Restaurant Review: Strip-T's in Watertown
Grilled sweet peas with sea salt and Aleppo, $6. (Photos by Anthony Tieuli)
The most unexpectedly dazzling food Iâ€™ve had in years is at a place thatâ€™s a diner by day. If youâ€™re a follower of the local restaurant scene, you know exactly where Iâ€™m talking about. For the uninitiated, itâ€™s Strip-Tâ€™s, named for a cut of steak thatâ€™s no longer served there.
Itâ€™s a heartwarming story: Father opens sandwich shop after finding his time at fancy restaurants like the Ritz unsatisfactory. Son, meanwhile, develops ambitions to be a serious cook, goes to culinary school, lands high-Âprofile jobs with a very hot chef in New York, then comes home to transform Dadâ€™s humble shop into a destination dining spot by night. Word spreads, and soon local hipsters and bronzed Belmont families on their way to ÂEdgartown are driving up to a small, Âunassuming storefront a few blocks from the Arsenal Mall in Watertown. It sounds implausible.
Yet Strip-Tâ€™s really is serving a lot of Âextraordinary, reasonably priced fare in plain surroundings. Tim Maslow has brought to Boston the flavors he developed as chef de cuisine at David Changâ€™s cult New York restaurant ÂMomofuku SsĂ¤m Bar, making for vibrant, complex fare that doesnâ€™t announce itself on the deceptively simple menu: burgers and fries, wings, a killer caesar, and fat homemade sausage. And because Maslow, like Chang, Âincorporates Asian sauces and flavors into everything he makes, the dishes are unexpectedly potent. Itâ€™s umami central.
“Ben the Mushroom Man” mix with spruce needles, $8.
Even more unexpected: the wonderfully unpretentious (and yet very professional) waitstaff. The servers, wearing T-shirts that show off their tats, look like gawky high school students at their first summer job. But drop a fork, empty your glass, or require a new napkin, and theyâ€™re there without a sound and gone before you can thank them. This might be because the front of the house is run with quiet aplomb by Maslowâ€™s fiancĂ©e (and fellow Momofuku alum) Jee-Eun Burke along with Menton vet Jonathan Fenelon, both of whom answer the phone and graciously take reservations, something Strip-Tâ€™s didnâ€™t do when it first started getting Âattention. The restaurant would be worth visiting just for the service.
But of course, itâ€™s worth visiting for the food, too, particularly the reimagined takes on bar fare. I admit to a strong dislike of Buffalo wings and their greasy, barbecue-sauce-laden cousins. But chicken wings with Moxie sauce ($9) reinvent the standard. Maslow cures the meat overnight in sugar and salt, then simmers the wings in rendered chicken fat like a confit, chars them on a griddle, and coats them with a reduced sauce of an Indonesian chili paste called sambal oelek and Moxieâ€”the bittersweet New England soda made with gentian root. Theyâ€™re luscious.
Roasted striped bass with red curry, $22.
Itâ€™s imaginative stuff, but that doesnâ€™t mean Maslow is above using some of the packaged ingredients his father, Paul, did. So his “wicked small caesar” ($4) has some things in common with his dadâ€™s version, which he says includes lemon juice from a supermarket squeeze bottle and “super-cheap Parm.” But the chef now insists on local romaine from purveyors like Kimball Farm, a dressing made of pasteurized egg and Dijon mustard, and hand-toasted, paprika-dusted croutons that come from Iggyâ€™s baguettes. The salad was pretty much perfect.
So were vegetables that seldom get the star treatment Maslow gives them: cauliflower, plunged raw into a deep fryer (a trick he learned at Momofuku) until theyâ€™re a rich brown, served over a smooth sauce of hand-purĂ©ed chorizo and chicken stock ($8); grilled sweet peas ($6) served like edamame but with one side open, the peeking peas marvelously charred and coated with a peppery soy-Aleppo rub; sautĂ©ed mushrooms in butter and thyme ($8)â€”standard, until you learn how Maslow accentuates the woodiness: with a spruce-needle garnish.
Fried brioche doughnut (toppings change seasonally), $8.
The chef has given the burger ($15) a similar upgrade. The patty, made from a blend of chuck, skirt steak, and beef cheek (which gives it more natural fat than most burgers), is placed on a brioche bun slathered with a mixture of butter, smoked miso, and confit-lemon-peel-enhanced aioli. The fine-grained, firm meat kept the burger from getting too gooey, but it was the flavor-packed sauces and house-made pickled onions that packed most of the punch. While the accompanying thick-cut fries sometimes arrived cool, they were virtually greaseless.
Of the larger plates, expertly sautĂ©ed roasted striped bass ($22) was the most distinguished, thanks to a wonderful red-curry sauce. Meanwhile, a fat bratwurstâ€”seared pork-and-provolone sausage ($18) served with red quinoa, sautĂ©ed radish greens, and sliced ÂjalapeĂ±osâ€”benefited from the melted chunks of cheese that oozed out when the meat was cut. Other entrĂ©es were less successful. Buttermilk-fried chicken ($18) tasted leaden and greasy despite a thick, browned buttermilk batter. The “dirty rice” with it, really more like fried rice, was dry and clumpy, with strong-tasting, domineering pieces of liver. And then there was the fish stew ($18), full of flavorless seafood and overly acidic favas and peas, and the steamed mussels with potato purĂ©e and crispy herbs ($16), which tasted too strongly of lemon juice in both the potatoes and the broth.
The casual lunch counter and bar at Strip-Tâ€™s.
Desserts were mostly plain, sweet, and uninteresting, like the proficient oversize homemade cookies ($1.50 each), brownies ($3), and an unpleasant Âmushroom-infused custard with butterscotch and chocolate ($8), an experiment in umami that failed. But I was crazy about one: the fried brioche doughnut, which changes seasonally. When I had it, it was iced with white-rhubarb-Âflavored meringue and filled with a Âbeautifully colored pea-and-mint pastry cream ($8).
The main drawback of dining here is a big oneâ€”the noise. The painted beadboard, red laminate tables with cast-iron bases, linoleum floors, and bare walls with tasteful photographs are all hard, reflective surfaces that, in combination with the music, make it a challenge to hear your companions, let alone your server.
Then again, Maslow and his staff are performing to such a high level that itâ€™s hard to know whether to wish them grander or more central quarters. Thereâ€™s something both quirky and magical about finding them where they are. Go now, so you can say you helped put them on the map.
Other Menu Highlights
Chicken wings with Moxie sauce, $9
Seared pork-and-provolone sausage, $18
Wicked small caesar, $4
Strip-T’s, 93 School St., Watertown, 617-923-4330, stripts.com.
Critic Corby Kummerâ€”an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Foodâ€”has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/08/restaurant-review-strip-ts-watertown/