Dining Out at Locke-Ober
The two exceptions were encouraging, though, for Ray’s current and future goals. One was a classic that had been freshened, and the other was from the new list of entrées — a dish much better than it sounded and better than any of the other additions. The classic was JFK lobster stew ($10 for a cup; $16 for a bowl), so named because it was a favorite of the president’s when he was still a senator. It tasted much purer and lighter than I remember it, a wonderful indulgence. The new entrée was wild Alaskan sockeye salmon with spring peas, morels, and balsamic cream ($33), which sounded dull but was the best thing I ate. The thick slab of fish really looked like it was worth the money — as, say, the 10 ounces of swordfish with underflavored shrimp-and-fava risotto ($34) did not. The salmon was in a soy–green onion glaze that so enhanced the flavor I decided I’d never had better outside Alaska. Crucially, the guest who ordered it asked for it rare, and there were so many morels on the plate that he could offer them around. I stress their abundance because almost every other entrée, particularly the traditional and à la carte selections, seemed devoid of vegetables or even garnish. This is, admittedly, a typical steakhouse style, but it felt stingy when the meat and fish didn’t merit the focus or the price (and were uniformly oversalted and overpeppered).
What made me breathe a sigh of relief when the salmon arrived was that it showed that the chef de cuisine, David Artiano, has some imagination and skill beyond the standards. Unfortunately, the Dover sole, which Licari imports from the Netherlands, was mushy and almost flavorless — a disappointment, because I typically love its meaty texture and authoritative flavor, and because it cost $42. The salads are a welcome menu addition, but overall they were wan, tea-roomy, and overpriced: Locke-Ober salad ($11) with candied walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and deviled egg; caesar ($11) that was surprisingly garlicky; iceberg ($12) with green goddess and pork cracklings that were tiny, tough, and reminded us all of Bac-Os. Clams casino ($13) tasted of nothing but red pepper and heavily smoked bacon. Fried soft-shell crabs (market price) were more in the direction Licari said he plans to go: simply cooked, based on what’s fresh, and available in different sizes.
Flexibility, simplicity, and better value are what I hope to see in the future, given the expectations of people who go to Locke-Ober, and the inability of many to pay $46 for a 14-ounce prime New York strip. And given what seems to be the just-serviceable capability of the kitchen, absent that really good salmon. A scallop-and-oyster pasta ($34) with tough, clumped-together pappardelle was a dismal dish, though the scallops were fine; soy-roasted duck ($32) was dry, stringy, and tough.
Those two dishes remained almost uneaten, but we did clean the two least-expensive entrée plates — broiled Boston scrod ($26), expertly and crisply breaded with lovely texture and flavor; and calf’s liver with onions and bacon ($25), which made no secret of being liver and had nicely caramelized onions. Both of those favorites are strongly associated with Locke-Ober, so the vital signs are in good shape. So are two of the classic desserts: almond macaroons ($6), from the same East Boston baker that has provided them for decades, and the light, custardy Indian pudding à la mode ($10). Yet the baked Alaska ($10) featured undercooked meringue and the crème brûlée ($10) was underbrowned.
More staff members, lower prices — yes, I know they don’t go together — and a way to encourage diversity in the patrons: That’s my wish list for this listless sleeping beauty. I don’t have a crystal ball, but maybe its future won’t be white-haired, WASPy, or even white at all.
Locke-Ober, 3 Winter Place, Boston, 617-542-1340, lockeober.com.