Dog Bar fetches locals with warm welcome

By Ann Luisa Cortissoz, Globe Staff    August 13, 2008

It was the name that attracted us when we were looking for a place to eat in Gloucester after a day at the beach: Dog Bar. Could we bring our dogs into the dining room, we wondered hopefully? No, it turns out. Were there paintings of dogs playing poker on the walls? No again.

The name Dog Bar, explains owner Andy Mulholland, is taken from the breakwater at the entrance of Gloucester's harbor, where a lighthouse welcomes boats and guides them in. Mulholland says he wanted locals to feel welcome in his year-old restaurant and bar - as we did one night when we sat down and our server came to the table and told us, "I just put some rolls in the oven for you." It's a basement space on a historic block of Main Street (though the back is at street level, and there's a pretty stone patio). The dining room's Rockport granite walls, fireplace, and dark-wood furniture give the restaurant (prosaically called 65 Main) the feel of a pleasant medievalpub.

There's nothing medievalabout the food though. In fact, chef Joe Schulz gets all modern on asparagus, bok choy salad, and rigatoni and cheese, all of which accompany dishes on the menu. The asparagus, grilled till it's just a bit crispy on the outside, sits atop perfectly cooked risotto ($15). The grains of arborio rice, cooked with chicken broth, cream, and Parmesan, are plump and tender and have a delicate flavor that doesn't overwhelm the asparagus spears.

We choose bok choy salad to accompany swordfish skewered with pieces of pineapple and red onion ($12). The swordfish chunks are infused with the fruitandthe mildly sweet flavor of a honey-mustard glaze. Moist and meaty, the swordfish makes a satisfying summer meal with a salad of chopped bok choy mixed with pan-fried ramen noodles and almond slivers. The salad is misted rather than sodden with a fruity vinaigrette.

A pan-friedchicken breast and thigh, juicy inside and caramel-y sweet on the skin side, is served with rigatoni and cheese ($17). After we all havea bite, we find ourselvesfighting over the ramekin of al dente pasta in a cheesy bechamel sauce dusted with nutmeg. Mulholland confirms it's a customer favorite. "One woman asked if we could fill her hot tub with it," he says. (The staff convinced her it was a bad idea.)

In addition to the entrees, there are several pressed sandwiches on the menu. We try the three-cheese ($9), which turns out to be provolone, cheddar, and Swiss cheese and a compote of green apples, cranberries, and Dijon mustard between large slices of ciabatta. The smooth melted cheese, chunky compote, and chewy bread make for a grown-up version of a childhood favorite.

Appetizers are less interesting. The hot jalapenos in the crab-meat filled jalapeno poppers ($10) overwhelm the crab. Whisky shrimp ($12) have a pleasant smoky flavor that seems to be more from the grill than the alcohol; they're served with a chunky cocktail sauce that's weak on horseradish.

For dessert, pastry chef Rebecca Doyon's frozen key lime pie ($8) is quite good, according to our resident expert. She especially likes that the slice comes with three pieces of key lime that can be squeezed on the pie to make it more limey. Chocolate peanut butter lava cake a la mode ($8), which sounds way over the top, consists of a moist individual-size chocolate cake that's gooey in the middle on a plate drizzled with chocolate sauce and dotted with dollops of whipped cream. Nothing is overwhelmingly sweet, and the peanut butter offers a nice dimension. Vanilla ice cream adds cool creaminess.

We leave satisfiedand delighted to have found such a welcoming spot. Still, we wish we could have brought the dogs.