Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hell Night at the East Coast Grill

It's been 24 hours since I set foot in the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA, and I'm still in recovery mode from last night's Hotter than Hell Night. The story of Hell Night is legendary. East Coast Grill's earliest patrons were a demanding sort, the kind who would not settle for four-alarm food that could easily accommodate eight alarms. Years ago, ECG's creator, Chris Schlesinger, heard the jeers of his early clientele and answered the call with his soon-to-be-infamous Pasta from Hell. They responded in kind. And so the story goes, "Customers dropped like sweaty, panting, weak little flies. The kitchen howled at their tormentor's agony. But when the smoke cleared there were a few left standing, a crazed, goofy, half smile on their faces and a faraway look in their eyes, and, as [Chris] looked out from behind the grill, [he] would get an almost imperceptible, knowing nod." Soon, Hell Night was born: a red-letter event where the sick and twisted settle down with kindred spirits to indulge in pure masochistic glee. Naturally, we showed up in droves. And it was all in the name of my friend Dave's birthday.

Dave is one sick bastard. (I mean that in the most loving way possible: he's one of my best friends.) I have a significantly above-average love/tolerance for the pain and pleasure that the pepper provides. I've been eating Mexican food since I was a fetus, I don't mind slathering my meals in insanity sauce, and I can eat raw habanero pepper (Note: I can...but I don't). But Dave blows me out of the water. Years ago, in a quest to build the ultimate hot salsa I assembled almost a kilogram of the aforementioned orange beauties into two jars: "weenie" for the pepper-shy and "thermonuclear" for...well, the idiots. For the uninitiated, while jalapeños run from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs) on the pepper hotness scale, habaneros run between 100- to 300,000 SHUs. Not thinking very hard that day, I put almost a dozen habaneros in the weenie salsa and the remainder in the hot salsa. Oops. With my significantly above-average capacity for capsaicin pain, even I couldn't touch the weenie salsa, let alone the jet fuel I threw together in the other jar. Dave, on the other hand, all but swallowed the thermonuclear stuff whole, only coming up for air to offer up, "Oh my gosh," and "This salsa is ridiculous!" With a passion like that, I could think of no better way to celebrate the guy's birth than to eat food capable of causing death.

I made the reservation a month in advance, and even with that kind of notice our choices were limited to 5:30 or 9:30. (Who knew there were so many mentally-unbalanced people out there?) The energy we felt when we passed through the door at 9:25 was electric. "Wimp! Wimp! Wimp! Wimp!" the staff yowled, as a waiter carried a plate devoid of pepperage. (The restaurant has a "Wimp Menu," a few selections from their regular menu for the weak and for the unfortunate significant others who were dragged to the restaurant, undoubtedly kicking and screaming.) Moments later I heard cries of, "Antidote!" as the evening's emcee, a colorfully loud man with LED-laden sunglasses and a cape nicknamed "Dr. Pepper" carried over a dairy drink to soothe someone's aching palate. The second thing I noticed was the feeling of capsaicin in the air. Capsaicin is the chemical responsible for pepper heat. Breathing too heavily in its presence means coughing and wheezing, a defense mechanism designed to remove it from mucous membranes. The line cooks wore gas masks. They were not for show.
Although the East Coast Grill has a sizable lineup of…ahem…hot drinks, nobody was in the mood for a combination of tequila (insult) and habanero (injury). So we skipped those and headed for the appetizers. I stole some oysters from my friend, Rachel. Dave, his pepper-head friend Big B, and I split West Indies smoked duck leg with curried pickled pineapple and spicy sticky spare ribs. All of it was beautifully presented and wonderfully balanced in flavor. One nice thing about this restaurant is that the East Coast Grill cooks with an important philosophy: when making it hot, do not sacrifice taste. Consider, for a moment, the difference between hot sauces that heat you up just for idiocy's sake (ahem) versus hot sauces that are spicy, but genuinely provide flavor and depth to your food (ahem). At ECG, while each piece packed quite a punch, it always shook your tongue’s hand and introduced itself before ripping a hole through it. The only unfortunate part of the first course was the à la carte pricing: each rib cost $3, and the single duck leg cost $9.50. But that was okay – why worry about material things, anyway, when you’re on your way to Hell?

Oh yeah, and we ordered the infamous Pasta from Hell, too. It landed unceremoniously on our table in an unassuming sausage Bolognese sauce. Knowing that this dish got the restaurant into a liability suit a few years ago, I expected a small coronation ceremony with its arrival. No matter, this wasn’t your ordinary Pasta from Hell: recently they had played with their recipe and added the naga jolokia pepper to the mix. Recall that the ordinary habanero maxes out at about 300,000 Scovilles, give or take: The naga jolokia clocks in at a little over one million SHUs, besting the previous Guinness Book of World Records' champion red savina habanero by about a factor of two. The naga jolokia is over three times hotter than the orange habanero, and 100 times hotter than our good friend, the jalapeño. Chew on that! (Or don’t.) The scariest part of the Pasta was the way it flirted with you and lured you in with its charm and seduction. I managed to fork three pieces into my mouth and swallow while declaring, "This isn’t so hot!" before the pepper turned on the charm and proceeded to violate me with all the love and delicacy of a well-placed fist. The heat spread around my mouth and down my throat; an area where a corner of pasta grazed my lip on the way in was now itching. My esophagus was now telling my brain, "Hey buddy, you know you swallowed some pain a minute ago." Yeah, thanks for the reminder. Better yet, for the next few minutes it got progressively worse. Clearly, the real treachery of this dish was the Trojan Horse-esque way in which it entered: "We come bearing gifts of taste and glee!" it declared, moments before releasing a Scoville battalion into my upper digestive tract. Dave had a big-ass grin on his face.

Most of the table could eat no more than three pieces. Dave ate ¾ of the bowl...sicko. I had five pieces and ended up giddy as a schoolgirl. For those not in the know, capsaicin fires the endorphins in your brain. That endorphin rush you get from working out or doing...well, certain substances...worked its magic.

The Pasta from Hell left me fidgeting and twitching for the next 30 minutes. But I wasn’t the only victim. I looked over at Big B nursing his face as he suddenly, and uncomfortably declared, "I have a bloody nose." Alright, now we were warmed up. And I’m glad we were, because the entrées were on their way.

Dave got Mexican Pork 2 Way, a dish with chicharones and chipotle crispy fried poblano relleno with queso and mango, salsa roja, and a jalapeño-garlic relish. I had a Jamaican grilled jerk skirt steak with mojo criolo, fried yuca, pineapple, and a heart of palm salad. Big B enjoyed a Nacho Mama's Tortilla Lasagna, which looked disturbingly similar to the Pasta. (Yes, when I capitalize "Pasta," you know which one I’m talking about.) And down the table I saw a plate of the Indian "Ghost Chile" (naga jolokia) Spiked Big Bowl o' Seafood, with shrimp, scallops, mussels and squid in a spicy mango-tamarind broth. (The menu said that the dish qualifies for Superfund clean-up money! =D) I had a sampling of everything; we all shared the love. Oddly enough, I enjoyed my own dish the least. I’m not an overly huge fan of jerk marinade or jerk rub, but because jerk tastes slightly different everywhere you go, I keep trying it, thinking I’m going to take to it more but I never do. Unfortunately, this was no exception, so normally where the heat would augment the flavor, here it took away from it. Heat is never pleasurable unless it supplements something you like. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to make fun of me, so I did my best to finish my plate.

I must confess: I did try some food from the Wimp Menu. Dave’s brother’s girlfriend was the one wimp at the table. Naturally, I poked as much fun of her as I could, but ultimately I had to be nice to her because I wanted a taste of her pulled pork dish. Man, that was delicious! The Wimp Menu hails from their normal menu, which leads me to conclude that every other night at East Coast Grill must be Heaven Night.

Dessert rolled around. Despite the ample selection of decadent sweets, we all ordered the same thing: bananas Foster. I’m glad they had it on the menu because it’s Dave’s favorite dessert next to, maybe, the Mad Dog Mango habanero sherbet he buys from Lizzie’s in Waltham, MA. Not surprisingly, ECG also had spicy ice cream for the loose screws for whom two courses of flames weren’t enough. So Dave got his bananas Foster, and we also got him some of their "special" ice cream and put a candle in it. I thought about ordering some ECG's "spicecream" without warning him (Years ago, he introduced me to the Mad Dog Mango...leaving out the "Mad Dog" part. You know what they say…revenge is a dish best served cold), but I was stupid and blurted out, "Oooh ooh ooh, they have hot ice cream here!" As it turned out, the ECG ice cream was but an M-80 compared to the nuclear holocaust I got from Dave’s trick, so my potential revenge would’ve only been served tepid at best. But it was delicious and so was the bananas Foster. So I couldn’t complain.

I’m really happy about celebrating Dave’s birthday at the East Coast Grill. All in all, the food was very tasty, and it was every bit as hot as promised. And thanks to the endorphins, we were able to celebrate on a high note. ECG has a great thing going for it: they don’t mess around with their peppers, and they don’t mess around with their food. It would seem that their motto is, "Keep it flavorful, and keep it fun." And I’d say they scored on both counts. East Coast Grill, I’ll see you in March!

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