A new contender arrives in Downtown Crossing.
21 Temple Place, Boston | jmcurleyboston.com
Named after the larger-than-life Boston politician with a wobbly moral compass, JM Curley in Downtown Crossing aims to be an institution, a natural choice for a night on the town. Booths, brick walls and a concrete bar set the tone for a stripped-down, no-nonsense experience.
In the same vein as Franklin Café and the Gallows, JM Curley is a place you’re more likely to find in the South End than tucked away on a side street adjoining Boston Common. The food hits the sweet spot between comfort and creativity, what chef Sam Monsour describes as “our take on nostalgia.” On the blackboard you’ll find “Sammy’s Seven,” Monsour’s riffs on familiar fare like popcorn, burgers, PB&J and a catch of the day. (On one visit, nearly each of the seven items had bacon as the common theme.) The regular menu sports standbys like mussels ($10), plump and sweet from simmering in beer, butter and tasso ham, and fried pickles ($5), a basket of deep-fried dill pickle slices ready to be dipped in an omnipresent Russian dressing. A particular standout from the starters was a plate of house-cured salmon sliders ($9), three little hipster tea sandwiches, punched up with red-onion jam and mint-cream cheese.
I had Boston’s best rendition of an In-N-Out burger when I ordered the 5-ounce patty ($7.50) at lunch. Glistening with melted cheddar, pickle-inflected Russian dressing and savory grilled onions, it short-circuited my capacity for restraint, as I almost ordered another mid-chew into my last bite. Unfortunately, the magical ratio of meat to dressing to cheese to sweet, grilled bun was out of proportion in the 9-ounce version ($14) at dinner. What was juicy at lunch tasted greasy in its inflated form.
The bar food emphasis translates to a menu heavy on sandwiches, appetizers and snacks, but limited in entrees. The three mains all walked a fine line between fat as a flavor enhancer and detractor, to varying degrees of success. An IPA-marinated hanger steak ($18) was perfectly tender, but its sizable dollop of blue-cheese butter tipped the scales to the overwhelmingly rich. It could’ve used a starch or a vegetable to counteract the single-dimensional taste. More balanced was the porterhouse pork chop ($16) with sautéed apples serving as a tart-sweet sauce to offset the meat. A side order of marinated mushrooms ($6), a mix of oyster, enoki, beech and cremini, helped balance the heavy meal with acidity. Although the most creative, the most disappointing dish was the fried chicken with five sauces ($20), including orange-soda Buffalo, bacon-beer honey mustard and Doritos cool ranch. The chicken came out tough (Monsour has since changed the recipe) while most of the dipping sauces were unfortunately too literal. Imagine dipping dry, fried chicken into a glass of spicy Sunkist, and you get the picture.
While food is hit or miss, bar manager Kevin Mabry can do no wrong with the cocktail menu. Drinks like the Hemingway Heat ($9) pleasantly challenge the palate with its sweet, tart, spicy combination of rhum agricole, maraschino, grapefruit, lime and jalapeño. Rhubarb in the Seasonal Collins ($9) enlivens the traditional version. And the perfectly muddled Whiskey Smash ($9) rivaled Eastern Standard’s. Compared to the subtleties of the cocktails, the fat-drenched bar menu feels leaden.
But it’s impossible to leave the bar unhappy, especially if you embrace your inner kid and order the milk-and-cookie special. A cast-iron skillet sizzles with a cookie baked to order (chocolate chip on my visit). The humble, nostalgic treat speaks to Monsour’s desire to keep the menu small and unfussy. “I’m not trying to be a name-brand chef,” he says. “I’m influenced by my dad’s mom-and-pop restaurant.” JM Curley keeps it fun without being frivolous, a strong contender for long-term incumbent.
• Salmon sliders
• 5-ounce burger
• Porterhouse pork chop
• Milk and cookies
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-10pm; Sat., 5-10pm; Sun., 3-10pm
Credit Cards: Yes
Handicapped Accessible: Yes