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High Street Grill occupies part of a converted factory building in a small industrial area of North Andover that's surprisingly nestled right alongside a mostly residential neighborhood. There's a small bar just inside the main entrance and a larger bar area with tables and standing room a little further back. The spacious dining room has the departed factory's original brick walls and high cielings, with some gear machinery on display and a view into an open kitchen. An outdoor deck offers more seating and a separate bar in the warmer months. This is a clean, cozy establishment that's a little more upscale than your basic barbecue joint.
Owner Kristi Morris is the former manager at East Coast Grill in Cambridge. East Coast Grill chef/owner Chris Schlesinger is a partner and consultant. There's naturally some overlap, but High Street Grill has managed to carve out its own identity, with a completely different approach to the barbecue items and a more suburban take on casual dining.
This review holds the distinction of having the most visits to the restaurant before being posted for the first time. Much of that has to do with the major revamps to the menu and recipes within the first several months of operation. Ribs changed from St Louis cut to spare ribs. Burnt ends sandwiches looked drastically different from visit to visit. Wings got added, first smoked, later fried. Sauces got tweaked. Cornbread changed more often than I could possibly track. The pricing structure improved. Things have settled down now and things are mostly good. Half the visits were on weekends with my wife and half the visits were on weeknights with friends.
Barbecue items include pork spare ribs, brisket and pulled pork, each available by the platter or as a BBQ Trio. Babybacks are available as a fixed platter with mac and cheese. Pulled pork is also available as a sandwich, as are brisket burnt ends (there's no sliced brisket sandwich). Ribs can also be ordered as single bones with Asian or American barbecue sauce. Beyond barbecue, the appetizers menu offers chili, Buffalo shrimp, fried oysters, fried calamari, mussels, wings, nachos and four different salads. Entrees are equally seafood focused, with tuna Nicoise, pan seared scallops, BBQ salmon and assorted specials. Sandwiches include a burger, grilled chicken and pastrami.
Modeled after the General Xiao Jianming wet bone at East Coast Grill, the single Asian wet bone at High Street Grill is both a bargan ($2) and a great rib. Served with lime wedges, it combines ginger, garlic and soy with some sweet heat to envelop the pleasantly smoky meat with another layer of bold flavors. But this rib isn't just a showcase for the intriguing sauce—beneath lies a perfectly smoked specimen that has some crispy edges and tender, pink inner meat. Single bones are also available for the traditional barbecue rib, at the same price.
As much as I like the wet bones, that's how much I dislike the chili. I do like that there's some originality, but I don't really like the specific choices. Beans are included, as are large chunks of stewed tomato and crouton-like cubes of soft cornbread. Heat has been inconsistent, with virtually none on early visits but a noticeable kick more recently. The brisket in the chili has been good.
Wings have gone through three phases. The earliest menus didn't offer wings, then a smoked version with choice of sauce was good enough to make my January 2009 Favorite Wings list. More recently, the wings have been deep fried (without batter), making them crisp without being heavy. They're nicely done and a good vehicle for the sauce (BBQ or Buffalo), but I miss those smoked wings.
Calamari offers a big bowl of seafood with a light batter that allows you to get some crispness without obscuring the seafood within. The portion is generous; the aioli accompaniment is typical but good.
Ribs these days at High Street Grill are big, meaty spare ribs, usually bearing a well-defined crust, a more-than-noticeable smoke level, good tenderness, a robust pink color and a pleasing, porky flavor with just a bit of help from the rub. The sauce that's applied is a startlingly pleasing blend of sweet, hot and tangy that would not be out of place in a barbecue competition. On the rare off day, the ribs have leaned a little toward the tough side, but more often than not the ribs here are excellent.
Pulled pork might just be the best thing on the barbecue menu, but it depends on your sauce preference and/or tolerance. I'm a North Carolina vinegar fan, and that style of pulled pork served at East Coast Grill is not served here. Instead, the sauce is a mostly sweet, slightly mustardy version that's closer to High Street Grill's rib sauce. While it's not my preference, I think it does a decent enough job. The pork usually has a good assortment of chunks and strings, with a good bark ratio. Smoke level varies, but it's always there. What hasn't varied is the reliable freshness of the meat: in over a half dozen samples I never got the impression that I was eating the previous day's leftovers. The pork has also succeeded in being perfectly moist and tender—while deftly avoiding mushy—in each of those samples.
Brisket has had its ups and downs at High Street Grill, but for the most part the slices are thick, pleasantly smoky, moderately to very tender and graced with some crisp edges and untrimmed fat to lend some flavor. As with the pulled pork, the saucing can be a deal breaker if you're not digging the sweet, but you can easily order the brisket unsauced.
The burnt ends sandwich here is a generous pile of crispy meat from the "point" or "deckle," the fattiest part of the brisket. As expected, the meat is quite moist and the high bark ratio provides good barbecue flavor that manages to thrust some beefiness past the super sweet sauce. Sweet isn't my first choice with brisket (this sauce works much better with the ribs), but I'm really starting to like this sandwich.
The High Street Burger is decent. The chicken the one time I tried it was underdone. A tuna Nicoise was tender and flavorful, as was a seared tuna appetizer from one of the earliest menus. But I usually stick with the barbecue offerings, which overall are very good.
Sauces are served on or with the barbecue meats, with none on the table for discretionary use. The primary barbecue sauce is a sweet, well-rounded concoction that works really well with the ribs—so well that I'd recommend it for use in competition. It's also pretty good on the smoked wings, but on the pulled pork (tempered with a mustardy kick) and brisket, it's too sweet.
Sides at High Street Grill are mostly very good. Cole slaw is the most notable exception, with the attractive, thin-cut cabbage sabotaged by a condiment that's unthinkably bland. Fries, on the other hand, are house-cut, fried perfectly crisp and liberally seasoned. High Street Grill's onion rings might just be the best in the area: they're sliced very thin and coated with just enough of the crunchy batter to amplify the flavor without smothering the onion. Baked beans are small, cooked to an al dente texture and lightly coated with a very molassesey sauce. Greens were no longer on the menu as of my most recent visit, but on previous visits were prepared well, with a good balance of bright flavors and a texture that retained some of the leafiness. Mac and cheese is a bowl of tiny elbows, lathered in creamy, sharp white cheddar and baked to add a crunchy crust. Cornbread has gone through a few different iterations here; the most recent variety was dry and cakey with a possible infusion of vanilla.
My initial impression of High Street Grill's appetizers and non-barbecue entrees was that they were essentially charging East Coast Grill prices in a suburban setting, even though the overhead was presumably lower and neither the chef nor the restaurant had achieved any track record to justify doing so. That impression has changed. Pricing (most items now under $20), portion control and menu offerings have all been adjusted, making High Street Grill much more accomodating to both the suburban palate and the current fiscal climate.
The bottom line: If you're expecting the fiery, cutting edge Equatorial cuisine that's the hallmark of East Coast Grill, you may be in for a let down, but for barbecue and sophisticated casual dining High Street Grill is a solid pick. The barbecue sauces lean toward the very sweet, pairing best with the ribs, less successfully with the pork and brisket. That caveat aside, I've found that across the board, all three meats are well above average and on a most days rank with the best barbecue in the greater Boston area. With pricing and portions now adjusted, High Street Grill offers a combination of good eats, good atmosphere and good value that's a rare treat in the 'burbs.
Devra First's Boston Globe review of High Street Grill
Yelp reviews of High Street Grill
Urban Spoon reviews of High Street Grill