Thursday, February 21, 2013

Back to Canton

Long, long ago - back in the pre-Cooper days - I lived on Fleet Street in Canton.

My roommate Alison and I fancied ourselves social butterflies. We went out at least five nights a week, though we didn't branch out too much in our choice of venue. Claddaghs, Coburn's, maybe  Razorbacks or Canton Cabana thrown in once in a while.

Then Cooper and I started dating (we met for the first time at the Cabana and our relationship sparked, I guess you could say, at Claddaghs). And Alison moved in with her boyfriend Sean (aka Cooper's college friend and Mike's lifelong BFF) and we all grew up and got married and had kids.

And our Canton days came to an end.

In the nearly 11 years since I moved out of the house on Fleet Street, Canton has grown up quite a bit. Claddaghs still sits in its corner on the Square, but most of our other old haunts have moved on, replaced by new places and new crowds (who, let's be honest, aren't actually that different from the old crowds). New houses have popped up all over town. New restaurants, too. And the people we went out with - the ones who didn't move out before the housing market collapsed - now have kids, so the neighborhood has a new sheen of family-friendliness.

Family-friendly wasn't our goal last weekend, when Cooper, Mike, Alicia and I piled into a cab and headed down to the Square. But as it turns out, our first stop - Plug Ugly's - was pretty packed with kids.

We got there early, around 6:30, which probably explains the kid-friendly atmosphere. Our plan was to have a few drinks and some appetizers before heading to a surprise party, thrown by Alison for Sean's 39th birthday.

Actually, our initial plan was to go to Mama's on the Half Shell, but even at 6:30, there was a line out the door. Plug Ugly's was a perfectly good substitute.

Cooper and I had a drink there last summer, on Jeff's birthday, and liked the space very much. Housed in the old Helen's Garden, Plug Ugly's renovation was legendary for its craaaaazy slow pace. All that time was worth it, though - the space is warm and comfortable, and it reflects the late 19th century time period for which the bar is named (the Plug Uglies were a political gang of sorts).

Overall, we were very happy with our experience. We were psyched to see bowls of half-and-half (mixed cream of crab and Maryland crab soups) on the menu - Island View Cafe is the only other place I've seen that (outside of my own dining room). Plug Ugly's versions of both soups were excellent.

The rest of our crab-oriented apps were just as good. Crab and corn fritters with Old Bay aioli were lighter, but just as tasty, as we expected and the crab dip was some of the best I've had in a while, with noticeable lumps of crabmeat. (And I eat a lot of crab dip.)

House-made potato chips, seasoned with Old Bay, were a great call, too - and perfect for dipping in the crab dip.

The only controversial dish was a plate of mussels with sausage, steamed in a saffron beer broth. Cooper and Mike loved them. I thought the mussels were cooked nicely, but that the broth had a sort of weird metallic flavor. Alicia didn't like them at all.

However, I maintain that the wine Alicia and I were drinking was the problem. We both liked the wine - a grassy sauvignon blanc - but I think it didn't mesh well with the saffron in the broth. These things do happen.

So the food was good, but the service was better. Even before she knew that Mike is old friends with the owners - even before Mike's aunt walked through the bar with one of the owners' dads - our waitress was sweet, helpful, and prompt. More impressively, she wasn't the only one. Every kid bussing tables was polite and attentive - we watched them keeping an eye out for empty water glasses and dirty plates.

After dinner, we headed northeast a few blocks (via cab - it was cold!) to the Cardinal Tavern, where we'd help Sean ring in the year leading up to the big four-oh.

It would be hard for any of the four of us to be objective about the Cardinal Tavern, since we all go way back with Larry, the owner. He's a super likable guy - big heart, jovial, etc. - so it's no surprise that his bar is very likable, too.

It's under renovation right now, so from the outside, it looks like a big old mess, with scaffolding and a ton of dust. But inside it's warm and cozy, with exposed brick and lots of polished wood.

Larry's into music, so it wasn't too much of a surprise to see a jukebox in the corner, but it did remind us that jukeboxes seem like a rarity these days. Cooper and I spent a lot of time huddled over jukeboxes when we first started dating; we did the same thing as soon as we got to the bar last Saturday night. The music is decidedly un-poppy...which I like, and which felt right for the place.

Because we were at a party, I didn't have much of a chance to saddle up to the bar to really get to know the bartenders and what the place is all about. But I will say this - drinks came quickly and the mixed ones were good. So there's that.

Apparently an expansion and possible food might be in the cards for the Cardinal Tavern, which would make it even better.

A few hours, and several drinks, later, we piled back into a cab, which then drove us home via 95 (despite our requests to go through the city), charging us 50% more than the cab driver who drove us downtown.

Definitely not like my quick stumble home during the Fleet Street days. But still better in so many ways.

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