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Ritz-quality dining on a comfy couch

Speaking for myself, I had always considered The Living Room a great meeting spot for drinks-n-apps, sports TV and Tuesday Trivia nights, complete with an array of comfy couches and coffee tables for group noshing.

Al fresco dining, with a view of the waterfront and Columbus Park.
Xander Miller
The Living Room's couches are perfect for sharing great meals.
Xander Miller

It’s a brick wall and dark red curtain kind of place, with a hot belly stove by one of the many big couches. Much of the lighting comes from an aquarium over one bar, and Christmas lights on potted trees.

During the day, there’s a view of the waterfront, and on nice days there’s a patio that looks out onto Columbus Park. Cozy. I had been here most recently as part of a work event, and although we were set up with the usual array of southwestern rolls, sliders, flatbread, chicken-on-a-stick, and various fried things, they were all very, very good. Actually, it was named one of the 15 best restaurants for private dining and events by Thrillist, Boston 2013.

I came back again recently to check out the rest of the menu, and was pleasantly surprised. Maybe the difference is a new chef? The Living Room, on the North End’s waterfront, is run by Executive chef Andreas Edlbauer, 29, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis, who came on last year. He chose a spot that isn’t really in the tourist’s path of Faneuil Hall or Hanover Street, so the menu is wide open for him to create a menu that he calls “globally inspired comfort food.”

Edlbauer knows about global food. Born in Norway, Chef Andreas grew up on his grandmother’s Austrian meals. After moving to the United States, he went to the Culinary Institute of America and worked at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island and Orlando, and taking the chef de cuisine spot at the St. Louis Ritz Carlton’s four-star, four-diamond fine dining restaurant and other kitchens there.

For family reasons, he moved to New Hampshire, and joined the Living Room as Executive Chef. It’s not the Ritz, but what he’s trying for is to create the same quality of dishes that he made at the Ritz, while making them more approachable.

“Working for the Ritz was a great experience. Obviously you are exposed to top quality ingredients, new cooking techniques, and an uncompromising commitment to quality,” said Edlbauer. “I strive to bring those same philosophies here to The Living Room. We obviously focus on using the finest ingredients, locally sourced whenever possible. We also are a scratch kitchen and make everything we can in house, much like the Ritz.”

The differences? Much less hectic for him to only run one kitchen. “Here I have the luxury of focusing on one restaurant with a unique concept — a “living room” with couches and a specialized menu, and a “dining room” with a larger, more entrée-focused menu, and being able to give each dish the attention to detail it deserves. We also won’t be doing banquets for 2,000-7,000 people (ha-ha).”

He also loves the variety of cuisines and ingredients here in America. “The availability of ingredients is staggering. If I want fish from Hawaii, Pacific oysters, or Florida Stone Crab claws, I can have it delivered to the restaurant’s doorstep within 12-24 hours out of the water. Amazing. Plus America is such a melting pot of people and cultures. Chefs are exposed to so many more techniques, flavors and ingredients. So you are constantly learning and expanding your knowledge about food. Plus the people are great and really know about food. The American food culture has gone through a renaissance in the past 20-30 years. There are so many ridiculously talented chefs and restaurants in Boston and across the country.”

Lately, he said, he loves to play with Northern African and Indian spices and fish sauce. Currently he’s making a Moroccan-spiced lamb meatball served with a spiced tomato ragout, French goat cheese, cubes of polenta, and micro basil, made with harissa and ras el hanout spices. “They may not be as well-known to some diners, but they give an amazing flavor,” he said. He’s right.

He’s currently playing around with a deconstructed shrimp cocktail appetizer and a “textures of apple” dessert, which would involve apples in 3 or 4 preparations. Recently he dubbed the back of the restaurant The Dining Room, for those in the mood for tables, chairs, and an expanded menu. But I do like the idea of sharing plates of food tapas-style with a group of friends, dishes spread out on a large coffee table between comfy couches. And they’ll serve the dinner menu in the lounge upon request. They also serve lunch and brunch.

Despite the lure of a huge and creative martini menu, I started off with a Harpoon Leviathan on tap, to go with the crunchy chicken fingers that were moist on the inside, and fries, which were flavorful salty sticks sprinkled with parsley, and not at all greasy. The tuna poke was raw tuna atop a bed of rum-roasted pineapple, micro basil, wakame, ginger and wonton crunchies, dotted with a sriracha/mayo dressing. It was interesting to have all those textures and flavors in each bite.

The panko’d asparagus spear “frites” were very sharable, crunchy and tasty with spicy roasted red pepper-harissa dip. What a great way to sneak in the veggies; I have no idea why I don’t see these at many other places for a bar snack. In fact, it’s a fave of the restaurant, too: “This is a must-try menu item, it will change the way you crave,” it says on the web site. Those Moroccan meatballs dish, with lamb in a tomato ragout that was spicy but not hot, was paired with squares of polenta in a thick aromatic tomato sauce studded with French goat cheese. Those went fast.

The new summer item, local greens salad, is a nice balance of smoked chicken, heirloom tomato, cucumber, hearts of palm, goat cheese, pomegranate and toasted almond, dressed with basil vinaigrette. This is the kind of salad I look forward to having as an entrée when I’m eating light: it’s so full of interesting ingredients.

Other items that would be great on a sharable tabletop include a plate of local artisanal cheese and charcuterie, and fish tacos “Torterilla La Niña” corn tortilla, with pickled vegetable slaw lemon and chili aioli, and sliders with harissa aioli, local “ale house cheddar,” bacon and tomato relish, with tobacco onions.

For the main course, we tried citrus-brined salmon, which they smoke first for 45 minutes before pan-searing, for a subtle but delicious fish. Served with Norwegian cucumber salad, parslied purple potatoes, and multicolored roasted cauliflower. The menu is definitely eclectic, with other entrees including buttermilk fried chicken, tandoori lamb ribs, chicken balti, pork schnitzel, moules a la biere blanche, and lobster risotto.

The house-made desserts are lovely. the s’mores parfait features layers of toasted marshmallow ice cream, dark chocolate cremeux, crushed graham cracker, and a Nutella powder that the chef dehydrates in-house. The sorbet trio of the day, again made in-house, was raspberry, blood orange and pink guava, sprinkled with pistachio streusel. Not offered, but nice to note: he was one of 12 chefs chosen by Pom Wonderful to incorporate pomegranates into recipes. His recipe for goat cheese and buttermilk panna cotta is featured here.

One item that you should ask for is his tapioca cakes, when they are available, which he says are like rice cakes. “It took me three years to develop with three other chefs at the (Amelia Island) Ritz,” he said. “It’s better than bread. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s gluten free.”

So who comes here? Mostly the 24-50 business professional crowd. Specials include 15% off Monday brunch for food-industry professionals; 4-6 pm are half-priced apps, and $3 Coors Lites all the time. Tuesdays are for trivia night, the kitchen is open til 2am, and Fridays and Saturdays the place becomes an ultralounge with a DJ after 10pm, “without being pretentious,” the chef said. “We don’t like a bunch of 21-year-old kids getting crazy.”

There’s something for everyone here, except typical tourist cuisine. “I love Boston,” he said. “People are going to realize it’s not all lobster rolls, clams and steamers here. We don’t want to alienate people. You expect that in the Ritz. We take liberties and twist some recipes. But it’s still approachable to the customer.”

The Living Room, 101 Atlantic Ave., North End, Boston. 617-723-5101

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