Ecco reverberates in Eastie

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Luke O'Neil
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2009

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We’re not entirely sure how we ended up in East Boston. It was either a tunnel or a bridge, or both. Either way, it’s exciting when you can travel within your own city to a neighborhood you don’t frequent and feel as though you’ve landed someplace distant.

The important thing is that we eventually made our way to the welcoming environs of Ecco, whose bar embraced us like a long lost friend opening his arms to a weary traveler. The artfully placed mirrors, cool lighting design, dark woods, and sparkling stone bar make it the type of low lit, stylish martini lounge that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Back Bay or Cambridge. Sure, Eastie has long been renowned as a foodie haven for its diverse dining and takeout options, but until Ecco opened (it celebrates its one-year anniversary next month), the neighborhood hasn’t had anything like this.

“East Boston has a lot of Hispanic and Italian eateries,’’ says Ecco chef David Fitzgerald. “But we’re the only place of this caliber.’’

Of course, Eastie isn’t far from Boston proper.

“It’s only a quarter-mile away!’’ says manager Jon Larkin. “But that bridge really separates people. You can walk to Charlestown, you can walk to South Boston. You can’t walk here.’’ True, but just go a few stops on the Blue Line and you’re ready to explore.

You’ll find a pleasant reward in Ecco’s Cilantro Gimlet (below left: Svedka vodka, cilantro, fresh-squeezed lime juice, $8.95) waiting for you. This one’s got a sharp, bright citrus and a fresh herby grass quality that cuts right through the late August humidity outside. Still, in the temperate comfort of the dim bar (note to bars with retractable windows: Keep those things shut when it’s 90 degrees and humid, OK?), you might feel ready to plunge into the fall-inspired flavors of the Infused Bourbon (below right: $8.95).

With soft, rounded notes of vanilla and cinnamon, you’ll get the most flavor by sipping it straight. Working it into a Manhattan, which we also tried, took away some of the subtlety. Beginning with a Jim Beam base here, Fitzgerald adds dried cherries, fresh vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks, and a touch of molasses for sweetness.

There’s relatively little sweetness to be found in Ecco’s version of the cosmopolitan, the Cucumber Cosmo (Svedka, muddled cucumbers, splash of cranberry, a touch of simple syrup, fresh lemon and lime juice, $8.95). Cucumbers are everywhere now, but they’re most commonly mixed with gin. “Hendrick’s [gin] is great with cucumber,’’ says bartender Kate Caruso, “but this is one I’ve never seen anywhere before.’’ What a difference a few ingredients can make to a tired recipe. Maybe she just has a light touch with the simple syrup and cranberry, or maybe the cucumbers make this the driest cosmo we’ve ever had.

“When people say they don’t like their cosmos too sweet, I recommend that,’’ Caruso says. Moving people away from their comfort zone was something they set out to do, says Larkin. “When we first opened we didn’t want to stick with the ‘flirtini’ thing.’’ At first people would order a gimlet and complain about the lack of Rose’s lime juice. The drinks simply didn’t taste like what they were used to. But over time people have come around to Ecco’s focus on fresher or new to them ingredients, he says.

The Calvados Martini (Lecompte Calvados, St. Germain, Svedka, $8.95) is another example. It’s a tug of war between the dry apple of the brandy and the sweeter elderflower notes fortified by a bracing shot of vodka.

Ecco, 107 Porter St., East Boston. 617-561-1112.

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