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Look for the neon sign.
That’s how I managed to find Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, a town I haven’t spent much time in and don’t yet know my way around. Coming out of the train station on a rainy night, I took a wrong turn and wound my way through a few dimly-lit streets before I finally saw the neon nightshade plant glowing above the restaurant’s doors.
If you have even a basic sense of direction, though, it shouldn’t be that hard: Nightshade is a quick jaunt from the Lynn commuter rail station, a 30-seat, plant-draped oasis that replaced Campus Coffee Shop on Exchange Street in late October. A candle-lit bar takes up most of the restaurant’s floor space, while small tables meant for more secluded dining line a nearby wall; on that rainy night, various social situations were underway: a flirtatious couple huddled by the window, bodies turned toward each other; a group of coworkers congregated at the bar, talking about the latest democratic debate; two friends sipped wine at a table while pouring over the menu.
Nightshade is the brainchild of chef Rachel Miller, who previously worked at Clio, Bondir, and T.W. Food. If the name of her new restaurant rings a bell, it’s probably because you’re familiar with the concept’s pop-up form, which Miller started in 2017 and operated at various restaurants around Boston, as well as Bow Market in Somerville, where she sold boxes of $10 noodles on Monday nights. The pop-ups are where Miller’s diners became familiar with her mi kho, a dish that she has carried over to the restaurant. A savory tangle of homemade egg noodles are served with either beef or mushroom in a caramelized garlic sauce, and topped with Thai basil, peanuts, and chili crisps. It’s one of the six or seven items that make up Nightshade’s small, frequently rotating dinner lineup (dessert, which was non-existent on my last visit, is now available in the form of a chocolate cake trifle).
Here are some other things you might find on the menu: a refreshingly bright goi bap cai (cabbage salad, $10), made with shredded apple and cabbage slivers tossed alongside meaty maitake mushrooms in a minty, acidic nuoc cham dipping sauce. Wooden skewers pierce through grass-fed beef wrapped in charred betel leaves to create bo la lot ($11), an appetizer that punches with earthy, peppery bites until the beef is dunked in a saucer of sweet chili sauce. A succinct noodle section is dominated by noodle soups, and I found the hu tieu, a clear noodle soup, to be mostly on point. The slick broth is almost too oily, and some of the ground pork was overcooked, but the Nantucket Bay scallops are a silky smooth contrast to the bowl’s charred scallions, and everything seems to work in unison. Proof? I happily slurped and spooned my way to the bottom of the bowl.
Cocktails, designed by beverage director John Groh, are given an island twist with curry-apricot, guava, mango, coconut-washed gin, and Thai banana. Some will have you imagining that you’re at a poolside cabana, like the Saigon Cigar Club which arrives with a flourish of charred banana leaf. There is cinnamon and Vietnamese coriander and black cardamom in this drink, and after a couple of sips I feel like a tropical vacation is in order (though I guess that could be the bourbon talking). A very fine wine list is curated by Nightshade’s wine director and Miller’s partner, Liana Van de Water, and the wine menu is supplemented by daily specials listed on a chalkboard above the bar, bottles that hail from Oregon or Austria or Italy. Later, I ask for a glass of white — something mineral-y, bright, and not too sweet — and the bartender pours a sauvignon blanc from Herve Villemade, a near-perfect match for the hu tieu that I’m about to tackle.
If Nightshade makes you feel like you’re somewhere else, it’s not just the drinks or the copious number of plants or the faint smell of chili oil in the room that will make you feel that way. Stepping out onto the street after dinner, I felt a stark contrast between Miller’s buzzing restaurant and some of the other businesses just a stone’s throw from Nightshade: delis and diners that had already closed for the day, a roast beef and pizza shop, an empty Thai cafe. Last year, when Miller launched her Mainvest campaign to raise money for Nightshade Noodle Bar, she told Boston.com that Lynn was a growing neighborhood that needed to be fed. If it thrives — and I truly hope it does — Nightshade could serve as a strong blueprint for risk-taking chefs who are choosing to share their vision beyond the big city lights.
Nightshade Noodle Bar; 73 Exchange St., Lynn; Wednesdays–Fridays from 5 p.m.–10 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.; nightshadenoodlebar.com