BY EUGENE MAR
Every city has a landmark restaurant characterized by class, elegance, tradition, and top-notch food. In Boston, the honor arguably goes to Locke-Ober, established in downtown Boston over 125 years ago. Named after a retired sea captain from Maine who opened a wine room and a master of the kitchen who operated the restaurant next door, Locke-Ober strikes awe into all who walk into the venerable institution. The refurbished dark mahogany wood décor combined with the spotless, shining plate settings transports the person back to a time when Orson Welles slurped oysters here, John F. Kennedy sipped his favorite lobster stew, and Mayor John Fitzgerald marveled at the sweetbread. Under the steering of new owner and executive chef Lydia Shire (formerly of Biba) and the exquisite cooking of chef Jacky Robert (formerly of Maison Robert), the traditional menu does a wonderful job of retaining the perennial favorites while incorporating a few new tasty treats.
Locke-Ober maintains its famous oyster/raw bar that features a wide assortment of the finest oysters, Osetra caviar, crab claws, countneck clams, shrimp cocktail, and rum and tobacco smoked salmon. However, my dining companion and I were drawn immediately to the hors d’ oeuvres and soup section of the menu and started our meals off with a mix of old and new. The traditional favorite Oysters Gino with crab and leek gratin ($12) are wrapped in bacon and baked on a bed of salt. The dish teems with flavor, but the bacon and leek do slightly overpower the taste of the crab. JFK’s Lobster Stew ($18) is absolutely heavenly. The broth is creamy without being thick – I can see why JFK used to just savor the broth and give the lobster meat to the waiting staff. The large and plentiful pieces of lobster also add to the allure of the dish. The highlight of the evening belongs to a new addition on the menu, the Winter’s Pork Belly of Three Continents ($14). The fruition of a collaborative invention between Shire and Robert, the pork belly is prepared in three different styles. The Latin American style features crisply fried chicharrons served with radish. The French approach has the pork belly boiled and served with mustard. The tender meat combined with the slightly chewy texture worked in perfect harmony. The third portion evinces an influence by Asian cuisines whereby the pork belly was diced, caramelized, and served with a fish sauce. A piece of smoked salmon accompanies this portion to provide a contrast in texture and taste, giving the palate both sweetness and some saltiness to enjoy.
Locke-Ober has a long list of traditional favorites under the grills and entrees section of the menu. This includes the ever-popular Sweetbreads Financiere ($31), tournedos of beef “au whiskey” ($34), chateaubriand bearnaise with wild porcini ($68 for two), One Sided Wiener Schnitzel “a la Holstein” ($31), the Judge’s Braised Lamb Shank ($27), and Finnan Haddie with smoked haddock ($25). I ventured to try the venison rack served with a basket of popovers with rosemary honey ($36) and the famous Lobster Savannah ($48). The venison was grilled with incredible timing as the meat literally just melted in my mouth. The Savannah features a two-pound lobster with the meat removed from the shell, sautéed with red peppers, mushrooms and a cream of sherry sauce, and then served back in its original shell. The dish has a hint of sweetness to complement the natural sweetness of the lobster meat and, in taste, is comparable in quality and experience to the lobster stew. Another potentially worthy dish is the tripe Ernie’s baked under a Pastry Dome ($25). Brought over from the legendary Ernie’s Restaurant in San Francisco, Robert now prepares this French dish with the same success here in Boston. Locke-Ober also provides an assortment of side dishes to complement the entrees. The Onion Rings in a Sparkling Wine Batter ($5) are particularly noteworthy for its full flavor yet light and crispy batter that again just melts in your mouth.
For desserts, there is no passing up the legendary Indian pudding ($7). The recipe calls for a mixture of milk, molasses, rum, and a hint of ginger baked together so that the top surface is crispy while the rest of the pudding retains a soft texture. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the molasses and the rum carry the day with this dish and provide a nice punch to the end of the evening. I also had the pleasure of sampling the peppermint chocolate soufflé ($7). To my dining companion’s delight, a full cup of melted chocolate is placed at the table in case the chocolate flavor is not strong enough to suit your palate. For my money, the soufflé was a winner with its flakiness and subtle peppermint flavors.
A meal at this grand landmark in Boston is well worth the trip and dip into the pocketbook. You will be treated like royalty, and the food will soon convince you why such luminaries as Welles, Fitzgerald, and Kennedy have chosen to frequent Locke-Ober in the past. By dining in and experiencing Locke-Ober, your names may soon be mentioned in the same breath as the notables who have visited the Winter Palace.
3 Winter Place (just off Tremont Ave.)