Last Call

In an area with so many bars and restaurants, Russell House Tavern manages to stand out. Upscale but casual, the downstairs area would be a great place for a date. And I don’t mean to judge the upstairs too harshly. Now that the warm weather’s here, the big windows that look out onto the square are open, giving it a nicer vibe. There’s also a small section of outdoor seating.

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I usually find the downstairs bar to be a little crowded in the after-work hours; most of the 25 bar seats have been occupied the past couple times I’ve been there, but getting a table has never been much of a problem. Russell House doesn’t seem to draw a lot of students, which distinguishes it a bit from other establishments in the area. That might be because the prices are a tad on the high side. My burger and Brian’s pizza were both $12, and the entrees average around $20. But I’d say such creative cuisine warrants a little extra. And that burger’s worth every penny. The cocktails range from $8 to $13, which is pretty standard for well-made craft drinks, and the draft beers are $5 and $6.

Oh…and the restrooms are pretty nice, too.

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Address: 14 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.russellhousecambridge.com/

Scholars

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Whenever the topic of Scholars American Bistro and Cocktail Lounge comes up in conversation, I try to casually mention that I was there on the night it opened. You see, on those exceptionally rare occasions when I have an opportunity to portray myself as a hip guy with his finger on the pulse of Boston nightlife, I seize it. The truth, though, is that my attendance at Scholars’ grand opening was dumb luck. My sister forwarded me an e-mail she’d received about this new bar, thinking I’d like it. Intrigued, I led some office mates there on a Friday after work, and as fate would have it, Scholars had officially opened its doors just a few hours earlier. My coworkers applauded my good taste and seemed impressed with my social-scene savvy – a notion I did little to dispel.

But now you know the truth.

Scholars

Scholars

The first thing you might notice about Scholars is how freakin’ big it is for a downtown Boston bar. Having taken over a building that was once a Talbots store, the space occupies two floors and could easily accommodate 200,000 drinkers plus staff (or maybe a little less). The interior feels fresh, new, and refined, with dark carpeting and hardwood flooring, and stonework and mirrors on the walls. The huge staircase leading upstairs adds to its overall sense of grandeur.

beerlist

beerlist

On the first floor is a long, beautiful bar, and plenty of tables and booths if you’re dining. A little further in is something akin to a lounge. A cozy area with couches and other cushy chairs, it gives off the air of a den built for the express purpose of sipping scotch and smoking cigars. You won’t be doing the latter here, but it’s perfect for relaxing and having a good conversation.

lounge

lounge

Still feeling a little crowded? Head upstairs! It’s a whole ‘nother world up there. You’ll find a second bar, smaller than the downstairs one. This one’s almost like a hotel bar, with low lighting and a more intimate atmosphere. The bar itself is illuminated, which gives it the appearance of a warm, inviting beacon in this otherwise dark environment.

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upstairsbar

There’s also a balcony overlooking the main bar area. This space is sometimes reserved for parties, but if no one’s using it, it’s a great place to sit and watch the happenings on the floor below.

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fromabove1

And finally (yes, there’s more), there’s a billiards area with four pool tables and a row of big, leather shoeshine chairs. Whatever inspired someone to put shoeshine chairs in a bar, I’ll never know; though they’re pretty comfortable.

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pool1

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shoeshinechairs2

But Scholars is much more than just a pretty space. It has an extensive draft beer selection, chock full of microbrews and traditional favorites. In addition to a few seasonal offerings, such as Goose Island Mild Winter, there are a couple of top-notch Belgians and some local favorites, like Fisherman’s Ale and the ultra-popular Pretty Things Baby Tree.

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taps3

The bottled beer selection is even more impressive, with a few especially unusual choices like Lexington Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and Wells Banana Bread Beer (yes…tastes just like it).

If you’re not in a beer mood, feast your eyes on Scholars’ cocktail list, which can stand up to that of any bar in the city. The drink menu is divided into four sections, the titles of which play off the “scholarship” theme: Home Room, History Class, Study Group, and Field Trips. The drinks correspond loosely to the headings; under “History Class” are aptly named offerings such as the 1822 and the Boston Tea Party (with a house blend peach tea infusion). The selections under “Study Group,” appropriately, are all available in pitchers.

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downstairsbar

The food menu is unlike any bar I’ve been in (then again, this isn’t merely a bar…it’s a bistro). You won’t be scarfing down nachos and wings here. The most conventional offering on the appetizer menu is Fried Pickles. After that, it ranges from unusual – White Fish Fritters, Lump Crab and Spinach Dip, Tuna Tartare – to borderline exotic: Rabbit Cakes en Salmoreji, Beef Tongue Pate. If you’re not feeling that daring, the Four Cheese Empanadas might be a safer bet.

The culinary adventures continue with the entrée menu, which manages to put a modern twist on even some of the most traditional dishes. I’m dying to try the Stuffed Meatloaf. The Fish ‘N’ Chips comes with jalapeno haddock, lime parmesan frites, and smoked paprika tartar sauce. Then there’s the Pork Belly Gnocchi; as I’m writing this, I find myself wondering why I haven’t ordered it yet.

Then again, I have yet to make it past the Apple-Cashew Chutney Burger. Topped with smoked gouda and applewood-smoked bacon, accompanied by parmesan steak fries, this gourmet burger always manages to sway me from some of those funkier options.

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burger2

While Scholars has become a regular after-work place for me, I was recently here on a Saturday night with my friend and fellow barhopper, Brian. At 7 p.m., the bar was gradually filling up, but we easily got a couple of seats.

My evening began with a couple of cocktails. First up – the Van Halen-inspired Rye Can’t This Be Love, a whiskey-based concoction with Cointreau and nicely balanced fruit overtones.

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rye

Pretty good, but the real prize was the Independence Day – cognac, Cointreau, champagne, a raw sugar cube, and Peychaud’s bitters. It was smooth and highly drinkable, with the champagne seeming to elevate the flavors of the other ingredients.

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independenceday

The evening sufficiently under way, it was time to explore the beer list. I ordered a Cisco Bailey’s Blonde, and I was pleasantly surprised when the bartender offered me a sample, cautioning me that it was a strong ale and unlike most blondes.

You know, something like that goes a long way, especially in a place like this. Maybe at, say, Boston Beerworks, you’d figure the staff would be obligated to describe and opine on their beers, because that’s their main draw. Scholars has a lot more than its beer list going for it, but this showed me that the bartender knew her stuff and cared about my order. It’s an upscale bar, but that doesn’t mean there’s a snooty attitude. Extra credit for you, Scholars!

Anyway, she was totally right about the beer. The sample didn’t do it for me so I opted for the Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale, an excellent Portland beer that Brian was already wisely drinking.

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gearys

I got my customary burger. (I’ll try something else next time – I promise.) Brian got the Margharita pizza and was suitably impressed. He said it would be better without the oregano, but he had no complaints.

After dinner, we headed upstairs for a friendly game of pool. The tables aren’t regulation size, but unless you’re a serious billiards enthusiast, who cares? They’ve got cool-looking black felt, a subtle complement to the low-lit surroundings. Pool costs $15 an hour during peak hours, $12 on non-peak hours. It’s free after 10 p.m. on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (and bully for you if you’re out shooting pool after 10 p.m. on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday; some of us have to work in the morning).

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balls--edit

Our gentlemanly game quickly devolved into a one-sided thrashing. I completely annihilated Brian. I think he sunk three balls all night; I ran the table twice. At one point, I’m pretty sure I saw him fighting back tears. In a low, quivering voice, my humiliated friend asked whether we could abandon our match and retire to the second-floor bar – a request to which I gracefully assented. (None of that’s true, but history is written by the bloggers.)

I returned to Scholars on a Wednesday after work, about a week and a half later, figuring I should sample another cocktail or two to round out this post. I sought out the bartender who’d been so helpful on Saturday. Her name is Amber, and she’s the full-time bartender here. She remembered me from my last trip, either because I was such a pleasant customer or because I was the only weirdo taking pictures of his food and drinks.

We got to chatting (and by chatting, I mean me pestering her with questions, which she patiently and cheerfully answered while doing things she actually gets paid for, like making drinks and training a new bartender). It turns out that Amber’s beer knowledge is nothing compared to her cocktail wizadry.

I asked if she had any recommendations, and she directed me to a drink called the Living Waters. It’s a mix of Hennessy, Fernet Branca (Amber's favorite liqueur), St. Germain, two types of bitters, and a marinated cherry. Amber confessed that the bar was out of Hennessy, but pledged to make me an equally satisfying version. She also traded the cherry for a spear of three cranberries that had been marinated in Grand Marnier and sugar. The result was heavenly. A sweet and strong cocktail that looked as good as it tasted.

livingwaters

livingwaters

Scholars even manages to put a unique twist on something as basic as a gin and tonic. The Scholars Gin & Tonic features a house-made syrup, which gives the drink a taste and color you wouldn’t expect. A dusting of nutmeg completes the drink. When a simple cocktail like this can surprise me, I consider it a success.

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gin

But what really blew me away was the fact that while she was making the drinks, Amber used a stirring straw to extract a small amount of the cocktail, sample it, and continue her work (don’t worry, she threw the straw away). This happened in the span of about one second; if you blinked, you’d miss it. But it made me feel like I was being served by a bartender who genuinely cared about her craft and wouldn’t give me a cocktail that she wouldn’t drink herself. Seriously, how often do you see that?

Given its convenient downtown location by the Old State House, Scholars draws a sizable after-work crowd. I’ve never had to wait for a table when I’m eating, but by 5:30 or so on my most recent visit, there were only a couple of open seats at the bar.

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downstairs

The scene changes as night falls, particularly on the weekends, with the well-dressed professionals giving way to a stylish younger crowd. There’s a $5 cover starting around 9:30 or 10 on Fridays and Saturdays, whenever the DJ shows up; by 11, house music booms for those looking to get their groove on. So depending on what you’re looking for, it’s a good place to end your day…or to continue your night.

Report Card

At Scholars, the efforts at sophistication are evident in everything from the ambiance to the menu. Eschewing neon beer signs for chandeliers, Budweiser for microbrews, and potato skins for pot stickers, this place certainly isn’t aiming for the pub crowd. Still, it manages to have a pretty broad appeal.

That’s because the owners of Scholars use every inch of its palatial size to great advantage. You can mill about with the masses at the bar or cool your heels in the lounge area. If the weekend night house music isn’t your thing, you can play pool upstairs and enjoy a completely different vibe. If you’re going with a group, there are multiple areas you can reserve and enjoy some relative privacy.

Scholars isn't an ordinary bar, so don't make your visit there ordinary. There are intriguing beers to try, fantastic cocktails to enjoy, and a bold menu to choose from. Like me, you'll probably need more than one trip to appreciate everything this bar has to offer.

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upstairsbar4--edit

Address: 25 School Street, Boston

Website:http://www.scholarsbostonbistro.com/