A stuffed dumpling at Ellis Square Social is the buzziest dish on the North Shore this fall. Made from pâte à choux—the same dough used for gougères and eclairs—the single fat dumpling is stuffed with slow-cooked duck ragù and sits atop a mound of deeply colored mushrooms.
On the menu at Ellis Square, the new spot that replaced Beverly’s Barrel House over the summer, the dumpling is listed in the section titled “Mom Always Told You to Share!” While sharing might be a good idea—the dish is hearty and filling and certainly shouldn’t precede a steak unless you are very, very hungry—it’s hard to put your fork down once you start tucking in.
The playful menu sections and the creative cuisine are indicative of the vibe that Nikita Paras, who owns the space with Anesti Lazarides, is hoping to create at Ellis Square Social. “Barrel House needed an injection of life,” says Paras of the restaurant he and his partners opened five years ago to much acclaim, and then shuttered in June. “It had gotten a bit stuffy.”
With an emphasis on big appetizers, big entrees, and big wine—not to mention bourbon, which took off right around the time Barrel House opened—the restaurant had become more of a place to splash out on the weekend than to hang out on a Tuesday night. Not only that, but Paras wanted to give new chef Jay Murray the chance to make the menu his own—something that was very difficult when Barrel House’s offerings were so entrenched in diners’ minds. “We had people asking for things we no longer had on the menu and could no longer make,” Paras says, though he himself was resistant to the change at first. “I was stubborn,” he says, “but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.”
The new name, along with the warmer décor and high tops replacing the massive communal table, is meant to tie the restaurant more to the neighborhood. Ellis Square itself is a recently refurbished downtown park originally dedicated in 1921, and “Social” is an invitation to drop in anytime. “If you want to enjoy a small plate and a glass of wine, that’s great,” Paras says. “No pressure to order a big meal.”
Paras has found a kindred spirit in chef Murray, who is excited to embrace a relaxed ambiance and the small plates trend after 18 years at Grill 23, an award-winning restaurant in Boston with buttoned-down service and a classic steak house menu.
Being at Ellis Square is “refreshing and liberating,” Murray says, noting that pushing the envelope at his former job wasn’t really in the cards. While you can still get a mighty fine steak at Ellis Square, the majority of the offerings are small plates, pulling from a variety of cuisines, but with a common theme of bright, fresh flavors and interesting textures. Fresh pea falafel, served on tiny pita breads, picture-perfect and delicious, sits next to dishes featuring sake-cured hamachi and crisp, succulent pork belly atop fried rice.
“I love being in the suburbs,” Murray says. “I love bringing an urban cuisine here.”
While still settling in, Murray is slowing building up a coterie of local providers, like gelato made by Anna and Tani Bleta, who own I Pazzi restaurant in Danvers, and burrata from Mozzarella House in Peabody, which sparkles on a shared plate paired with smoked eggplant, feta, and whipped yogurt.
Fully two-thirds of the offerings are for sharing, with prices that encourage ordering multiples. At $15, the charcuterie platter is the most expensive appetizer—and a great value, packed with house-made specialties from duck, ham, and country pâté to chicken liver mousse and beef cheek rillettes, along with selections from New England Charcuterie.
The variety, as well as the camaraderie at Ellis Square, has kept lauded mixologist Todd Maul behind the bar a bit longer than he anticipated. Maul, formerly a partner in Café Art Science in Cambridge, was brought in to consult on the cocktail program, which is moving away from highly allocated bourbon toward more rum-based offerings. But he finds himself lingering behind the bar while also exploring options for his own space.
“I wanted to fall back in love with bartending,” Maul says, noting that the new space’s hospitable energy and neighborhood vibe give him the chance to do just that. His mad science approach, turning rosé wine into paint to coat the inside of a cocktail glass, for example, won’t be on full display at Ellis Square. However, Maul has brought innovations, including an Aperol Spritz on tap and a centrifuge to help create “bottled” cocktails—a rotating selection of drinks that are premixed and served in adorable individual bottles, offering some of the fun of presentation that comes with a bottle of wine, with the practicality of being able to offer up a sophisticated cocktail fast.
“I am enjoying being part of a team,” Maul says, noting that he’s made a concerted effort to ensure the bar program matches the intent from the kitchen, and enjoys bouncing ideas off the rest of the staff.
While bourbon is still on the menu, Paras notes that he is working with Maul to move the focus to rum, which is much easier to find at both high quality and reasonable prices. In fact, down in the basement are a few barrels Maul is aging in-house, solera style, blending rums of different ages to create a smooth-drinking product unique to Ellis Square.
Try the dry, complex Rum Solera Old Fashioned if you’re a bourbon drinker. If you like fruity and fresh, check out the bottled cocktails or the tiki list. Either way, no judgement. The new spot is very well thought out, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. And chef Murray is just as excited about changing the food as the seasons and the restaurant unfold.
“When you’ve tried everything, come back and I’ll give you something new,” he says. 252 Cabot St., Beverly, (978) 998-4450, ellissquaresocial.com.