If you’re the eminent food nerd in your crowd, you’re used to fielding tough questions about Boston’s restaurant scene, like “Which places in the North End serve actual traditional Italian food?” and “Are there any cool new restaurants where the noise level won’t leave me with tinnitus?” and “Why does every menu in town suddenly feature octopus?” (Answers: “Very few,” “Almost none,” and “Nobody knows.”) We recently found an answer to another hoary Boston restaurant brainteaser—“Where can I get a nice meal with some live music?”—in the form of Back Bay Beats, aka B3, a new spot in the Berklee College of Music’s 160 Mass. Ave. building.
The cheery, casual, modern-looking space features a dining room and a bar with a low stage between them. Small combos of current and former Berklee students perform two no-cover sets during nightly dinner service and Sunday brunch. Good room acoustics and amplification let patrons hear the music clearly from just about any table or bar seat; generous spacing between tables lets you have a low conversation with your dining companions without disturbing the performance. It’s a very well-designed room for its purpose.
The menu, created by recently departed chef Nicolas Swogger, combines dishes reflecting his Mississippi upbringing with some global meanderings, ranging from grazeable small plates to more traditional larger ones. Charcuterie is a fine starting point here, with options like ham biscuits ($9), three small buttermilk biscuits filled with smoky, salty country ham, pimiento cheese and Tabasco-spiked honey, and terrific pork-belly rillettes ($8) for spreading on croutons, both accompanied by good housemade pickles of fennel, cauliflower, carrots and radishes.
So-called small bites are generous enough to serve as big appetizers or shareable mid-courses, like pork cheek Hoppin’ John ($12), a hefty chunk of a nicely crisped, tenderly fatty off-cut atop rice and red peas bolstered by the Cajun holy trinity (bell peppers, onions, celery), and potato gnocchi ($11), a French-inspired plate of delicately chewy chive gnocchi with charred ramps and radishes in a silken sauce of buttermilk beurre blanc.
Vegetable plates are mostly vivid and very good, like spice-roasted cauliflower ($12) in shades of purple, white and green, dusted with an Egyptian-inspired dukka of pecan and sesame and a pretty crown of watercress. Sichuan braised eggplant ($14) gets lovely textural contrast between tender, glossy-skinned Japanese eggplant slices and batons of crisp-fried tofu, plus it packs the hot umami wallop of garlicky chili paste and a basil-infused eel sauce. It makes the bland, vaguely lemony shaved Brussels sprouts salad ($12) seem meek and forgettable by comparison.
Larger plates serve as sizeable protein/veg entrees. Shrimp and peas ($25) mounts three enormous whole head-on shrimp rubbed with a paprika-hot herb blend over a brothy bed of black-eyed peas, strips of just-tender collard greens, bright/hot slices of pickled Fresno chilies and bits of country ham. Lamb tagine ($32) plops a gorgeous, giant, meaty lamb shank sprinkled with fresh mint atop a generous bowl of large-bore couscous dotted with dates and golden raisins, though the pasta could use a tad more salt. Roasted cod ($24) bedecked with mango salsa and flanked by roasted fingerling potatoes also tastes underseasoned despite a blackened spice coating. Then a highly deconstructed version of chicken pot pie ($28) arrives looking rather drab: a dryish stew with a few scattered buttermilk biscuits standing in for a pie-crust topping. It actually hugely upgrades every traditional pot-pie ingredient: roasted carrots, celery leaves, pea shoots, wild mushrooms, a superb chicken-neck gravy and fantastically juicy chunks of chicken with perfectly salty/crisp skin left on top. The result is absolutely sensational.
Desserts also draw on Southern inspiration without the usual tooth-aching sweetness, notably in panna cotta ($8) topped with an improved ambrosia made of roasted fresh pineapple, quality Maraschino cherries and brûléed marshmallow Fluff.
The beverage program offers several pleasant surprises, like a bartending staff that doesn’t blink at abstruse orders, shows proper technique and delivers quality results on classics like Last Words and Negronis. Specialty cocktails include the Tijuana Jail ($13), a margarita made smokier and funkier with mezcal and sherry, and the Earl ($12), a tangy gin-and-(grapefruit)-juice variant punched up with Earl Grey and bitters. The wine list delivers modest value with 19 wines by the glass ($8-$13), 40 bottles ($32-$94, most under $50) and a couple of cheap-and-cheerful drafts ($8/glass, $22/half-liter). Eight mildly crafty beer options, half of them on tap, run $7-$13. Twenty American whiskies and a decent digestivo assortment round out a program with surprising thoughtfulness and affordable sophistication for the campus setting.
If you’ve haunted Wally’s Cafe down the street, where Berklee undergrads show off their jazz, funk and blues chops alongside veteran pros every night, the young musicians performing here will not surprise you. B3’s menu may have a couple of soft spots, but it mostly delivers. The insistent talent of the kids on its stage, on the other hand, never fails to impress. That makes for a solution to one of our eternal restaurant-scene puzzles: a very edifying two-in-one kind of evening out. ◆
Pork cheek Hoppin’ John
Sichuan braised eggplant
Chicken “pot pie”
Shrimp and peas
Back Bay Beats / B3 160 Mass. Ave., Boston (617-997-0211) b3restaurant.com Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 am-2:30 pm; Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 pm, Sun., 5-8 pm; Brunch, Sun., 11 am-2:30 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby public garages Liquor: Full bar