by Table Critic Inc
It may dwell in the imposing shadow of the state house, but
21st Amendment in Beacon Hill is the epitome of an unpretentious neighborhood watering hole. You’d almost miss the carved wooden sign marking the bricked façade if you weren’t on the lookout, but even with upscale eateries (with prices to match) like No. 9 Park and Mooo right around the corner, some simple food and a cold pint are hot commodities. The bar area was full of a lively post-work crowd when we wandered in around 7:00 on a Thursday, and with the low ceilings lined with dark wooden beams, flagstone floors, polished wooden bar, and diamond-paned windows, it felt like a cross between a rowdy sports bar and a cozy country tavern. The walls were modestly decorated with vintage posters, pub signs, and framed black and white prints, and around the corner and up a few steps was the dining room, a brick fireplace dominating one wall.
Despite appearances, 21st Amendment is more than just a bar. Since starting here a few years ago, chef Nick Bisesti has striven to make the menu memorable in its own right- not just a handful of freezer-to-fryer snacks appeasing hungry drinkers. While not straying too far from pub grub classics that his patrons are likely familiar with, the CIA grad tries to make as many components of the dishes as possible in house. In addition to updating the menu and offering daily specials, Bisesti hosts a monthly beer dinner, during which he creates food to pair with beers from a given brewery, presenting each of the four courses personally, of course. So how does the collision of reasonably priced bar bites and a handmade culinary approach look on a plate? We were about to see…and taste.
At first glance, the menu choices may appear pedestrian, but a deeper reading of the descriptions, or, better yet, a verbal one from the chef himself, makes clear that these dishes are more complex than they seem. Spicy chicken quesadillas ($9) are made with chicken thighs braised tender and shredded; loaded nachos ($9) smother a heap of tricolored corn chips with toppings including a fresh tomato salsa; the handful of salads ($10 to $14) boast fresh ingredients and no lack of mix-ins; and a classic black bean chili ($6) is, naturally, made in house.
The two newest additions to the menu just happened to be the two that caught my eye, and after the chef recommended these very same dishes, there was no turning back. The truffle chive tater tots ($7) were miles away from the school cafeteria version most of us remember. The mashed potato interior made them more like croquettes than tots, but with heady truffle, the sweet oniony bite of chive in the background, and a crisp, browned exterior, the name seemed inconsequential. Despite the disbelieving reactions of most of my coworkers and friends, I am usually not a fan of fried foods, but these little morsels had no traces of ‘fried’ flavor or leaden texture- the usual deterrents. The chipotle-ranch aioli that was served alongside was thick and rich, with a restrained hit of smoked chile, and the unmistakable tang of homemade mayonnaise.
Fish tacos have long been a favorite of mine, and despite the many sub-par iterations I’ve had, I persevere in sampling them whenever possible. Bisesti’s version ($9) paired lightly fried haddock with poblano puree in a soft corn tortilla. A house-made salsa of tomatoes, avocado, and red onion, and a cabbage slaw with generous doses of cilantro and jalapeno were there for spooning on top, and with a final squeeze of lime, it was a complex little package; fresh, bright, and perfect for summer.
When it comes to the main course, sandwiches, burgers, and pizzas are the main attractions. Pies topped with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, kicked up with roasted tomatoes and pepperoni, or graced with portabella mushrooms and goat cheese ($9, $10, and $11, respectively) are all grilled on thin, crispy crusts. All of the burgers and sandwiches, including the classic half-pounder for $8, the chicken BLT ($9.50), the smoked turkey with apples, onions, and honey mustard ($9.50), and the classic tuna melt ($9.50), made unique by the addition of smoky bacon, come with a choice of fries, sweet potato fries, or, if you’re feeling virtuous, green beans.
I was feeling decidedly un-virtuous, and went for a sampling of sliders. The 4 mini slider cheeseburgers ($9.50) are actually a starter, but the chef graciously agreed to let us try one, and round it out with a slider-sized tasting of another new menu item: the black angus portobello burger topped with Wisconsin farmstead blue cheese ($11). The former was a Lilliputian diner classic, topped with American cheese, sweet pickles, Russian dressing, and caramelized onions, it was delicious in the simple, indulgent way of the best ballpark fare. The latter was perhaps a more adult take on a burger, but with earthy mushrooms, the intense hit of blue cheese, and a roasted tomato aioli, was no less satisfying. Both were served on soft but sturdy buns that readily sopped up the savory juices. The only disappointment on the plate was the artfully-stacked side of onion rings. Eschewing the aforementioned sweet potato fries and the equally tempting parmesan-truffle fries (can you ever have too much truffle in one sitting?), I had opted for the rings, but a slightly raw onion and heavy breading in dire need of some crunch left me regretting that choice.
On Thursdays, the daily special is house-made Bolognese ($10), but on this particular day, the chef had another creation to offer us. His play on ziti with chicken and broccoli was a hearty concoction of orecchiette, Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, cannellini beans, and sundried tomatoes. Finished with a handful of fresh herbs and a drizzle of chili oil, it was satiating enough to be a stand-alone meal without being rich or heavy. I appreciate a dish in which every element has a reason for being there, and here, the sweetness of the sundried tomatoes, the bitterness of the rabe, and the spicy sausage with warm fennel seed rounding it out all made sense. The only interlopers were the white beans, whose mellow flavor and texture were lost amid the profusion of other ingredients. Orecchiette happens to be one of my favorite pasta shapes (partly because it means ‘little ears’ in Italian), and when cooked to al dente perfection as it was at 21st Amendment, it makes the ideal base for any number of sauces and toppings. Even the restaurant’s Bolognese features the little shell-shaped noodles- another of Bisesti’s unique touches.
The ambiance of 21st Amendment may scream ‘beer’ to most visitors- especially with the dawn of summer in Boston- but a cold brew is by no means the only option. Warm weather means many things to many people, but when it comes to libations, it means one thing to me: gin. Nothing suits a steamy day better than the clean, bright, herbal spirit, and while I save the gin and tonics for sipping dockside (in my imagination, that is) a well made gin martini is at home in any venue. The menu has a small collection of signature cocktails, mostly falling into the fruity, easy-drinking bracket: a pomegranate margarita mixes the obligatory Sauza, lime, and Cointreau with pomegranate liquor and juice, and the prohibition punch is a high-octane blend of four different kinds of rum with juice and liqueur. A newer addition, the ‘Angry’ Arnold Palmer, pairs Firefly sweet-tea vodka with lemonade for a supremely refreshing sipper, and if I ever do find myself sitting dockside in the sunshine, I could happily throw back several of these (most cocktails are $9).
Beer still holds rank at 21st Amendment, and a generous but not exhaustive list of the usual suspects, both domestic and imported, is enriched with seasonal additions and special taps, like the BBC Steel Rail ale. I turned to the fail-safe bitter, hoppy IPA from Harpoon ($5.50), which made the perfect foil for the rich food and the warm evening. While the wine options are limited, and almost entirely California bred, there is a Sauvignon Blanc from the Rueda region of Spain, where the white grape is often blended with local varietals like Viura and Verdejo, and a Pinot Grigio hailing from its homeland of Italy (both $8 glass/$31 bottle).
The 21st Amendment marked the end of prohibition, and, consequently, the people’s reclaimed right to (legally) gather and fraternize while knocking back a few. The eponymous bar hasn’t been around for as long as the lift on prohibition, but with accolades like ‘Best Neighborhood Bar’ from the Improper Bostonian and CitySearch, it’s very much a tribute to these hard-won rights, celebrating the everyday, and giving folks a casual place to socialize over a few drinks. With chef Nick Bisesti on the team, 21st Amendment is also becoming a place where you can not only find satisfying, familiar eats, but where you just might be surprised, intrigued, and excited by the food. With the recent wave of retro cuisine, and chefs rediscovering the quirky culinary Americana that was so easily dismissed in the past, Bisesti is right on target with his creative, handmade approach to otherwise straightforward dishes. There may be minor missteps along the way, but his implicit passion for serving good food and engaging diners is what I took away from the evening, and what I hope others will as well. With a steady clientele of thirsty locals, 21st Amendment has become something of a Beacon Hill establishment, so go for the beer and camaraderie, and if you happen to have a yen for truffle in the mean time, you might just be in luck.