Restaurant Review: Branch Line in Watertown
What carries a restaurant? The food, you might say. Yeah, sometimes. But I would argue that that’s not the main reason it lasts or loses. Think of what brings you back to a place. How many dishes can you name? I thought so: one, maybe two. It’s the bartender who mixes great cocktails. It’s the host who miraculously generates a seat at the bar as soon as you walk through the door. It’s the location, the price. It’s that feeling you get as you walk in and intuitively know you’ll have a good time.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Garrett Harker’s restaurants and bars are very popular, but not because of the food. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the food; it’s just not what you remember. Harker’s success is better attributed to his ability to make massive rooms personable. You want to hang out at the bars at his twin Kenmore Square brasseries, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Eastern Standard—the former for the bonhomie, the latter for the curated cocktails so deft they gave birth to the Hawthorne, a dimly lit lounge inside the Hotel Commonwealth. The food? Swell oysters. Fine fish. And boy, do those suspended crates of oyster shells on the ceiling look great. Row 34, in Fort Point, is even more stylish, with its high windows, lighted metallic wall, and extensive beer program. But the food? Same as Island Creek, but with house-smoked and cured fish.
Service built this multistate empire (there’s now a Row 34 in Portsmouth). Harker studied the school of the Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer, which goes far beyond the “customer is always right” ethos. At the core are ownership and management that take service as seriously as any other part of the restaurant. Harker treats his servers as professionals and regularly offers them trips to, say, oyster farms, wineries, and breweries, so it’s no surprise that the front-of-house is Harker’s driving force. What is surprising is that there aren’t more restaurateurs adhering to that Meyer doctrine. Anybody who’s worked in an office, let alone a restaurant or bar, knows that attitude starts at the top. But aside from a handful of other establishments—the suave L’Espalier; Tim Maslow’s Strip-T’s and Ribelle; and mom-and-pop one-offs like Fairsted Kitchen—it’s remarkable how few Boston restaurants have staked their survival on service.
Harker’s latest project, Branch Line, is colonizing Watertown with a casual-looking yet highly engineered project in the Arsenal complex. The operating owner is Andrew Holden, who grew up a mile or so away and has worked for nine years as Eastern Standard’s general manager. With a sweeping room, a vaulted ceiling supported by open steel crossbeams, and a flaming grill, Branch Line’s dramatic interior is reminiscent of a stripped-to-the-brick Row 34. Unlike at the Fort Point joint, here a French-made Rotisol rotisserie (which a server endearingly referred to as the “rotisserary”) in the open kitchen dominates the scene. All of this is secondary to the confident, attractive managers and servers who run the show, marking this very much as a Harker enterprise. Their look is wash-and-dried hipster (short seersucker jackets, horn rims), which has quickly attracted a complementary demographic: young, tech-minded professionals who work in the adjacent buildings occupied by Athenahealth. These servers make you feel welcomed and sated from the start.
How well fed will you feel at the end? Enough that you’ll note two or three dishes worth coming back for. None is likely to be the rotisserie-turned chicken ($17 for a half bird, $33 for a whole) that’s touted as the house specialty and given pride of place on the brief menu; the skin isn’t crisp or textured enough, and the meat is waterlogged. But everything else from the birds is ingeniously employed. The carcasses are simmered into a powerful Mediterranean-esque lemon-chicken soup ($10) flavored with olives and oregano for a broth that is both transformative (hello, Greek isles!) and restorative. With its big squares of torn Iggy’s francese on top, it can almost make a meal. And the kitchen’s magic elixir comes courtesy of the robust, concentrated pan drippings collected from Branch Line’s bottomless stockpile of poultry—whether used for marinating mushrooms or burnishing potatoes ($6) roasted right under the spit-turned chickens. When I asked chef de cuisine Stephen Oxaal to guide me through the preparation of various dishes, he finally said, “Repeat after me—chicken drippings!” He even sells them as a side ($2) for bread dipping.
Oxaal, who worked for eight years at B & G Oysters before defecting to Barbara Lynch’s former partner (Garrett Harker is the “G” in “B & G”), seems best at liquids. When I went, briny clam juice pooled under steamed clams ($13) that were glistening with the fat of Mediterranean sausage infused with fennel and preserved lemons. And a spicy tomato broth with olives, basil, and lightly charred San Marzano tomatoes was the best part of Oxaal’s baked Sicilian whitefish ($25).
Proteins are chancier. The flesh of the Sicilian fish was mealy. Rotisserie-roasted pork shoulder that is rolled with herbs and micro-sliced (then $6 as an app, now used in a $12 lunch sandwich) seemed all fat and no flavor. And while I found the grilled marinated steak with anchovy butter ($24) to be tough and overcooked, a guest of mine loved the meat, which she happily smeared through a long-roasted garlic head served on the side. Grilled branzino ($25), though—brightened with a parsley salad and a spread of North African chermoula—offered the firmness and authoritative whitefish flavor the Sicilian dish lacked. That branzino, along with a faultless marinated lamb skewer ($15), were the best fish and meat on the menu, despite their preparation outside Branch Line’s beloved Rotisol. The lamb, a main that masquerades as a starter, is served with a cucumber tzatziki made with thick labne. Oxaal makes the accompanying whole-wheat pita wedges, as well as his own za’atar.
Desserts are simple, satisfying, and almost kidlike: a malted coffee milkshake ($6); a sundae ($7) with house-made sweet-cream ice cream, candied hazelnuts, and Coop’s salted-caramel sauce. They make for a happy end to a generally happy experience: a meal more memorable for the way the staff and the room made you feel than what you ate. And that’s as good a secret sauce as any—including Oxaal’s liquid-gold rotisserie drippings.
Branch Line, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, 617-420-1900, branchlinearsenal.com.
Marinated lamb skewer, $15
Lemon-chicken soup, $10
Grilled branzino, $25
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor