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Comfort foods in a cavernous space

We're in a retooling phase, with restaurateurs tweaking and changing their establishments to attract a new era of diners. A new coat of paint. Splashier and more colorful cocktails and better wines by the glass. More small plates for a generation of grazers. Brewpubs had their moment, but it's so over. And just as well for the diner, because no matter how delicious the just-made suds were, the food that accompanied it always seemed to be some version of a burger or at best a Reuben sandwich.

Anthem is the product of one of these makeovers. Previously, Commonwealth Fish & Beer Co. filled the cavernous space a few blocks from North Station and the FleetCenter, seemingly a perfect fit for sports fans or rock concertgoers. Several months ago, the owners, the Briar Group, retrofitted it, lightly redoing the decor and bringing in Robert Fathman, chef of Azure, which they also own, to create a much different kind of menu.

Although Fathman describes the food as comfort, it's decidedly on the fancy end of comfort with such high-end ingredients as Woodbury's clams and Niman Ranch pork. Yet the menu covers many bases, from fried calamari and macaroni-and-cheese to medallions of monkfish with rock shrimp, at prices that stay under $20 for main dishes.

With its dark interior, high ceilings, and yawning space, Anthem can seem "dramatic," as general manager Robert George calls it in a phone interview -- or a little gloomy if the night is quiet. On a Sunday in December, it's the latter and the lack of activity seems to affect the few waitstaff, veritably sleepwalking through the evening.

A glass of soda is flat, and the wait for a replacement long. The roasted pumpkin soup is so sweet that it tastes as though pie filling had been melted into a bowl. Grilled white pizza has a soggy crust. A Cuban sandwich of pulled pork, ham, salami, and red pepper aioli is curiously tasteless.

But then other dishes swing the pendulum the other way. An appetizer of portobello mushrooms, shaved paper-thin like carpaccio, has a sparkle with plenty of garlic croutons and a shower of pecorino Romano. A saltshaker seems to have been let loose on top of a dish of pan-roasted salmon and lentils. But cod is perfectly fried, crisp, and greaseless with a creamy, moist interior. And the hush puppies with the fish and a creamy coleslaw are delicious.

But a second visit before a FleetCenter concert shows a different side of Anthem. The place is packed, the staff numerous and nimble, and eating at the bar is not only time-efficient but fun. The menu is partly directed at grazing with appetizers easily big enough for main courses and salads stuffed with protein and other embellishments. One of chicory and endive glides light on greens but features fat nuggets of pancetta and fingerling potatoes in a mustardy vinaigrette. Topped with a lovely poached egg, it's enough for a meal. And though the combination is a bit much as a starter, it's so much more interesting than the rather blah Caesar salad that I'd order it again to share.

Clams steamed with tomatoes, chorizo, and white beans is another abundant and very flavorful appetizer. The clams, pristine and briny, match the garlicky chorizo. A wedge of toasted bread makes a great instrument for sopping up the broth. This is a medium that Fathman and his chef de cuisine Sildo Junior do wonders with. Bouillabaise is a fancier version of a fish stew, and here the broth supports a wealth of white fish, clams, mussels, squid, and shrimp and is so good that we're tempted to lift the bowl and drink it.

Many restaurants feature lamb shanks these days as a hearty winter entree. Anthem twists that slightly with pork shanks. Two big knobs of meat on the bone are glazed with a dark and slightly sweet fig coating. The pork is fork-tender and irresistibly flavorful with much less of the greasy film that lamb sometimes has. A small ocean of cheese-sauced grits covers the rest of the plate along with very nicely sauteed spinach. Good contrasts and certainly plenty of food for the rather amazing price of $17.

Anthem's food has a Southern slant, from the hush puppies and grits to a Southern-fried salad with fried chicken tenders. Fathman extends it into dessert. He plays off the state fair penchant to fry everything, even candy bars and snack cakes, to create a restaurant-style fried Twinkie. The dessert is to a carnival what Daniel Boulud's famous $29 hamburger is to a fast-food burger. But the idea is the same. Actually, the much-talked about confection tastes like a rather hard-shelled beignet -- pastry cream inside a firm dough exterior on a plate piled with mounded whipped cream and fresh berries. It's pretty good, actually, not something you'd want every day but tasty. And the berries are healthful.

Next time I'd return to an apple pandowdy, substantial and very homestyle, or a root beer float. Gimmicks attract attention, but Anthem's solid fare is the reason to go there.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from at

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