GOING DOWN PUB The family-friendly crowd makes the Abbey seem like a British-style neighborhood ordinary — but eh food, like these codfish fritters, is closer to extraordinary.
We could spend a lot of time trying to decide what, exactly, the Abbey is, while plenty of people are crowding in simply to enjoy themselves. It is most apparently a spin-off from the popular Washington Square Tavern, featuring a former chef and manager of the spot down the street, some similar food and style, cheaper prices, later hours, fewer tables, and even more informality. I think it is genus gastropub, species neighborhood jewel. If you go at 6 pm on a weeknight, as you may have to, you'll see so many families with children that it looks like an English pub, a neighborhood ordinary. And what is it like after midnight, when the Brookline kitchen is still churning along while much of downtown is shutting down and rolling up the sidewalks?
We begin with perfect Tuscan bread, served with a spicy bean dip and insanely great extra-virgin olive oil. "Small plates" here are bar snacks, such as deviled bacon-and-eggs ($4). The ration is two eggs and four stuffed whites, and the bacon elaboration is quite successful. Smoked cod fritters ($4.50) are two fried lacrosse-size balls, but easily cut in half, with a peppery mayonnaise and a mild fish flavor, not like the funky bacalaitos of Puerto Rico.
Scallop-and-ricotta dumplings ($9) are purses with the chew of fresh Italian pasta, the look of Chinese dim sum, and a flavor all their own. They are served decorated with microgreens, and can be cut, but you will want all three for yourself, so mind they start on your side of the table.
Entrées are all $20 or less, and ones we had were worth every nickel. The weakest — and it was still delicious — was the celebrated bison Bolognese ($17), developed elsewhere and imported here with reasonable success. The core problem is that Bolognese should be a sauce of mixed minced meats in tomato, more like a stew, and known in Italian as "ragu." Here, the bison burger gets lost in a slightly sweet tomato sauce, where it is easier to pick out a tiny cube of carrot than a morsel of meat. The ribbon pasta is fresh, but not as nicely underdone our night as the best versions of this now-ubiquitous dish.
But the roasted cod ($19.50), in an individual skillet, is a relaxed masterpiece: perfect fish on an irresistible potato pancake, topped with pea tendrils and masked with a light cream sauce. Cod isn't Arctic char, but it can be a sweet fish if done correctly, and this is great bistro food. Even better of its kind was a Statler chicken breast ($19). This is the now-popular boned breast with one wing segment sticking up like a mast. On top are stalks of grilled asparagus. The chicken's skin is impeccably crisp, and the meat juicy (not all boned breasts meet this standard), and there are mashed potatoes underneath with some wild mushrooms mixed in. This dish embodies the combination all diners-out seem to want these days: comfort food with class.