Burgers, fancy mac 'n' cheese, microbrews. Organic, local, on-trend. It's the kind of menu you expect to find in the North End. And while there are few surprises on the casual pub menu at Cloud 9 Brewery, the revelation is that no one in the neighborhood has done this already. At least not to this extent, and not in such confinement.
A successful Kickstarter campaign helped owners Maggie and Jake Lake transform the former Moxie Java at 17th and State streets into a "nanopub," producing batches of beer just big enough to supply the small restaurant.
It takes some square footage to make beer, even in a nanopub, and the gleaming, industrial brewery takes up about half of the room, encased in glass, filling the air with a waft of hot oatmeal on brewing days. In the back of the restaurant, on the way to the restroom, you're exposed to all the machinations of the kitchen - an open presentation that feels less intended than it is necessary.
A row of tables with a bench seat runs along the wall, and the rest of the narrow room is filled by the bar, with stools around the "L" of the concrete countertop. Sports are on the TVs, dance music overhead. Bartenders pour from winged Cloud 9 tap handles. One chalkboard lists the house beers and guest taps, and the opposite board displays the food specials.
On a busy weeknight, sitting with my back to the bar at one of the small tables, the issue was less that the restaurant was small, but out of balance. The bar dominates the atmosphere and the attention of everyone in the room. Servers huddle behind the bar in part because there's nowhere else to go, and the mere inability to see their tables from that vantage point meant that there were jumbled gaps in service. (A full patio is coming, which will help. For now, a few outdoor tables are penned inside velvet ropes.) Service at the bar, though, was attentive and welcoming.
On our first visit, the only house-made beers available were a honey-basil and a blood orange wit, both a little esoteric. We preferred the NSN ("never say never") IPA on our next trip, and a very drinkable salted caramel stout.
The short, sly menu of sandwiches and salads takes few risks, with several dishes that sound like something I've had elsewhere but can't quite place. This sounds like a complaint, but it is not. Familiarity is fine strategy in a new restaurant, and the ambition is directed at capturing trends the North End audience will recognize, such as gluten-free bread and a well-made gluten-free dark chocolate torte. And nothing on the regular menu is over $10.50. (Add-ons such as grilled organic chicken will push the price of some items over that line).
My wife and I liked the apple-pecan salad ($5.50 for a petite version, just fine for one person; $8.95 for full size) with gorgonzola and a good, house-made (of course) honey-pear vinaigrette. And I liked the kale Caesar ($4.50/$7.50), but grilling the kale first and serving it cold made the greens watery rather than wilted.
That organic burger ($9.50) was good but unmemorable, with the "had-it-everywhere" combo of a Gaston's Bakery bun and Ballard cheese. At least it was not 14 bucks. On this occasion, the hand-cut fries were disappointing, greasy and not at all crisp.
The fries were a bit better on another visit in the blue cheese fries appetizer ($8), draped in a tangy cream sauce and studded with cheese and bacon. But you can't just throw raw potatoes in the fryer and hope for the best - without technique and process, they end up limp.
The roasted veggie sandwich ($9.50) with hummus and olive tapenade was better than most obligatory vegetarian placeholders. The Portobello mushroom, zucchini, red pepper, and onion were flavorful and retained unexpectedly good texture.
With a scoop of organic quinoa-black bean salad on the side, I experienced rare discovery: A healthy meal at a pub that actually tasted good.
The mac 'n' cheese ($9.50, served with a side) was another good version of a dish we expect too little of - with enough sauce, sharp cheese flavor and nice crust on macaroni noodles.
The best thing we tried was the street taco appetizer - two mini corn tortilla tacos with your choice of fillings, a deal for $4. The juicy, shredded pork carnitas tacos have a bit of heat from chipotle and some sweetness from orange. The "Seoul" tacos were even better, with grilled whitefish and a streak of sweet Korean BBQ sauce, topped with shredded cabbage.
On each visit, I've seen subtle refinements in the menu, and the brewery production seems to have caught up to demand. The business model and scale seem like a good match for the neighborhood, and locals have taken notice. As summer opens, Cloud 9 feels like a new bike-and-walk destination.
Email: Alex Kiesig at email@example.com