The juggernaut of gentrification continues to steam through Boston, rolling beyond the downtown core to our outer residential neighborhoods. Eastie native and owner Philip Frattaroli must have noticed this when he opened the new Cunard Tavern a few blocks from Maverick Square. If there’s a marker of the influx of more-prosperous residents, it’s places like this: a sleek but casual spot with edgier, more eclectic fare than is served at the old neighborhood joints. If you can remember when the South End’s Franklin Cafe, Spring Hill’s Highland Kitchen or City Point’s Local 149 rolled in, you know that for better or worse, a Starbucks, doggie bakery and yoga studio aren’t far behind.
Located on a quiet block a few hundred yards from the harbor, Cunard occupies the first floor of a new building that Frattaroli erected on the former site of his grandfather’s cabinet-making shop. Above it are condos, a barre studio (already) and a cunning fourth-floor deck that can coddle three-dozen patrons with open-air drinks and snacks. The 65-seat dining room with its 10-seat bar is admirably airy and spare, with arty nautical accents throughout; when opened on temperate evenings, multiple French doors lend the delightful feel of a big sidewalk cafe.
Chef Anthony Pino also grew up in the neighborhood but clearly doesn’t want to plate another roster of old-school Italian-American or basic pub fare. His Cuban spring rolls ($8), which fill and deep-fry a thick eggroll wrapper with ham, braised pork shoulder, pickles and Swiss, plus mustard for dipping, are a hefty plate of superb drinking food. With his knack for elevated bar snacks, it’s puzzling when cider-glazed wings ($8) arrive flabby and underfried, their cider-chili glaze adding sugar but no capsicum kick. Each grilled fish taco ($3) stuffs a grill-browned flour tortilla with a pretty, generous pile of grilled fish, lightly-pickled red cabbage, chili aioli and mango, but the fish’s strong flavor suggests an undisclosed subbing of bluefish for the advertised snapper.
Takoyaki ($12) doesn’t much resemble the Osaka street-food snack of pan-cooked seafood fritters, showing neither a well-browned crust nor much octopus flavor, but is pleasant enough in a glaze. Meanwhile, a meal-sized grilled asparagus salad ($7) is terrific: grilled white and green asparagus alongside a mound of frisée dressed with Gorgonzola, strawberries and slivered almonds judiciously dressed with cider vinaigrette. Crudos are suddenly on a lot of menus in Boston, but Cunard’s version, a Sicilian-style tuna crudo ($12), shows the perils of essaying barely-marinated raw fish with spare accompaniments: Here, citrus vinaigrette, pistachio and fennel cannot conceal the less-than-pristine quality and blandness of the fairly thick-cut squares of tuna.
Entrees likewise share hits and misses. The Samuel Cunard burger ($15) is a sensational example of a big pub-style burger, cooked perfectly to temperature on a quality, slightly-oversized bun layered with shredded lettuce, American cheese, tartar sauce and some terrific fried whole-belly clams, though the accompanying mix of potato and sweet potato fries is disappointingly limp. An attractive plate of grilled portabellas ($15) topped with nicely browned queso fresco on a mess of arugula is marred by too heavy a hand with balsamic, and seems a bit meager to anchor a dinner. Brick chicken ($15) doesn’t have quite the crispness of skin one would like in this preparation, but benefits mightily from a smashing peach/almond chutney reminiscent of Japanese “Vermont” brown curry, plus al dente, bacon-bit-sprinkled Brussels sprouts. So-so seafood quality again haunts the grilled lime shrimp ($18), its big tail-on prawns mushy and bland, though the creamy chili/avocado mac-and-cheese underneath, crunchy with toasted breadcrumbs, adds comforting heft. Grilled swordfish ($20), a big, thinnish, triangular cut cooked a bit past currently fashionable medium temperature, fares much better, helped by excellent, well-crusted roasted fingerlings and grilled broccoli rabe.
The bar program boasts a nicely nerdy, all-New-England roster of 10 draft beers ($5.50-$8) and another seven in cans ($5-$20). A sturdy 30-bottle wine list ($30-$96, most under $50) hops between Old and New Worlds with plenty of modest finds like the custom-family-label Frattaroli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($8 per glass, $30 per bottle). The list of specialty cocktails aims crafty and succeeds in conception if not always in execution. The Smoke Show ($14)—a margarita riff of mezcal, orange liqueur and sour mix, garnished with pickled jalapeños—on one night reflects careful measuring and good chill, but on another arrives overdiluted and acidly out of balance. At these prices, the entire bartending cast needs to demonstrate equal technical chops.
Service ably suits the friendly neighborhood-joint ambiance, though a little more training on proper wine service would not go amiss. Hard surfaces throughout contribute to noise levels that just graze harshness at peak hours; low talkers are easier to hear when the French doors are open. Cunard Tavern may be navigating a slightly-overlong shakedown cruise at the moment, but the forward-looking concept and earnest charm of the space are undeniable, and the menu already has enough bright spots to keep the New Eastie crowd coming back. Iron out the wrinkles in the more ambitious food and drink options, and it may even attract cruisers from across the water. ◆
Cuban spring rolls
Grilled asparagus salad
Samuel Cunard burger
Cunard Tavern, 24 Orleans St., Boston (617-567-7609) cunardtavern.com Hours: Daily, 5-11 pm; bar, Sun.-Tue., till midnight, Wed.-Sat., till 1 am; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10:30 am-2 pm Liquor: Full bar Reservations: No Parking: Guest street spaces