Dining Out: Fin City
“Suburban food,” my citified guest muttered as he studied the menu at Blackfin Chop House & Raw Bar in Hingham. The vast, humming emporium is the creation of Anthony Ambrose, celebrated chef and owner of Boston's Ambrosia on Huntington. Perhaps my friend was expecting Ambrosia's Back Bay recherché sophistication.
Long before Ken Oringer demanded the freshest fish for his exquisite amalgam of French and Asian food at Clio, Ambrose was using locally caught fish and locally grown microgreens to create his own daring, original combination of French, Asian, and American cuisines. Ambrose, with his John Barrymore profile, certainly has the expertise to compete with the artiest, most insistently personal chefs in town. I first met him when he was executive chef at Julien at the hotel Le Méridien, Boston, where he drew inspiration from the starred chef Olivier Roellinger, with whom he had apprenticed at Maisons de Bricourt near Brittany's oyster beds. He has remained a steadfast friend of Roellinger's, and they share a passion for all kinds of fish and shellfish—and for fishing. A South Shore sport fisherman since his early twenties and former employee of that seafood master Jasper White, Ambrose has a hands-on knowledge of truly fresh fish few other chefs can hope to match.
Rather than insist on expanding his artist's credentials, Ambrose has looked back for his second restaurant to the era of huge slabs of steak and fish on oversized plates, usually accompanied by oversized drinks. He has done this in a building familiar to any longtime South Shore resident: the sprawling 18th-century Whiton House, where Ambrose's in-laws for a time operated a branch of the Siros chain.
The main dining room, with its shingled exterior and broad expanse, has the feel of postwar American suburbia, with relaxed, conservative, comfortable décor. Maybe my friend would have refrained from his suburban slur if he had only thought Mildred Pierce rather than Mrs. Paul's. Maybe I'm still getting in touch with my inner suburbanite, but I loved the food my city tablemates disparaged as too much, too little embellished. I've always maintained that the highest skill shows in the greatest of simplicity. Blackfin is doing as good a take on the steakhouse as one of Boston's best renditions, Abe & Louie's, at decidedly un-Boston prices. I tore into Ambrose's vast plates with gusto, and just kept eating.
Yes, the vegetables on nearly all the entrées are the same. But what vegetables. The prep work for our table alone would have taken a pair of cooks a large chunk of time, and the cascades of vegetables are all included in the price of an entrée—a welcome departure from most steakhouses. The good and generous sides all cost a bargain $2.50.
The beef is excellent in an old-fashioned way: tender as can be, sweet, and well marbled. I've come to resent this kind of beef, as my tastes have migrated toward the real, semiwild flavor of grass-fed beef—much leaner, with flavor that changes with every bite. Blackfin serves good old American corn-fed beef, bad for livestock and the environment, good for diners who like every bite to be exactly as tender and sweet as the first.
That off my chest, I can compliment Ambrose on his handling of the same beef cut in its prime rib ($26) and Delmonico versions ($24). The prime rib was roasted for several hours in a slow oven, seasoned with rosemary and shallots; the Delmonico was finished over a big wood grill in the kitchen where nearly all the meat is cooked. Both were covered with a shallow pool of a sort of homemade A.1. Steak Sauce, with red wine, garlic, shallots, and vinegar cooked down with thick veal stock. Much as I enjoy the smoky flavors of a wood grill, I preferred the roast rib—perhaps because the grill here didn't seem to impart nearly enough of those flavors, perhaps because good rib roast is so hard to come by.
Speaking of hard to come by, when's the last time you encountered freshly made oysters Rockefeller? Keep thinking. They're nearly impossible to find. Ambrose hasn't reinvented them, but he has certainly thought hard about how to make every component right. He finds big, meaty oysters (when I visited, they were Milford Haven from Virginia), gives them body with a secret underpinning of puréed oysters and heavy cream, and cloaks the fresh oyster with the usual spinach and béchamel—except in his version, they're fresh and homemade. Then there's the great touch of a cheesy potato crust that becomes wonderfully crunchy when it passes beneath the broiler. This is a dish to bring anyone down Route 3, and certainly to bring me back; the portion is really entrée sized, six big items for $14. The clams casino with Vermont bacon (five for $12) are nearly as good, though the bread-crumb topping, with pimiento and garlic, lacked the subtle but plush richness of the oysters. These reawakened American classics make Blackfin a cause for celebration.
There are glitches. The biggest is the service: friendly but uneven, tentative, and prone to miscommunication with the kitchen. And by no means does every dish succeed. The seafood stew, for example, with stodgy saffron risotto ($23) was fatally drab, with underseasoned tomato sauce and overcooked chunks of fish. The wine list is, dare I say it, suburban—reliable, pleasant, unsurprising. Desserts are unmemorable, big and dull, with the exception of good ice cream and a piña colada sorbet. But, really, you won't need dessert here. Call me suburban or just plain gluttonous: I'll have another order of oysters Rockefeller.