If there is such a thing as hallowed ground in Lowell’s culinary community, then it surely must be the small dining room and cozy bar space on Central Street that’s now home to The Keep.
Over the years, an astonishing array of terrific restaurants have occupied the space. La Boniche, which set the standard for casually fine dining in Greater Lowell, opened there before moving to the Merrimack Street location that’s now home to Lowell Burger Company.
I still sigh in pleasure when I think of Luna d’Oro, which opened after La Boniche’s move. The restaurant was just a tad ahead of its time and never received the kind of local kudos it well deserved. When I worked in the Hub, I brought a variety of people to Luna d’Oro, including a Boston restaurant owner-friend or two. They were bowled over by the place.
Ricardo’s Cafe Trattoria, owned and operated by the late Richard Rourke, brought a splash of Italian cuisine to the location and rightfully earned many fans over the years. When Ricardo’s closed last year, a hole was created in Lowell’s restaurant scene.
But the food industry, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And it was only a matter of time before something else popped up in the near-legendary spot. This April, The Keep, without much fanfare, lowered its drawbridge.
The new ownership has been shrewd enough to play to the space’s strengths and not compete with previous operations. So rather than go high end and risk inevitable comparisons with its predecessors, The Keep’s crew has opted for a more relaxed atmosphere while still offering a smart mix of good food and beverages.
Although it bills itself as a whiskey bar, The Keep features a prominent selection of craft beers. Overall, the bar is the best in the city and reminiscent of the kind of inviting watering holes I often visited overseas. The adjoining dining room also possess a low-key charm and a timeless feel.
On a recent Saturday night, the place was filled with a younger, hipper crowd than we encountered at Ricardo’s. That’s no knock — just an observation. It’s also looking to be a late-night haunt, with a daily last call of 1:30 a.m.
The Keep keeps it simple. There are fewer than a dozen snacks or appetizers and a half-dozen entrees on the dinner menu. Still, there are a nice variety of options.
The Keep Wings ($12) were packed with flavor and served in a skillet. Done in a Southern-accented dry rub and escorted with a smooth remoulade sauce, they were quickly addictive.
The marinated vegetable tartine ($6) was another hit. Local microgreens were served with mascarpone and marinated veggies accented with Middle Eastern herbs and spices. Served with flatbread, it was tasty, filling and a good deal.
The steak frites ($22) are a nice example of The Keep’s eye for detail. The flank steak was prepared as requested (medium rare), and as appealing as it was, the sides stole the show. The hand-cut fries (also available as a side for $8) were crisp and savory, and the artisan greens salad was a herbivore’s delight.
Restaurants always gamble when they offer gumbo ($18), especially if diners have had the authentic thing in New Orleans. But The Keep’s sausage and shrimp version earns good grades, especially for the price.
The Creole stew and locally made andouille sausage hit the right taste buttons and provided a nice kick. Served with steamed rice, it was another filling, pleasing item for a fair fee.
The small plates look to be The Keep’s bread and butter, and options range from a generous cheese plate ($14) — with cheeses provided by Mill City Cheesemongers,
a shop located at Mill No. 5 — to pork belly sliders ($12), salmon rillettes ($12), and even a pickle plate ($5).
It turns out that several of my friends, all of whom come from outside the city, have also visited The Keep and gave it the thumbs-up.
Though it is so new that the website was still under construction when we visited, The Keep looks to be a keeper.
Kitchen Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. daily