Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.
Cowritten with Shreyan Jain
Published Oct 31, 2019
PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRIAN SAMUELS PHOTOGRAPHY
Asian Fusion, $$
11 William E. Mullins Way
Boston, MA 02118
Monday–Sunday dinner 5 p.m.–11 p.m., bar until 1 a.m.
You may not notice the entrance to Shore Leave as you walk right past it on the street. Nestled between an apartment complex and an office building in Boston’s bustling South End, the restaurant exists in its own tucked-away corner two floors below the ground with only one plain hanging sign announcing its presence to the outside world. But that’s surely part of the charm of this establishment, which aims to impress with its decor and ambience just as much as with its delightfully innovative menu. Once you stumble into Shore Leave, you’ll find yourself transported into a tropical oasis nothing like the chilly city aboveground.
Upon making our way inside, our immediate reaction was surprise. Shore Leave makes the most of its space, managing to feel rather spacious and breezy while also evoking a more upscale aura than your conventional underground tiki bar. Although the decor, particularly the bamboo paneling and lush rainforest paintings on the walls, fits the theme of tropical getaway, the dim lighting coupled with a comprehensive menu of small plates suggests a greater focus on fine dining and intimate conversation. With most of the tables occupied by older professionals enjoying private meals and few visitors at the bar itself, you might almost forget that Shore Leave advertises itself as a “subterranean tiki party.” We would suggest closing your eyes and experiencing the music for a second — the lively blend of Afro-Caribbean and Asian beats will surely help set the mood. If you’re still unconvinced, perhaps the drinks menu might help.
Although almost every cocktail served at Shore Leave is rum-based, unique ingredients like red bean, cinnamon, yuzu, and ginger give each drink a completely distinct flavor palette. There’s something for everyone here, from those who prefer the stronger and more bitter tones of a Negroni to those more inclined towards sweeter, fruitier drinks. We would especially recommend the “Take Me With You,” their take on a frozen daiquiri that had just the perfect hint of vanilla in every sip. The strongest selling point, however, is definitely presentation; the bar’s namesake drink “Shore Leave,” made with white rum sourced locally from Ipswich, arrives in a cup shaped like a coconut topped off by a crunchy candy made with angostura bitters. Of course, at their price point, you shouldn’t expect anything less.
When it came time to eat, we found ourselves having to choose from a long list of vaguely beach-themed snacks and small plates hailing from all around the world. The menu certainly had a fusion bent to it, with titles such as “Hokkaido Popcorn,” “General Gau Brussels,” and “Tikka Pork Rinds,” suggesting a common theme of inventive riffs on contemporary Asian classics. After taking some suggestions about fan favorites from our waitress, we ended up choosing three different items seemingly adapted from Vietnamese, Chinese, and Mediterranean cuisines.
We began our meal with a crispy rice salad that incorporates a different fruit every season. Ours consisted of a hearty amount of grapefruit, and although we found the dish to have just a bit too much citrus for our tastes, the texture was an incredible balance between soft and crunchy. We then moved to their scallion pancakes, which came with a side of King Crab Dip that our waitress called the highlight of the menu. The dish certainly did not disappoint; while scallion pancakes may be one of the most ubiquitous Chinese appetizers, the pancakes at Shore Leave were among the freshest and crispiest we’ve had in Boston, complete with an accompaniment of chilli oil that was the perfect counterbalance to the citrus of our salad and drinks. And although the dip suffered from an overabundance of mayo, the crab itself was seasoned quite well, giving a unique and quintessentially American spin on an Asian classic.
Unfortunately, the concluding dish of our meal, the cumin lamb skewers, fell quite short of our expectations. Though the skewers came with a refreshing side salad that included a generous serving of wolfberry, the lamb itself was rather chewy and took significant work to get through. And while we enjoyed the subtle but appetizing cumin flavoring, the skewers appeared thematically out of place with the rest of the offerings as the only dish without a clear inspiration from a global cuisine. We had expected something closer to the cumin lamb of Sichuan cuisine, but it appears that the title is an unfortunate misnomer.
Innovation is hard, and occasionally Shore Leave may fall victim to the scale of its own aspirations. Perhaps by trying its hand at so many different global cuisines, it fails to specialize in one, leading to the occasional dish that misses the mark. But, on the whole, a visit to Shore Leave is unlike any other dining experience we’ve had in the city. By pairing scallion pancakes and lamb skewers with beachy cocktails, the restaurant provides a mixing pot of flavors that ends up feeling inherently American. Whether for a casual drink with friends or for a meal with colleagues, Shore Leave is certainly well worth the trip.
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