Dining Out: Rowes Wharf Sea Grille
There are two things that every visitor asks for in a Boston restaurant: fish and a harbor view. Small wonder, then, that when the Boston Harbor Hotel’s longtime executive chef, Daniel Bruce, was given the chance to dream up a new use for a prime ground-floor space overlooking the water (formerly Intrigue Café), he chose a fish restaurant. Why leave it all to Legal?
Everyone picks his own way of launching a seafood place; some succeed and some don’t. Being in a hotel—with all those out-of-towners hungry for fish—gives Bruce’s Rowes Wharf Sea Grille a huge head start. Having a good seafood purveyor, too, is a given: Going against the Captain Marden’s tide that has swept Boston in recent years, Bruce remains loyal to Foley, his fishmonger of long duration. And the Boston Harbor Hotel’s views couldn’t be better.
Quality fish, great views, the interesting wines that Bruce (who made his reputation with his wine knowledge) will always have on the menu—to these he adds another not-so-secret ingredient. What is it? Here’s a hint: Bruce was one of Julia Child’s favorite chefs, and not just because he “had technique” from classic French training, which was about the highest compliment she could pay. Still haven’t got it? Think of Meryl Streep and that sole meunière. Yes, butter! It’s almost everywhere in the food at the Sea Grille, and it’s the clearest sign of Bruce’s grounding in the brawny New American style of the late ’70s and ’80s.
The Sea Grille formula, then, includes mildly adventurous, somewhat eclectic dishes with a few Asian and Southwest elements, and French sauces always in play. Because of my own prejudices, I gravitated toward options in which butter was less prominent, like a terrific first course of fried soft-shell crabs with fresh corn-and-black-bean salsa ($16). The crabs were the big fat ones that seem to be turning up on many menus at the outer limits of the season. Soaked in buttermilk and dredged in cornmeal flour seasoned with garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne, they were prepared fried chicken–style, but were juicier and better than fried chicken.
No other first course I tried was equally memorable, though I liked the salmon carpaccio ($14), pounded from notably fresh Scottish salmon and drizzled with parsley oil. The lobster-and-vegetable spring rolls ($15) had a nice fresh-sprout crunch, though I found the oil obtrusive (probably because, as Bruce told me, it’s clarified butter). Jonah crabmeat salad with crème fraîche ($16.50) tasted like cold, solidified crème fraîche—you had to turn to the fried shallots on the side to get any recognizable flavor.
Among the main courses, one rose to the level of the soft-shell crabs: grilled swordfish with jasmine rice and coconut-curry essence ($28). The swordfish was fine, if not as steaklike as some I’ve had recently, but the yellow curry sauce—voluptuous with coconut milk and alluringly lightened with lemongrass—was impressive. Bruce told me he makes a classic fish fumet (broth) for the stock, technique again coming to the fore. Everyone at my table kept digging spoons into it, mixing the rice into a kind of savory porridge, till there wasn’t a bit left.
The scallops with pea shoots, snap peas, snow peas, and English peas ($28) were nearly as good. Darkly caramelized disks from Georges Bank, the scallops were not only enormous, but also sweet, and with an exemplary meaty texture. The white wine–butter sauce was another classic, the lashings of butter tempered by the acidity of sauvignon blanc.
Yet other main courses were unremarkable: grilled Nova Scotia salmon with gummy black rice and bland baby vegetables in a heavy pinot noir–butter sauce ($24); grilled monkfish “osso buco” in a bouillabaisse broth ($28), the fish thick and rubbery, the fennel-tomato broth wan. The halibut with saffron risotto ($26) was too memorable, for the nearly solid butter in the rice. Risotto mantecato (creamed risotto) is one thing, but it’s not supposed to mean a warm, buttery block. Still, the halibut was good, and its conception elegant. Ultimately, that’s what you’ll come to the Sea Grille for: nothing too surprising, just solid service and solid seafood with great views.
The desserts (all $9) have a fancy, ta-da! look perfect for celebrations. (This being a hotel restaurant, there’s a pastry chef, and one Bruce has long worked with, William Romiza.) Like many of the main courses, they’re pleasant, mild, and high in quality. The baked ricotta cheesecake with toasted almonds and seasonal berries seemed dry and dull, but two chocolate desserts struck a nice balance between kiddie treat and grownup indulgence: dark chocolate in a phyllo case with a not-so-bitter “bitter chocolate” cream pie, and, my favorite, a milk chocolate charlotte in a pretty ring. I might never fall into a Julia swoon and cry, “Ah, butter!” when a sizzling sole sauce hits the table, but when that charlotte arrived, I had my own moment: Ah, cream!