Dining Out: Burning Desire
I've been waiting for the Fireplace. I don't mean the actual restaurant that recently opened at Washington Square in Brookline, although I'm awfully pleased it's there. I mean a place that would take as inspiration one of my favorite restaurants in the country, the Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine. That is, plentiful portions of simply prepared food that rests solidly on the quality of the ingredients and usually passes under a fire or spends a good deal of time around one. Like Fore Street, the Fireplace is an utterly homegrown effort, owned and manned by locals who I hope will stay a good long time.
Yes, it was sad to see Five Seasons, a living link to the vegetarian hippie 1970s, leave this space. I miss the Five Seasons' bulletin board, alternative newspapers, and ambitious macrobiotic cuisine with its '70s-inspired orange and brown tones. Yet the vegetarian restaurant always seemed to cry out for cozier quarters than these.
Perhaps in unconscious tribute, the Fireplace has plenty of orange in the décor—a warm orange suggesting the flames in the wood-fired oven, which is the centerpiece of an impressively rustic stone wall in the open kitchen on the upper level. Old farm implements made of iron and wood are hung as art against orange cloth backgrounds. The carpet and bleached-wood chairs with upholstered seats suggest a suburban furniture store's idea of a country barn, but they're comfortable and unpretentious.
So is the food. We've all been going back to comfort food, and comfort everything else, and this is my idea of it—not the fat fests served by retro diners but honest, plain food made with good ingredients. Take the corn pudding under wood-grilled bluefish, my favorite entrée on the early fall menu ($17). Benjamin Nathan, the young executive chef who grew up one street away, told me that he found the recipes in “some old New England cookbook, or Betty Crocker,” and that the block of pudding under the fish was simply shaved fresh corn, cream, eggs, and nutmeg. No flour, no cheese, none of the tricks other restaurants feel compelled to try. Just a plain pudding that was pure pleasure. And the fish, served with tomatoes marinated with red onions and lightly pickled with lemon juice, was just right—wood-grilled and tasting like it came straight off the dock. I was impressed by the same concentration in a smoked tomato and roasted fennel soup ($5), the tomatoes smoked briefly over applewood and mixed with very fresh bulb fennel—the kind that tastes of licorice instead of simply the agreeable cool texture of supermarket fennel—puréed to a brick red and served with sourdough croutons rubbed with garlic oil.
Presenting New England is the goal of the Brookline boys who run the Fireplace. The chef/owner, Jim Solomon, also grew up in Brookline, among other Boston-area locations; he veered from a career in financial services to culinary school and restaurants. The idea for the Fireplace was his, and he and Nathan—who went to the Michael Driscoll grammar school across Washington Street and later to the New England Culinary Institute—set as their initial goals finding good local ingredients and perfecting a few dishes locals would come to rely on. They dry age rib-eye steak and serve it with fries. They brine chicken for two days, keep it turning over a rotisserie for a few hours, and serve it with whipped potatoes.
Plain this food may be, but it isn't bland. Quality and freshness define it. The vegetables, especially, show the care the two men are taking to find farmers and purveyors. At several dinners my guests demanded refills of yellow and green beans steamed and dressed with plenty of coarse chopped parsley and lemon and shallots ($5), and of mashed sweet potato further sweetened with maple syrup ($5). The kitchen doesn't shy from garlic, for instance, in braised mixed chards with kale served under firm, moist grilled salmon ($18) that's about as good as farmed salmon can be—again, because it's fresh from a Maine fish farm, the way the greens are fresh from local farms. Mostly the flavors come from herbs and the judicious use of fire.
This is the kind of modestly priced, moderately stylish place to visit often. It's perhaps more directly reminiscent of the long-lost original Olives in Charlestown, the small storefront later converted to the first Figs, where I would often sit at the bar savoring a plate of roast chicken with browned chunks of roasted potatoes and watch the action at the oven. The Fireplace has a bar where diners can eat, too, with service that is friendly if a bit hampered by inexperience and miscommunications with the kitchen. A few of our requests were simply ignored despite the waiter's seeming warm comprehension; the remade dishes arrived fairly fast, though, and we weren't charged for the second plates, even though we happily ate both.
The wine list is also modestly priced, with an emphasis on value and direct flavor. Desserts aren't up to the main courses: The cobblers, pies, and ice creams also aspire to be simple food that conquers with its flavor, but the flavors are weak, the textures mushy. I found here the fault I do with other restaurants whose focus is their wood-fired ovens: Everything looks and tastes brown and soft. A blueberry sorbet, though, did have a bright flavor that cut through the sweetness. Perhaps the budget will afford a pastry chef as the place gets the popularity it deserves—I mean, catches fire.