If there’s a 2017 restaurant trend we’re grateful for as winter approaches, it’s Boston chefs’ new fondness for the many flavors that wood-fire can bestow. Prairie Fire, recently alit in Coolidge Corner, is from the partners behind Milton’s beloved Steel & Rye, who also lent their chef Brendan Joy to this new venture. Like its elder sibling, it aims elemental with simple American fare in a sleek, spare setting designed to cultivate regular neighborhood trade. But the concept is less expansive, focusing instead on a few dishes, many of them passing through the wood-fired oven behind the bar, including seafood, vegetables, salads and especially pizza.
Pizza is a useful starting point here, as it represents by itself a fine reason to visit. Joy spent five years tending to a sourdough starter, which is used in dough that’s conditioned for a day and then shaped into a thick-edged, thin-crusted pie that spends just enough time in the oven to gain a light char all around its edges and underside. Pies are topped by simple, beautiful ingredients, such as a classic Margherita ($14) that would do a Neapolitan pizzaiola proud with its classic trinity of simple San Marzano tomato sauce, leaves of fresh basil and squares of fresh mozzarella: hard to improve upon. Fennel sausage ($16) offers meatier complexity (and lots of lovely, if unadvertised, red onions), with more red sauce plus shreds of fennel and copious dots of fresh ricotta. White pizza ($15) brings the salty snap of guanciale, gooey fontina and earthy bits of cauliflower and Brussels sprout leaves to its creamy, delectable white sauce.
Small plates include raw oysters ($3 each) with a mild cider mignonette, deeply briny Merrys from Duxbury with a rich alkaline finish one night. Wood-roasted oysters ($4 each) are nicely, barely cooked, with a gentle drizzle of garlicky scampi butter, lemon and breadcrumbs, though wood smoke again provides the best accent. Beneath wafers of watermelon radish, fluke crudo ($14) hides lovely chunks of mild local fish, barely marinated in sweet/tangy husk-cherry agrodolce: pretty, not overchilled, delicious. Chicken and pork meatballs ($8) are three smallish specimens in more of that terrific red sauce, given salt and crunch with Parmesan and gribenes, all topped with a hunk of wood-grilled bread for heft.
The oven again applies virtuous depth to generous vegetable dishes, including kale-like broccoli greens ($8) with a roasted garlic dressing and toasted sesame and pumpkin seeds for crunch, and most of a head of pan-fried cauliflower ($8) given needed piquancy with smoked aioli, caper vinaigrette and anchovy breadcrumbs. Only coffee-roasted sunchokes ($9) with a rich brown butter béarnaise are a bust thanks to indifferent prep: too many woody bits and some grit. Smoke and char elevate salads like the radicchio Caesar ($13) with crisp rounds of fried Parmesan and shreds of smoked egg: vivid and beautiful. Grilling the suddenly ubiquitous Little Gem lettuce ($12) gives it the charry heft to stand up to crispy shallots and more toasted seeds, all softened by a thick buttermilk dressing.
Chef Joy developed some serious pasta-making chops somewhere. His black garlic spaghetti ($22) has a lovely inky color, given weight with nine plump shelled littlenecks and more salty guanciale, though oversaucing muddies the effect a bit. There’s nothing to complain about in his gorgeous ebony squid-ink campanelle ($24) with chunks of Maine lobster in a bright, tangy, slightly fiery arrabiata sauce: it’s phenomenal. Of two desserts, we sampled the roasted chocolate bar ($9), a thin wafer of excellent chocolate that’s made crispy with an admixture of crushed crepes, alongside smoked maple granola, milk chocolate mousse and the much-better-than-it-sounds mushroom ice cream, all adding up wondrously.
The beverage program seems more about finding modest accompaniments to food than serving as a drinking destination. That means a dozen draft beers and five packaged ones ($7-$12, large formats $35-$65), the selection mostly local and tilting very beer-nerdy. Wines by the glass (8 whites, 2 sparklers, 8 reds running $9-$13) and 16 bottles ($38-$70) offer decent prices and plenty of food-friendly flavors. We savored a 2015 Montenidoli ($38) from San Gimignano in Tuscany with the deep color but easy-drinking dark fruit of the colorino grape. Among the specialty cocktails ($9-$11), the Showdown ($9) of blended scotch, crème de cassis and ginger beer served as a bracing cold-weather highball, though the bar also showed deft technical competence with classics like Manhattans, daiquiris and Negronis ($11-$12).
The room, with 24 bar seats and 50 at tables, has an admirably modern, understated aesthetic, drawing from a palette of black, white, blond and gray in leather banquettes, wood tables, bentwood bar seating and wooden floors, all flatteringly lit by soft yellow interior lights, live votive candles, streetlight through tall windows, and the glow of the wood oven. Service has a professional, easygoing polish to it, suiting the casual menu and chic, simple setting. In all, Prairie Fire succeeds by circumscribing its ambitions to a short menu with a very clear-cut sensibility, then knocking the hell out of the dishes that fit that narrower scope. When you can wring as many flavors from one wood-fired oven as this place does, less can indeed be much more. ◆
Chicken and pork meatballs
Radicchio Caesar salad
Grilled Little Gem lettuce salad
Fennel sausage pizza
Prairie Fire, 242 Harvard St., Brookline (617-396-8199) prairiefirebrookline.com Hours: Dinner: 4:30-10 pm; Sun.-Thu., pizza till 11 pm; Fri.-Sat., pizza till midnight; Reservations: No; Liquor: Full; Parking: Nearby metered street spaces and public lots