Boston’s recent development boom has been a mixed blessing for restaurateurs. More businesses and residents mean more potential dining customers, but the accompanying surge in new restaurants amplified the competition for resources like experienced line cooks, waitstaff and liquor licenses, which can now fetch upward of half a million dollars in our tonier neighborhoods. Small wonder, then, that savvy operators are turning to the suburbs, where leases, parking and liquor licenses aren’t so dear. That’s good news for Watertown, where Garrett Harker and Andrew Holden, the team behind Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, have opened the new Branch Line in the Arsenal on the Charles complex.
The notion that space is cheaper outside the city limits is apparent in Branch Line’s dramatic room, a former artillery factory and machine shop with soaring 30-foot ceilings and great industrial bones—a truly handsome space. Yet despite abundant hard surfaces, the lively room still permits conversation without shouting. An enclosed 45-seat heated patio makes year-round outdoor dining possible; a bocce court promises fun in warmer weather. The dining room’s long, comfortable bar fronts an impressively wide-ranging, 20-tap lineup of draft beers ($6-$8), with another 19 in cans and bottles ($6-$47, most $6-$9). Complex and sour, the wild-yeast-fermented Dekkera ($7), a low-alcohol table beer from Connecticut’s Kent Falls Brewing Company, sits alongside the chocolatey, stout-like Framinghammer ($7), a nitro Baltic porter from Jack’s Abby with a 10-percent-ABV wallop. This is a hardcore beer nerd’s bar, all small-producer craft with no concessions to the Bud Light crowd. You may want to call on the staff’s considerable beer expertise to sensibly match this list’s insistent flavors to the food.
Chef de cuisine Stephen Oxaal (ex-B&G Oysters) has built a menu centered on rotisserie and wood-fire grilling accented with the Greek and Levantine flavors now suddenly popping up on menus all across Boston. Slices of salted avocado ($5) are creamy and comforting, given a fragrant counterpoint with abundant fresh marjoram. Deli-thin slices of tender, rotisserie-cooked pork shoulder ($6) benefit from a light lemony dressing. Cubes of fried cheese ($6) texturally recall casual-dining mozz sticks more than saganaki, but their rich tomato/crème fraîche dipping sauce makes them worthwhile. Given the abundant, fatty proteins that are likely to follow, it’s a good idea to lighten the table with something raw and bright, like the simple and perfect Lu’s cukes ($4) with broken cream and mint, or a brilliantly crisp sugar snap pea salad ($10) dotted with marcona almonds.
Skillful wood-fire grilling is applied to superb grilled oysters ($13) with a deep-flavored bagna cauda butter, monster-sized grilled prawns ($15) with lemon/herb vinaigrette, and grilled whole branzino ($25) with the cuminy North African punch of green chermoula. Just-barely-done cooking and a few fresh herbs make these dishes sing, proving the wisdom of the Mediterranean less-is-more approach to high-quality seafood. The rotisserie likewise produces fantastic results in Green Circle rotisserie chicken ($17 half, $32 whole), a very flavorful heritage bird that turns out amazingly juicy and crisp-skinned, and in the unlikely hit that is rotisserie cauliflower ($18), a whole head turned attractively golden brown, given garlic and acid zing with gremolata and gaining earthy heft from grilled mushrooms.
Roasting gets its turn with the swoony porchetta ($24), the great rolled pork roast of Italy, here served in fat cross-sectional slices stuffed with garlic and herbs, wrapped in a gorgeously rich, crackly layer of golden pork rind, the lily gilded with a luscious, creamy dill mustard sauce. Baked “Sicilian” white fish ($25) gives a juicy pollock fillet a bracing counterpoint of spicy tomato broth and blackly acerbic volo olives. Among vegetable sides, roasted carrots ($7) glean welcome tang from a creamy yogurt sauce, while fried potatoes ($6) with rosemary stand out for their oily crispness. The short list of desserts includes sweet cream ice cream ($7) with a fabulous salted caramel sauce and crushed candied hazelnuts, and the malted coffee milkshake ($6), a fine, bittersweet frappe served in a coffee mug.
Wine director Charles Gaeta has assembled a thoughtful, cleverly organized, 75-strong bottle list ($24-$160). In addition to very attractive prices, it features some fascinating emphasis on little-seen regions like Corsica, whence the 2013 Clos Signadore “A Mandria” ($55) based on the Nielluccio grape that reads like a minerally Chianti Classico, and “island wines” like the 2012 Suertes del Marqués “La Solana” ($46) from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, a light-bodied, front-loaded red based on the locally unique Listan Negro grape. The resulting combination—an idiosyncratic, affordable wine list, plus a similarly quirky, unapologetically geeky beer program—makes the lack of spirits and cocktails easy to overlook. Service brings the affable polish and menu knowledge that one expects from a place with so much Eastern Standard DNA.
If there’s anything to complain about Branch Line’s warm, sophisticated package of food and drink, it’s that it puts the shoe on the other foot for downtown Bostonians, forcing us to travel to the suburbs for a change. Given the challenges of building a successful restaurant within Boston’s city limits in 2016, I suppose it would be ungracious to cavil about that.
-Sugar snap pea salad
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-2:30 pm; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 4:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 4:30-11 pm
Parking: Free adjacent parking lot
Liquor: Beer and wine
Branch Line 321 Arsenal St., Watertown (617-420-1900) branchlinearsenal.com