‘Well, that’s a nice surprise,” says a friend when we spot the tiny glass kiosk of 75 on Liberty Wharf. It’s not exactly hard to find, but a small, cozy restaurant with big, dramatic views is not what we’ve come to expect on this rapidly developing stretch of waterfront dominated by multi-floor dining palaces. Owner Thomas A. Kershaw and executive chef Markus Ripperger of Beacon Hill’s 75 on Chestnut — itself a nice surprise of a restaurant — have created a new place where creative cocktails and well-executed versions of pub favorites are set against the twinkling lights of the harbor.
You open the front door and realize just how small it is: less than a dozen tables seating about 60, with the same number outside on the wooden deck. On this night, the open-air tables are empty despite heat lamps, but they’re a reminder that someday spring will come and this location will be spectacular.
The restaurant is immediately welcoming, with a warm wood bar, a heated tile floor, and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows revealing the harbor view to every table. Three women at the bar are dishing about the new guy at work, couples both young and middle-aged are huddled in conversation, and there’s a 30th birthday party at the far end. There are even a few out-of-towners for whom a Boston restaurant with harbor views probably seems like a tradition rather than a recent innovation. The small TV over the bar has the game on, but the sound is off and nobody’s paying much attention. If you’re interested in watching, the screens at Jerry Remy’s place, 100 long yards away, are much bigger even from a distance.
Everybody seems to have a cocktail from the lengthy drinks menu. Many of the selections are “green libations” and include organic liquors and healthy restorative juices. I’m looking to restore my sanity on a Friday night, not my health, so I choose the Spicy Dirty martini. With a generous dollop of olive juice, a pepperoncini, and olives stuffed with blue cheese, it’s more than dirty: it’s downright filthy. A rye Manhattan has just the right balance of sweetness and bitters. The Winter Blues margarita incorporates organic juices and orange liqueur in a way that brings to mind fresh fruit, not melted Popsicles. The seasonal apple-pear cognac, with some brandy, cinnamon, and nutmeg, is too heavy on spices, but the Twisted Apple Cider with rum is simple and warming. Non-alcoholic drinks are less successful: a server whisks away a house-made ginger beer from a disappointed patron and the Blood Coconut made with blood orange juice and coconut water is not much better. (Can we agree that coconut water gives a bad name to both coconuts and water?)
Service is friendly and attentive, including the host who handles crowds with grace (when a place this size doesn’t take reservations, there can be a wait, but there’s usually room to squeeze in at the bar until your table is ready). Our server is eager to recommend appetizers, and they’re quite good here. Clam chowder is classic and it had better be at a restaurant in the shadow of Legal Harborside: thick, creamy, and full of potatoes that haven’t lost their texture. A Mainer proclaims, “This tastes like my childhood,” and we all agree even though our childhoods taste more like grilled cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup. The calamari are just about perfect: light, crisp, seemingly grease-free, and served with both a simple tartar sauce and a marinara packed with fresh basil. Pumpkin ravioli in sage and tomato vodka sauce is also carefully prepared with al dente pasta topped with sweet roasted pumpkin and shaved Parmesan. Only a salad of mixed greens comes up short, composed of chopped romaine and mushy roasted butternut squash in a vinaigrette that could have come out of a bottle.
Entrees continue the theme of simple, unpretentious crowd favorites prepared with skill. A bowl of steamed mussels is plump and perfectly paired with smoky chorizo. The slight acidity of fresh tomatoes cuts the richness of the saffron cream sauce. It’s big enough to share, and share we do, though the single piece of bread provided isn’t nearly enough to sop up all the savory sauce.
Nantucket seafood stew is a rustic combination of shrimp, cod, swordfish, halibut, and scallops in a tomato broth. Though the deep flavors of the sea suggest long, slow simmering on the stove top, the shrimp and potatoes are still toothsome. This is home cooking that’s actually hard to make this well at home. Fillet of cod is moist below a crisp sear and topped with a classic lemon, garlic, and butter sauce. Wild salmon sits astride a mix of lentils, mushroom, and spinach. The red pepper coulis provides color and not much else, but the batons of fried polenta have a delicious crunch that contrasts with the silky texture of the fish.
The meat side of the menu is almost as good. Porterhouse pork chop is a plump, juicy wonder on top of rich shallot mashed potatoes. Beef medallions are glazed with a red wine reduction and served with garlicky mash and still-crisp green beans. Surprisingly for a restaurant devoted to the basics, the burger is not very good. The Italian bistro version topped with mozzarella, tomato, and pesto sounds like a good idea on the menu, but though the beef is well-cooked, the mozzarella is unmelted and rubbery and the tomato speaks more of supermarket in winter than Italy in summer. After the skill shown frying the calamari, the pale slightly soggy fries that accompany the burger are unexpected and unwelcome.
When dessert comes, skip the thin creme brulee and order molten chocolate cake with ice cream. Cake and ice cream arrive in two ramekins at either end of an oblong plate: hot facing cold, chocolate facing vanilla. We’re smiling even before we take the first bite, the flavor surprise following the visual one.
All in all, it’s been a night of nice surprises. As we bundle up to head out, we take another look at those outdoor tables. Maybe a warm sunny winter lunch will bring us out here before spring arrives.