Quite a transformation of space: Ashmont Grill opening so close you can taste it

By 
Jim O'Sullivan
Aug. 31, 2005

Occasionally, a prospective customer drops in and asks if the place is open for business, or the phone rings with the same question, or one of the local investors on the prowl for a free meal pops his head in to inquire.

The answer: Not yet, but close.

Ashmont Grill is in the final throes of its prep stage. Rotisserie chickens turn gracefully on a spit encased in glass and visible from the dining room. Fire inspectors tour the newly-expanded Peabody Square building and check off, a large hurdle that leaves the staff visibly relieved. Employees sample croissants and pronounce them "buttery."

A matter of local interest, since its intentions became public 15 months ago, the Ashmont Grill's conversion - from the bomb shelter-like Ashmont Grille to a classed-up, neighborhood-themed eatery run by award-winning restaurateur Chris Douglass, himself an Ashmont Hill resident - is, in kitchen parlance, up. Douglass said a few permits remain undelivered, but that the Grill should be open for business next week.

"I keep saying I want to get out of the construction business and back to the restaurant business," Douglass said Tuesday, as the chickens continued browning and chefs chopped onions in the kitchen. The owner and chef at South End's tony Icarus restaurant, the lower-key Grill represents both a homecoming and departure for Douglass.

The construction phase, close to seven months, has taken the McDonough brothers' Dot Ave. dive and made it, as one investor put it this week, "South Endy" - brightly lit, with hanging lampshades recycled from the stamped-out sheets used to mold spatulas. Behind the bar, a wall of 18-inch pipes await wine bottles and a lucite sheet that will fit in behind them and cast a glow of blue light over the bar. The bar itself is a long and curvy cherrywood affair, the same material used for the dining area's two-tops and booth tables.

Out back, a stone patio will hold 50 of the restaurant's seats, Douglass said, set back from the avenue and shielded from the sun by oversized "shade sails" shipped in from Australia.

"Quite a transformation of space," said Gary Barsomian, the Alban St. artist who crafted the Grill's woodwork.

Aside from Barsomian and a little fiscal borrowing - of the Grill's 40 or so investors, most are Dorchester people - the place has pulled from the neighborhood other talents. A Melville Avenue husband-wife team runs the website. Kitchen manager Alicia McCabe, an Icarus import, said the pastry staff is Dorchester-grown, while much of the rest of the kitchen commutes south from Cambridge. The florist is local. The general manager lived in Jones Hill and is stinting in the South End while looking to move closer to the Grill. Even the pizzas are named for local streets - the Talbot, the Melville, the Welles - and "the Peabody Square," the pie menu's most loaded offering: chicken, smoked bacon, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and mozzarella.

In its all-things-to-all-diners quest, the Grill's menu is versatile. Were it a member of the world champion Red Sox, it would be Tim Wakefield: adaptable, workmanlike, ready to go whenever, and always eager to cross up anyone lazy enough to approach the plate not looking for the knuckler.

Opening each morning at 7 a.m., breakfast is walk-up-and-order, with pastries and breakfast sandwiches at the ready, or boxed lunches and made-to-order salads and andwiches for commuters. The restaurant is equipped with wireless Internet access, McCabe said, for some pre-Red Line e-mailing. On weekends, a sit-down brunch replaces breakfast on the fly, replete with pressed Cuban sandwiches and four-ounce Pearl hot dogs (though the debate rages internally about whether or not to include baked beans with the brunch menu). "I think all the construction workers for the train station over the next three years will be very happy with our hot dogs," McCabe said.

Many of the lunch options carry over, including the house-cured pastrami used in the reubens and a salad roster.

Dinner brings out the rotisserie chicken, along with the road pizzas, the wood-grilled fish. and the pasture-raised burgers, the pappardelle bolognese parmesan. A dessert menu hews to the theme of affordability: espresso flan and flourless chocolate torte, both within reason.

Inheriting the former occupier's liquor license, the Grill will serve alcohol until 1 a.m., Doyle said, including a rotating wine special of Douglass's choice, and a beer list that includes the rarely-seen Victory Hopdevil, a Pennsylvania-brewed IPA.

Adding a different kind of flavor is the staff, which includes the expected waitstaff and kitchen whizzes who ply their trades professionally, but also a few more exotic part-timers. There's a bartender who's an attorney. A hat-and-bag designer who's a waitress. Another waitress whose day job is training monkeys to help the handicapped.

Their mission will be to see off the most anticipated restaurant opening in recent Dorchester memory. The Grill's success is tied into the rejuvenation of Peabody Square itself, which planners insist relies on the redevelopment of Ashmont Station and an adjacent development project that has run into funding trouble.

But the larger goals will have to wait; for now, Douglass and the staff are fretting over fussy telephone wires, buttery croissants, and the fire inspectors who appeared to have unnerved Douglass and the staff.

"Uh-oh," Douglass said, as an alarm technician examined the ear-splitting fire alarm. "Should that be going off?" Douglass asked his brother Jim, who has overseen the renovations. Jim nodded reassuringly, and soon fire inspectors and alarm technicians were on their way, having signed off on the Grill's security, another hurdle cleared.

"The logistics of it alone are mind-boggling," Jim Douglass said of the renovation and the opening.

"Absolutely nuts," Chris Douglass put it.

2005