Bootleggers Prohibition Pub

I never really warmed up to EVO, the previous restaurant at 234 Chandler St. The name seemed to promise a level of excitement I didn’t experience in the cuisine, and the décor was, to my eyes, a hodge-podge of surface materials – wood, rock, glass and clicking beads. Nothing seemed to unify this tactile discord. The cuisine was decent, but the overall experience was uninspiring.

There’s good news! This summer, while I wasn’t watching, EVO closed and went through a total reboot. All that disparate surface stuff – gone. In its place the owners have come back with a Prohibition Chic theme, brick and barn-board walls; rough-hewn tables (go ahead, count all the screw heads imbedded in the gleaming Lucite tabletops) and fashion accents for the waitstaff that approximate the 1920’s era.

That theme’s been carried through to the drink offerings. Moonshine plays a big role, though I’ve moved so far from mixed drinks that I was relieved when Samantha, our server, informed me Sam Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA was on tap. Rebel Grapefruit’s refreshingly bitter citrus flavor is a welcome step in Sam’s move to reclaim its craft brew credibility.

Whereas the drink list leans heavily upon the speakeasy vocabulary, the food menu is a bit less tricked out and would easily pass in most gastro pubs. From the Bluenose Bites appetizer section, we decided to order the Buffalo Calamari Rings.

Just when you thought you’d tasted all that could be done with squid, along comes buffalo. Bootleggers’ recipe was one of the more memorable calamari treatments I’ve enjoyed. Served in a silver dish that looked like an upside-down flying saucer, they were morsel-sized rings – no tentacle tangles – coated in hot pepper seasoning and flash-fried golden brown. No heavy oil flavor interfered with the pleasing afterburn of the buffalo spices. The dish came with a cup of honey ranch-like dressing for those in need of cooling relief.

I’m not sure what was meant by Bluenose Bites. But if it means not-for-sharing, it described this dish accurately. Our portion of calamari was, actually, what an appetizer should be: just enough to whet your appetite for the entrée course.

As I’d scanned Bootlegger’s menu, I noticed most categories contained some sort of meat with “Blackberry Moonshine BBQ Sauce.” This intrigued me, so for my entrée I selected Blackberry Short Rib Street Tacos. Two grilled, soft tacos came loaded with soft chunks of short rib beef over a bed of shredded lettuce and garnished with chopped green onions and a piping of apple cider fromage.

The blackberry barbecue sauce was, happily, not screaming of berry flavor like a kid’s lollipop. Instead, it lent a hint of sweetness to the meat. The stripe of soft cheese, however, was sweet enough to schmear on cheesecake. Together, they resulted in a dish I referred to as my “meat dessert.” I meant that in a very good way.

My friend was just as pleased with his sandwich, the Hillbilly. From across the table, it looked just like a Reuben sandwich. And that’s how he enjoyed it: The slabs of marble rye bread were, he reported, “soft and fresh but grilled crisp, and the corned beef is thick-cut and lean.” It was piled up with sauerkraut, horseradish mustard and melty Havarti cheese. Each time he picked it up, juice rained out onto his dish, ample evidence that it was rich and satisfying.

Though packed with flavor, the dishes we selected were smaller than regular entrees. Therefore, I should hasten to point out that Bootleggers also offers a half-dozen burger options and entrees that include items such as Korean Salmon, Steak & Frites and Seafood Fra Diablo.

Bootleggers Prohibition Pub joins the increasing ranks of themed restaurants coming to the Worcester area. This is made humorously evident in the manifesto posted on its website. It includes this statement: “Unknowingly, you are seduced and hypnotized by the secret and seedier side of prohibition.” Be sure to dress appropriately.

By Bernie Whitmore