(09/15/11) (02/01/12) (02/12/12) (03/07/12)
Abigail's is one the Kendall Square new breed that along with Area 4, Catalyst, Mead Hall and Firebrand Saints) helped turn the area into one of Boston's hottest dining and drinking destinations. The space is modern with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, a long bar and comfortable leather booths under a curved wall that looks like a jet cabin. Take a look around the bar, dining room and kitchen (viewable from the street behind glass) and you'll see many familiar faces if you're also a fan of East Coast Grill across town. Chef-owner James Ludwig and chef Jason Lord, both alums of ECG, have followed that tradition of well-thought yet unpretentious food in a hip and casual setting.
The Abigail's menu breaks down into raw bar, small plates, sandwiches and entrees. It's definitely not a barbecue joint, but the barbecue influence is obvious: smoked shrimp, pulled pork sandwich, BBQ brisket sandwich, smoked lamb sandwich, slow cooked lamb ribs. On the Sunday BBQ brunch, meats like brisket, pulled pork hash and babyback ribs are plated with eggs and included in breakfast sandwiches. Entrees veer out into lighter fare like roast chicken and grilled fish. Sandwiches also include a much discussed West Coast style burger.
I scattered three weeknight visits with friends across a six month span, initially not thinking Abigail's would be review fodder. There was also a Sunday BBQ Brunch visit in the mix.
Mussels: Perfectly cooked, strong on flavor but light of broth quantity, the mussels ($12) were a big hit on the first visit. No slight against the mussels, but the surprise star was the grilled toast that had a wonderfully thick crust and a more yielding interior brushed with coated butter and herbs.
Lamb ribs: Three well crusted lamb ribs ($12) formed a virtual pyramid beside a pool of spicy yogurt. That crust bore plenty of flavorful rub and brilliant crispness with hints of the pomegranate glaze, giving way to a succulent interior. Lamb flavor was on full throttle, elevated by the rub density and a light kiss of smoke. Whether nibbled as is or dipped into the yogurt (seemed like more of a hummus), they had plenty of moistness. One of the ribs had a glob of fat—it is lamb—but the other two were perfect.
BBQ Chicken Wings: Coated with a standard-looking but Caribbean-tasting barbecue sauce, the wings ($10) brought good crispness, mild smokiness and a more dominant grill finish. Overall flavor was satisfactory, as was texture, but there was no compelling hook to bring me back.
Ox tail pot pie: This is a hearty winter dish ($12) that's sure to depart the menu not too long after the seasons change, and that would be a shame. Under a floating pie crust lay mounds of ultratender meat, likely cooked for hours and lubricated by braising liquids and its own fat. Thin shreds fell apart upon fork contact. A few tossed-in winter vegetables rounded out the dish that screamed flavor from the first bite.
Pulled pork sandwich: Topped with cole slaw and fried onion strings on the first visit, the pulled pork sandwich ($10 with fries or salad) arrived with a good amount of meat on a soft, fresh bun. The pork itself was of perfect tenderness but extremely light of bark, color and smoke, leading me to wonder if it's actually smoked (there's no claim either way). Overall flavor? Very light, with no sauce to bail it out. The second visit's pulled pork had all the same characteristics, with the only difference being that the onions were no longer a part of the sandwich. There's no way around it: this was a disappointment twice, whether judged as a "barbecue" pulled pork sandwich, a "civilian" pulled pork sandwich or just a sandwich.
BBQ Brisket Sandwich: When you include the word "BBQ" as part of the sandwich name, you're holding yourself to a higher standard among aficionados. From a barbecue standpoint, this sandwich ($11) was a letdown, delivering little if any smoke and no real barbecue texture other than mimicking East Coast Grill's burnt ends. That said, from a pure sandwich it was absolutely and utterly fantastic. All of the ingredients were in perfect proportion to one another and fulfilled their role: the cheese was soft and slightly melty; a fried egg was runny enough to sauce it vigorously while keeping to the ensemble concept; the tart peppers added a nice flavor jolt; the beef never dominated but never got lost; the bun was soft, fresh and pliable enough enough to trap all those fillings. Barbecue or not, this is a sandwich for the ages.
Smoked lamb sandwich: This sandwich ($13) used pulled lamb that delivered sufficient lambiness but barely any smoke. I loved the fresh ciabatta, but unlike the brisket sammy, this one couldn't fall back on overall construction to bail it out. There was too much condiment (babaganoush, spicy yogurt) for the meat and not enough of either for the bread. I liked the vegetation (arugula and pickled red onion).
Burger: Prior to the opening, I'd heard some murmurs about the burger in development at Abigail's, and my mind was racing with anticipation. The last thing I was expecting was burger simplicity, but that's what they do at Abigail's and they do it fairly well. The thin beef patty is ordinary of blend but cooked nicely, bringing a delicate crust, modest salting and slight juiciness (but let's be honest, I want more of all three). There's a gentle bounce to the beef that I like. Toppings are basic American cheese, lettuce and tomato, a familiar Thousand Island style condiment and a fresh potato bun. Although there's no wow factor and no chance of contending for Boston's best, it's a solid, reasonably executed burger on three separate occasions. At $9 with fries ("double down" to add an extra patty—and extra bun piece, a la the Big Mac—for an extra $4), it's a low budget snack that satisfies. The hand-cut, skin-on fries are superb, ironically bringing a stupendous crust and aggressive salting that set an example for the more understated beef to follow.
Sunday BBQ Brunch Brisket: Neither a hint of pink nor the slightest whiff of smoke
accented the top-billed player in the Brisket and Eggs ($12 with smoked
home fries and unbuttered toast), but the pile of half-inch slices ran
at least six-deep and were as tender as you could get without being
mushy or steamy. Flavor brought only a restrained beefiness that relied
on a boost from the drizzle of sweet brown barbecue sauce. It might
resemble a store-bought number, but that sauce had enough heat, sweet,
nuance and chemical-free flavor to elevate it above its lookalike
cousin. There are a number of breakfast sandwich options, but the best
one might be making your own using the brisket, eggs and toast already
on this plate.
Sunday BBQ Brunch Pulled Pork Hash: The busiest dish ($13 with two eggs, collard greens, baked beans and two squares of girdled cornbread) delivered a hash that's less integrated than your typical diner variety. I consider that an upgrade, since the large chunks of pork—some crispy, some tender, all very lightly coated with a faintly sweet liquid—pack more flavor that way. As with the brunch brisket, none of that flavor was smoky or reminiscent of the classic barbecue profile, but it was nonetheless satisfying. The griddled cornbread was very corny, with its sweetness accentuated on the just-crispy-enough bottom. Beans were firm with subtle sweetness. Simply dressed collards came in just past wilting. All in all, a good value that would be a downright steal if the barbecue component were more successful.
Sunday BBQ Brunch Ribs: A pair of babybacks ($3 each a la carte) supplied the only signs of pink from slow smoking, along with a crispy crust speckled with rub. Texture was exactly what it should be, with the crunchy exterior yielding to the moist and gentle meat within. Flavor brought up the rear, supplying a light smoke and traces of the rub, but the sauce again had to save the day.
Although barbecue influenced, Abigail's isn't really a barbecue joint, so there's no need for barbecue sauce on the tables. The dark, sweet sauce applied to some of the brunch meats was a nice improvement over the storebought classic.
Fries: Some of the best fries I've had, with plenty of salt, dark color, a strong potatoey taste and pronounced textural contrast between crisp exterior and fluffy interior.
Brussels sprouts: The pancetta was in there but never adhered to the vegetable, which wasn't cooked long enough.
In steering the ordering towards the dishes easiest for sharing and of greatest interest to the PigTrip audience, I admittedly created a glaring omission: no entrees. Ironically, that omission may be doing a disservice to the review, especially since a couple of the Abigail's cooks have at ECG many times prepared grilled seafood so good that I usually ordered it instead of their solid barbecue. I don't think it's a great stretch to assume that the Abigail's entrees would be an area of strength that would tip the review more in their favor. Maybe by saying this I'm playing favorites, but by not saying this I wouldn't be playing fair.
The Bottom Line
I want to love Abigail's, but for now there are too many ups and downs to get past like. We'll take it slow from here and see how it goes.
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