A comfortable spot on the North Shore
As you drive into Swampscott from the south, you are greeted by the twin spectacle of Red Rock Bistro and Anthony's Pier 4 Cafe rising from the water, a hungry person's version of Scylla and Charybdis. The choice here is significantly better - you'll eat them before they eat you. Still, there are options beyond their gravitational pull.
For one, G Bar & Kitchen, which opened in April and is located practically in their shadow. What you sacrifice in water views you make up for with small-restaurant charm and real neighborhood feeling. Sections of the walls are covered in patterned upholstery fabric, and round glass lamps hang from the ceiling; there's a little curved bar with carmine velveteen chairs. There, you might overhear a bartender telling a customer that she's a hairdresser by day, as an older gentleman sporting short shorts drinks cocktails with a nicely attired lady friend, a husband and wife in Pats paraphernalia tuck into dinner beside them, and a handsome man in the sportscaster mold spouts about the economy to his 30-something friends at a nearby table. It feels like most everyone eating here lives here, and probably grew up nearby.
Chef Gregg Brackman, who provides the "G" in the restaurant's name, is himself a Swampscott resident. A graduate of Johnson & Wales' culinary arts program, he's worked in restaurants since he was 15 (he's now 35) and previously ran his own catering business. G Bar & Kitchen is the realization of his dream to own a restaurant. That's a good place to find a chef in - not looking forward to the next move, just glad to be where he is.
And so G Bar is a comfortable place, with a menu that falls on the adventurous side of comfort food. It features the likes of spicy crab and lobster spring rolls, crispy wild shrimp with Thai chili sauce, and yellowfin tuna. These appetizers are available separately, or as a trio in the G Happy Meal. The tuna and spring rolls are fine, if not as flavorful as they could be; the spring rolls aren't spicy, though they come with a nice avocado dipping sauce that is. The plate also features a mysterious spiral of bright green sauce that adds no flavor beyond the visual. But the crispy shrimp are a perfect appetizer: fresh-tasting, in a light, greaseless batter, drizzled with sriracha and a slightly citrusy aioli. Ordered on their lonesome on a later visit, they're just as good. If I ever move to Swampscott, I'll be eating them at the bar with a beer regularly.
Another winner of a dish is the gnocchi, made in house. These couldn't be simpler, and they're the better for it: potato dumplings that strike a balance between airy and chewy, swimming in a pure, brightly flavored tomato sauce. Brackman does well with pasta - a dish of pappardelle is spiced up with ground Italian sausage that makes your mouth tingle, set against a creamier take on tomato sauce.
An eggplant cannoli appetizer also features tomato sauce that captures the essence of tomatoes, with eggplant slices rolled around ricotta and baked. It comes to the table straight from the oven, the first forkfuls still bubbling. Beet salad is a very nice version, thin rounds of beets topped with a small amount of watercress and plenty of pistachios and blue cheese. If you're ordering salad for virtue's sake, this one is not for you. An arugula Caesar offers disappointingly little arugula given its name; it's mostly romaine.
An entree of lamb is cooked perfectly, the meat crusted in pistachios. It's tender and flavorful, with a side of Israeli couscous and a raita-like mint-and-yogurt sauce. This kind of dish is what G Bar & Kitchen does best - it highlights fresh ingredients with clear flavors.
Same with a grilled vegetable "deck of cards," an appealing and colorful vegetarian main course. Zucchini, squash, and portobellos are cut thin and grilled, then stacked atop one another, sandwiched with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and cannellini puree. Unlike many restaurants, G Bar doesn't rely on salt to carry its dishes. (Salt shakers on the tables would be a good idea, however.)
Skirt steak arrives at the table charred on the outside and raw on the inside; after a trip back to the kitchen, it returns cooked properly, though with no flavor of the espresso in which it's meant to be edged. The onion rings it comes with are all breading and no onion; they go uneaten. Roasted chicken features flavorful meat but soggy skin; it comes with plenty of vegetables, including incredible roasted carrots. These hold their carrot shape, but when you bite into them, they give way like carrot pudding, full of sweetness.
Dessert here does what it needs to do - offerings include a decadent chocolate mousse and house-made cannoli that have hard-to-break shells but are filled with nicely tangy, thick cream. The wine list is reasonable, with bottles mostly in the $20s and $30s; for some reason, more are listed by the glass on the back of the menu than on the cocktail list, so make your selections from the former. There's also a nice selection of beer, many of them seasonal and local.
Some dishes fall flat at G Bar & Kitchen by leaning too much on the ingredients. A day boat special - these change daily - features a generous helping of lobster and shrimp served over pasta, but it fizzles because the tomato sauce and the seafood are bland. A salmon entree is somewhat dull in a one-note lemon sauce, sitting atop a potato cake with little else on the plate, though the fish is cooked perfectly.
But for the most part, the straightforward cooking - upscale but unpretentious - is the restaurant's attraction. Combine that with the friendly staff, the sweet little space, and the neighborhood vibe, and Swampscott has a welcome new choice.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.