Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Ellis Square Social: Beverly, BBQ & Booze

The Pandemic has caused numerous changes in the way restaurants operate, and different places have taken different routes, trying to remain viable in these challenging times. It's so unfortunate that not all will succeed. 

Ellis Square Social, located on Cabot Street in Beverly, was established in 2018 and is owned by Nikita Paras and Anesti Lazarides. Chef Jay Murray, who previously spent 18 years working at Grill 23, developed an eclectic menu of small plates. The restaurant also developed a high quality cocktail program. This Spring, after being closed for a time, Chef Murray reinvented their menu, now offering BBQ. It's a more casual menu, one what works well for take-out and delivery. In some respects, this is more upscale BBQ, yet the prices are very reasonable. Plus, the cocktail program remains as exciting as ever. I'm hoping Ellis Square Social succeeds during these trying times.

The restaurant is currently open for take-out and delivery from Tuesday to Saturday, starting at 4pm, and from Wednesday to Saturday for indoor and outdoor dining. Though the interior of the restaurant is small, and the bar cannot be used for the moment, the tables have all been properly spaced. There are also a number of tables set up outside, for those who don't want to dine inside the restaurant. I, and a guest, recently dined there for the first time, intrigued by the menu and wanting to check out somewhere new to me. We were impressed with our dining experience, and plan to return soon. And if I lived closer, I'd be ordering take-out on a regular basis.

The selections behind their bar are extensive and interesting, and they have a Cocktail list of about 28 cocktails, priced $11-$14, including Tiki drinks and Whiskey cocktails. The list intrigued me, with drinks like the Yia Mas, made with a mastitha spirit, maraschino, bitter lemon and cucumber, and the Thomas La Gusta Mas, made with mezcal, blonde lillet, lime, agave, and charred jalapeno. The Beer & Cider list primarily offers options from New England and there are twelve available on tap.

The Wine list, priced $25-$60 by the bottle, has some interesting choices, from Italian Frappato to Australian Grenache. Plenty of good choices to pair with BBQ and the bottle prices are also reasonable. In addition, there are about 10 wines, priced $11-$16, available by the glass.

The Proper Mai Tai ($11) is made with a rum blend, house made orgeat, and clement shrub. A fruity and tasty drink, which is always nice to see in a fun tiki glass.

The Ellis Square Manhattan ($14), made with a house solera bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters, is an excellent accompaniment with BBQ. A very well-made Manhattan that delighted my palate. 

The DB Cooper ($12), made with white and dark rum, white peach, fassionola, honey, and grapefruit bitters, was complex and delicious. It wasn't overly sweet, but had an interesting mix of fruit flavors and acidity. Refreshing and another good choice with BBQ. 

The Menu has plenty of options, though obviously it's meat heavy. You can start with the Build Yer Own, two options including Jo-Chos ($9, fried potato wedges with pico de gallo, smoked poblano crema, chile infused smoked cheddar) or a Caesar Salad ($9). To both of these items, you can opt for an add-on of Chili, various BBQ or shrimp. Also to start, there are 5 Snacks, including Wings ($11), Tacos ($4 each), and Steak Sticks ($3 each). 

For your entree, you can choose one of the 8 Bulk BBQ options, priced $14-$26, or select one of the Platters, which comes with choice of two sides. For the Platters, you can get 1 Meat ($18), 2 Meats ($20), or 3 Meats ($22). The choice of meats varies, but includes items such as pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, burnt ends, brisket, beef short ribs, and more. There are also 8 Sides ($1-$18), from Hopping John to Collards, Coleslaw to Cheese Grits. Or you can opt for one of their 6 Sammies, ($12-$16 with Jojo Fries), from a Sloppy Joe to a Burger, or one of their Specials, like Shrimp & Grits ($19) or Steak Tips ($18).

The Menu changes some items on occasion, such as you might find a Brisket Taco one day and another time there will be a Chipotle Chicken Taco. Or you might find Pulled Rabbit rather than Pulled Pork. That keeps things fresh, and gives you added reason to return. 

As you contemplate the menu, or await your drinks, you'll be served a complimentary basket of home-made Potato Chips with an onion dip. The chips are amply sized, salty and have a nice crunch, almost like a kettle chip. A fine way to start your dinner before your food arrives.

We began our dinner with a couple snacks, and they both impressed. The Hush Puppies ($9) are cornmeal fritters, with corn relish and cheddar, and served with a zesty pepperoncini crema. These were delicious little corn "donuts", with a nice crunchy exterior and a moist and fluffy interior.  The crema added a little bit of spice to them and I almost felt like we were starting with dessert. 

I loved their Chili ($9), which is made with prime beef brisket and heritage breed pork, as well as guajillo, ancho, arbol and chipotle chiles, tomatoes, hominy, their signature spice blend and ham hock broth. This was bursting with complex and alluring tastes, such a nice depth of flavor. There was an ample portion of tender shredded meat, with a few larger chunks too. The hominy added some nice texture and a tiny bit of sweetness. In the fall and winter, this is going to be perfect comfort food. And now I aspire to elevate my own home-made chili game. Highly recommended!

For entrees, we each ordered one of the Platters with three meats, so we could sample a larger selection of what they had to offer. This Platter had St. Louis Ribs, Steak Sticks, and Beverly "BTB," with sides of Jojo Fries and One Hot Mess. In addition, we had all four sauces, including BBQ, North Carolina Vinegar, Otis Sauce (a steak sauce), and Hot Sauce. The Steak Sticks were basically beef ribs while the "BTB", which means "better than brisket," was a different preparation which makes the meat have more of a consistency like ham. And the Hot Mess is a blend of collards, macaroni, cheese sauce, pulled pork and more. Jojo Potatoes are crispy, seasoned, skin-on potato wedges.

Both sides were very good, and the potato wedges were that excellent combination of crunchy and fluffy. Each of the meats delivered plenty, all being very tender, with both the St. Louis and steak ribs basically falling off the bone. They were meaty and had plenty of flavor, enhanced by the various sauces. The BTB was an interesting alternative, with a more firmer consistency, but also quite flavorful. Of the three, I preferred the St. Louis Ribs, but only by a slim margin. I'd order any of these three meats again. 

This Platter included Brisket (made from Snake River Farms American wagyu), Pulled Pork (made from a heritage breed pig), and Burnt Ends (made from Brandt Beef cheeks). For Sides, there was Cornbread and Cheese Grits (with some aged Gouda). The meats again were impressive, all tender and flavorful, enhanced by the sauces. The Burnt Ends just melted in my mouth, with a nice char accent, and the Pulled Pork, with the vinegar sauce, was another gustatory pleasure. The Brisket was also very good, enhanced by some of the BBQ sauce, and sometimes by the vinegar sauce. Of these three meats, my preference was the Burnt Ends, but again only by a very slim margin.

The grits were good too, and I enjoyed the addition of the Gouda to the creamy corn goodness. I wasn't a fan of their cornbread though, as I found it almost soggy and unappealing, a bit of a let down considering how much I enjoyed everything else. 

Overall, the food was excellent, with the minor exception of the corn bread, and I definitely want to try more items from the menu. The cocktails were excellent as well, though next time I'll likely try some of their wines. Service was very good, and our server was attentive and personable, as well as handling all the safety measures well. Ellis Square Social definitely earns my hearty recommendation and I look forward to my next visit. 

Addendum (9/2/20): On Facebook, Chef Jay Murray kindly addressed my issue with their Corn Bread. He stated, "Our first Ubereats customer hated it! She called it "slimy and greasy," which it is, btw. Cornbread is kind of a misnomer. It's really more like creamed corn pudding in muffin form, basted in butter, and it's our #1 seller. Some people buy 2 dozen to go, and then we run out early, but we don't have the ability to make more than we do. But consider this a warning: if slimy and greasy isn't for you, I'll be adding biscuits soon. With deviled ham and pimiento cheese and my mom's bell pepper jam."

So, I definitely understand their concept of a corn bread much better, and look forward to their Biscuits.

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