Dining Out: Up Scaled
The Westin Copley Place
10 Huntington Avenue, Boston
Chef: Eric Heinrich
I shouldn't like Turner Fisheries as much as I do. It's a big hotel restaurant in a chain hotel in an architecturally vapid mall that hogs prime space in one of the most beautiful parts of the city. It specializes in fish when two Boston-area pioneers, Legal Sea Foods and Summer Shack, set national standards for large-volume seafood restaurants. Westin, the restaurant's big corporate parent, just spent $3 million to renovate it Â— hardly the sort of line item the small, locally owned restaurants I champion can put into their business plans.
Yet it's very easy to have a thoroughly enjoyable dinner at the new Turner Fisheries for a high but not shocking price. The ingredients are fresh, of high quality, and respectfully treated. A surprising number of them are even local, and the chef is a New England product, too. Even a mall restaurant in the middle of town can have local components. You just have to suspend disbelief for a little while.
The makeover team was Bostonian, too Â— in the charge of Peter Niemitz, who has created chic, brownish interiors for many fashionable Boston restaurants. Perhaps the most important aspect of his redo is a kind of conservatory at street level off Copley Square, right beside the Boston Public Library, about as choice a bit of sidewalk space as can be had. In the summer, big glass windows will open onto the street.
With its beige-tinted glass and sleek brown metal beams, the conservatory section looks a bit like modern Paris Â— not necessarily a compliment, given the beige modernist wash of so many Parisian neighborhoods. The room feels like a Niemitz creation. There's lots of mahogany paneling and handsome brown wood: no tablecloths, just a feeling of softly glossy brown-and-black surfaces. The comfortable chairs, with their black leather upholstery and backs with rectangular holes, look like they came from a 1960s waiting room Â— part of the retro style Niemitz favors.
Eric Heinrich, the chef de cuisine, grew up in New Hampshire and worked in New York. For his homecoming, Heinrich spent the months while the restaurant was being remodeled scoping out local suppliers with longtime Westin executive chef Christoph Leu Â— including at the excellent Copley Square farmers' market just outside his window. Many local chefs claim to buy directly from the farmers, which suggests that they help the farmers pick at dawn when what they really do is run down the street to pick up the occasional bunch of herbs. Heinrich told me he calls farmers the day before to place his order Â— the way chefs are supposed to get ingredients.
The menu is centered on fish and shellfish, of course, but the vegetables are impressive both in their preparation and the thought behind them. There's just enough roasted red pepper and chive aioli, for instance, to give both color and punch to the mildly spicy marinated grilled calamari ($9). The nicest part of the dish is the soft polenta with little nuggets of crabmeat. The crab cakes are soft, too, with plenty of fresh blue lump crabmeat and not too much mildly sweet binder (brioche crumbs, Heinrich told me). The cakes, and a bright rendition of a Caesar salad with the bonus of toasted rosemary focaccia from Iggy's ($8), are the starting high points.
I'd recommend heading straight for the main courses, where the focus is sharp, the portions are generous but not overbearing, and the quality of the ingredients warrants the moderately high prices. My favorite of the entrées was pan-seared halibut with fennel pollen and Jerusalem artichoke vinaigrette ($26). I can never figure out why chefs here don't give halibut Â— New England's answer to Dover sole in compact, white, meaty flavor Â— the pride of place they give veal chops. Before searing the white plank, Heinrich dusts it with fennel pollen, the fashionable chef's current answer to Ac'cent: a big, eye-opening flavor enhancer in the form of a flaky powder, this one celery-green rather than chemical white. (It's the pollen of the kind of fennel whose seeds are usually dried for an herb; you can buy it at Formaggio Kitchen.) This should become a signature dish.
So should the wonderfully flavored sea scallops with smoky corn broth ($27) Â— but, of course, it can't, if seasons are to be respected. Chefs this summer seemed to have discovered what charring on a grill can do to supersweet corn. I tasted versions of this dish in of-the-moment New York restaurants, too, at the end of the summer. Heinrich beat them to it with rich mascarpone polenta, fresh chanterelles, and the big bonus of scallops caramelized to just-right, pre-tough semitranslucence. He gets high marks for insisting that his scallops not be dipped in the awful phosphorous solution nearly every vendor uses to bleach scallops to a ghostly white Â— and to get a higher price by adding water weight.
The showpiece is chunks of many kinds of fish and shellfish stacked in three bamboo steamer baskets, each lined with banana leaves and including different aromatics, most of them Asian. This is Turner's answer to the on-ice fresh shellfish platter on which Brasserie Jo has taken the local franchise; Turner offers a “grand plat de mer,” at $35 for two, but makes less of a table-covering deal of it. Leu and Heinrich have added Asian dipping sauces to this already established crowd pleaser from the former menu Â— actually a good value at $30 Â— including unripe mango with garlic and lime, passion fruit and ginger, and wasabi with soy and sesame oil. It's the dish farthest afield from the mostly mainstream entrées, but, as with the others, the effect is gentle and enjoyable.
The Westin also has the resources to employ a thoroughly professional pastry chef. I was impressed by the Austrian-bred-and-trained Andreas Horava's American-themed desserts (all $8), particularly the toffee mocha semifreddo with hot chocolate sauce and pistachio biscotti. The semifreddo was too cold Â— like ice cream, but at least not the iced rock I've been seeing lately hereabouts Â— but it had good, crunchy homemade toffee. The plain chocolate sauce was dark and divine. The key lime mascarpone tart is filled to order, so the shell keeps its flake. You can actually taste the lime, nicely set off by a sweet-acid sauce with whole huckleberries.
The wine list is standard and corporate, and the waiters, who seemed to have just come up to speed on the menu, were still a bit puzzled by it. The corporate hand still shows at the edges: The feel of the service was friendly but fairly anonymous. Yes, this is a big hotel, and just up the stairs and behind the revolving door is a mall that shouldn't be in the heart of town. But Turner Fisheries is awfully pleasant and reliable.
I should just stop fighting it.