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December 30, 2009

The Deliciousness of 2009

Honorable Mention - Mustard Leaf Agnolotti with Lamb from Sportello Dominic Armato

I keep telling myself these years can't get any crazier. In 2009? New business, new daughter, monthly trips to California and two cross-country moves. Y'know. The usual.

Even more shocking is the fact that despite all of this insanity, 2009 turned out to be a banner year for incredible foodstuffs. I don't know that it was the most diverse. I didn't have the time to pound the pavement and get into nearly as many hidden little joints as I would have liked, and as evidenced by the complete dearth of recipes around here lately, I haven't been experimenting much in the kitchen (though I've been cooking more... go figure). But while their sources may be less interesting than years past, they're some damn fine dishes and their spots on the list are not to be denied.

Cutting this year's list down to ten was brutal. Unlike one or two previous years where there was a clean break after six or seven, this year I could have made this a top 20 or maybe even top 25 without breaking a sweat. I mean, places that didn't make an appearance include Bouchon and Avec, for cryin' out loud. And that's no reflection on them. They were both among my favorite meals of the year. But the peakiest peaks were to be found elsewhere. As usual, the only way I finally settled on 2009's ten was to stop thinking about it and just go with my gut... which dishes did I enjoy the most, which are the most memorable to me, and which will I be pining for in the future?

Though I'm rounding up the year and skipping town (tomorrow, in fact!), there's actually a bit of a Boston backlog I intend to work through over the next month or so, but none of them made this year's deliciousness. As usual, clicking on the images brings up a larger image, while the name of the dish links to the post that mentioned it. And so, without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, the deliciousness of 2009:

Dominic Armato

Pork Belly Tortellini
Craigie on Main - Boston

Hold on there a moment... not for the reason you think. Yes, yes, despite the prevailing universal love for all things pork, I'm not shy about my adoration of its fattiest of cuts. And not just when it's cured and smoked. If anything, pork belly tends to make me happiest when it's braised or steamed to an almost liquid consistency, and -- well, point is, I swoon for pig paunch. But at Craigie on Main, I almost completely forgot that the filling was pork. Rather, I was entranced by the summer squash. And that's why it's on this list. Zucchini blossoms, sure, they're sexy and interesting and you can fry them up stuffed or unstuffed. But a summer squash jus? Could anything sound more bland and uninteresting? Truth is, the dish just burst with summer squash flavor. It was fresh and vibrant and it may be the first time -- with the possible exception of some marinated Italian antipasti -- that I've been completely captivated by summer squash. Well done, Tony Maws. You made me overlook the pork belly on the plate in front of me.

Dominic Armato

Tuna Tartare
L2O - Chicago

I had almost given up on tuna that wasn't absolutely riddled with fat or grilled between two slices of bread with melted cheese. I think you're required to turn in your food nerd credentials if you don't love toro, and I have a soft spot for a good crispy, greasy tuna melt. But the lean stuff that's grilled into tasteless steaks, sliced into tasteless pink slabs over seasoned rice, or finely chopped into a tasteless paste that's slathered in goo? Bo. Ring. Which is why I heaved a little sigh when Laurent Gras presented me (no, not personally) with a tuna tartare with soy, dashi and olive oil, and then promptly sucked that breath right back in after my first taste. Yes, that's frozen shaved Hawaiian ice-style toro on top, but the wow was underneath, in simply minced tuna with about the least imaginative accompanying flavors one could name. And yet, something about the quality of the fish and the unconventional technique applied just made it pop, and I hung on every bite. The reasons we eat this critter raw all came rushing back to me at once. I try not to pick two dishes from the same restaurant for the year's deliciousness unless they're both really worthy, and believe me, it was hard to choose this over the butter-poached peekytoe with foie emulsion. But while foie's always there for me, this dish rekindled a romance I thought I'd long left behind. I can't stay mad at you, tuna.

Dominic Armato

Lobster Roll
Kelly's Roast Beef - Boston

I ate a lot of lobster this month. A LOT. And on the day after a two-week stretch where I consumed a lobster roll for lunch almost every single day? I had my cholesterol tested. I still haven't called for the results. I'm a little afraid. So if lobster is as damaging to one's blood work as we're led to believe, the point is that while it's impossible to do a survey of this regional specialty that is both comprehensive and doctor-approved, I ate an awful lot of lobster rolls. And Kelly's was my favorite by such a wide margin it's kind of silly. Sweet and tender meat, whole enormous claws draped over the top, knuckles and diced tail beneath, the perfect amount of mayo, a roll that wasn't the least bit bready or gummy and was toasted to a perfect exterior crisp while staying light and fluffy inside, basted with a touch of butter -- I'm contractually obligated to remain open to the possibility that you can improve upon this, but I don't see how. I suppose you could eat it on the beach while gazing at the ocean. Oh, right. You can do that at Kelly's. And I did. And those seagulls were sooooooooooo jealous.

Dominic Armato

Sweet Potato & Sausage Soup
Dick & Jenny's - New Orleans

For such a short trip with so much work to do, it's amazing that I ate as well as I did in New Orleans. Well, maybe not that amazing. It IS one heck of an eating town. But still, three entries in this year's deliciousness is no small feat, and I waffle over whether this is my favorite. It was like the city -- sweet and spicy, dense and a little dirty, and incredibly brash. There was nothing subtle about it. And yet, the fact that sausage was cooked into the stock and then removed, leaving its smoky sweetness behind, was juuuuust enough restraint to keep it from going over the top. I suppose it could be said that my favorite dishes are those I both enjoy and admire, and this was no exception. I admired that little twist of technique. And I really, really enjoyed the flavors it produced.

Dominic Armato

Butter Poached Lobster with Salsify
Noca - Phoenix

Okay, maybe some are more towards the enjoyment end of the spectrum. Not that I didn't admire the dual use of salsify and the fact that the lobster tail was almost flirting with a hint of a raw-ish quality, but the reason this dish is here is because it was just so freaking good. Sweet lobster, a buttery puree, sweet caramelized salsify, a deep onion jus and aromatic hits of truffle and vanilla to round it out -- intoxicating is the word, and I got a little drunk for a couple of minutes there. Sometimes it's nice to stop thinking about your food and simply get lost in it, and three bites into this dish, that's exactly what I did. I am very, very much looking forward to having Noca in my backyard starting tomorrow.

Dominic Armato

Oyster Po' Boy
Domilise's - New Orleans

*phew*, a dive. That was a close one. And quite a dive it was. A wall-mounted, hand-painted, weather-beaten plywood sign is all that identifies Domilise's to the world, and the interior is as worn and craggy as the sign. And yet Dot Domilise and her daughter assemble their po' boys so carefully and with such precision, you'd think they were working the line at an upscale joint somewhere. A really good sandwich is a special thing, and this was one of the best I've had in a long time. The oysters were perfect, crisp and hot but plump and juicy inside, and that quintessential po' boy bread that could be mistaken for a lightweight variation on its European cousins, somehow shines when treated in this manner. Ketchup on beautiful fried oysters? I had a hard time coming to terms with that one. But I put myself in their hands and was blown away. Anytime I see the words "po' boy", I think of this sandwich... and I try to think of reasons to get back to New Orleans.

Dominic Armato

Grilled Nectarines
Laiola - San Francisco

When Laiola served me fried padrón peppers, I kind of had to laugh and think of David Chang. It wasn't figs on a plate, but it was close. And yet, while I see where Chang's coming from, there's a light side to that kind of intense ingredient focus. Laiola gets it, and in no dish was it more evident than the grilled nectarine. With a touch of char, a sherry and tarragon vinaigrette, honey for added sweetness and a fist-sized lump of light, tart house-made goat cheese, this was all about just bringing vibrant flavors to the plate, and complementing that spectacular nectarine in the best way possible. It wasn't a dessert, but it had that kind of "now, I'm done" vibe. Except that it was so good, and was indicative of a kitchen that was so confident, it made me want to hand our server the menu and say, "We'll take one of each." Maybe next time.

Dominic Armato

Chile en Nogada
Izote - Mexico City

Man, my timing couldn't have been any better. I barely even touched down in Mexico City, but those 32 hours happened to nip the narrow window when Chiles en Nogada are made for Mexican Independence Day. What's more, it just happened to be a dish about which I've always been curious, and it turned out to be a house specialty of Izote, where we ate for our one dinner in the city. I still hate the fact that I didn't get to walk the markets sampling street food, but as consolation prizes go, I'm having a hard time complaining. A lightly cooked poblano chile stuffed with a heavily spiced meat piccadillo, slathered in a sweet walnut sauce that was almost like frosting and buried in pomegranate seeds and parsley and served cold -- I had no frame of reference for this. It was so vibrant and unique and, as a little bonus, so thumbing its nose at those who think Mexican food is flat baked corn product, meat or beans and some vegetables. This is a really, really special dish, and the cultural context only made it that much sweeter.

Dominic Armato

Clam Pizza
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana - New Haven

If you think I'm wading into the whole pizza superiority thing, you're crazy. Forget that it's against my personal credo to name a pizza champion of the world. I just don't have that kind of time to defend myself. But I will say this: In 2009, at least, Pepe's clam pizza was the best I tasted, and it's a doozy of a pie. A massive coal oven turns out a thin and beautifully crisp and blackened crust, the toppings are minimal without being skimpy, and there's something just awesome about the clam, garlic and crisp bread combination. It never ceases to amaze me how when it comes to pizza, the same three or four ingredients can run the gamut from utter garbage to culinary nirvana, all based on a little technique. And in this case, all culinary nirvana took was 85 years of making nothing but pizza. I knew one of the two we tasted would make the list, and after some waffling I finally gave the nod to the funky regional variant. Dropping in just once and then moving west is a total tease. Even now, I sit here at midnight wondering if I can cram in two hours there and two hours back on our last day on the East Coast. But I suppose I'll just have to wipe my tears with Pizzeria Bianco's margherita.

Dominic Armato

Fried Rabbit Livers
Cochon - New Orleans

Sometimes I'm surprised by the reasons I end up liking a dish. See pork belly tortellini, above. Here was another instance of the tiniest little detail just opening up a dish and turning something that otherwise would have been really good into something special. If you take these same delicate livers, put them on the same croutons, douse them with the same sweet and spicy pepper jelly and add the same pickled fennel for accent, you have a really good dish. But it was buried under what looked like garnish. There were huge leaves of parsley and mint obscuring the star of the show, as if somebody just couldn't be bothered to mince the garnish and lazily tore off a handful of stuff to throw on top. But this was by design, I tell you. You got a mouthful of fresh, green herb with every bite -- mostly unassuming parsley, no less -- and it served to brighten the dish and keep it light in a way I'm not sure anything else could have. Once again, a dish that was not only delicious -- and it WAS delicious -- but which I admired.

And so ends one of the zanier years in memory. It was a year when I had a hard time getting my footing, but sometimes being a little off-balance opens you up to experiences you might not have otherwise had. That said, it's exciting to be starting a new year in a new city, one where I know I'll be spending some serious time, where I can learn the people and the specialties and the food nerd gossip and dig in and pound the pavement and really learn all there is to know about one place. Call it a hunch, but I suspect the deliciousness of 2010 is going to look very different. Check back in a year and we'll see.

Happy New Year, everybody!

2005   |  2006   |   2007   |   2008   |   2009   |   2010   |   2011

December 22, 2009


Raw Scallop with Lemon Oil, Smoked Salt and Celery Dominic Armato

I have this friend named Ronnie. I'd call him a virtual friend, but that would imply that he wasn't really a friend, or that he didn't actually exist. Ronnie is, in fact, a friend and he is, in fact, flesh and blood (as far as I know), and what I mean to get across is that, sadly, I've yet to meet him in person. He's a fellow food nerd and all-around exemplary chap with whom I've had occasion to trade an awful lot of banter over the past few years. We've always meant to break bread, but circumstances have conspired against us.

So, last summer, while my wife and I were planning a trip to Phoenix to visit her family, I dropped Ronnie a line since I'd heard he might have some intel on a new place with big potential. That new place was Noca, about to be opened by an old friend of Ronnie's, Eliot Wexler. With the appropriate caveat that Eliot was his pal and he was probably a little biased, Ronnie told me that the place was shaping up to be something really special, and I might want to check it out. As it turned out, my ladylove and I couldn't free up a third night, we were extremely excited about our plans for the first two, and so we decided to save Noca for our next trip.

Then Noca was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, it pulled down a win from the Arizona Republic for the same, and generally earned gobs of praise from everybody who got near the place. And I spent the better part of 2009 kicking myself.

So, needless to say, Noca was at the top of our dance card in bold, neon letters for this past week's trip. And Ronnie, incredibly swell fellow that he is, treated us to a fabulous dinner, despite the fact that we'd passed on his advice the first time around. Note to self: When Ronnie says to check a place out, check it out.

Poached Citrus with FennelDominic Armato

I was a little amused by Noca's location -- at the risk of angering those whose fair city I'll shortly be calling home -- because it somehow struck me as so appropriately Phoenix for a restaurant like this to be buried in the corner of a strip mall, sitting quietly in the shadow of a gargantuan Safeway. I'm no stranger to the strip mall restaurant. I'm firmly of the conviction that they contain some of the greatest eating treasures to be found in any city. But suffice it to say that I typically expect strip mall finds to be those of the cheap and/or ethnic variety, so this particular play on convention brought me a little smile. It also, oddly enough, struck me as a good sign. Perhaps it's different in the desert, but it seems to me that most image-conscious restaurateurs would balk at putting this level of cuisine next to a supermarket. Intentional or not, what this said to me was, "Who gives a damn about a sexy location? It's all about the food, baby." Of course, the concrete jungle ends abruptly at the front door, and what's inside is the kind of stylish space you'd expect when you glance at the menu. Open kitchen, angled mirror on the wall so you can see it from anywhere in the restaurant, exposed bulbs, a number of high tops, enough bustle to be lively without being distracting... too much about the space already. On to the important stuff.

Hirame TartareDominic Armato

We made our reservation about a month in advance, and only two days before our dinner did we happen to discover that the evening featured a special white truffle tasting menu. And before we could express our delight, we were informed that that's what Ronnie had selected for us that evening. Not that it should come as any surprise that we were operating on the same wavelength, but a lovely happenstance, nonetheless. We started off with a couple of amuses, served successively. The first was a slice of raw scallop with lemon oil, celery brunoise and a touch of smoked salt. I loved the combination of flavors, especially since, as of late, I've been rediscovering celery as a featured flavor rather than the subtle building block role to which it's usually consigned. It was a delicious bite, though I was sad to have lost the scallop a little bit. Scallop may be my most favored raw sea critter, and I thought the spoon needed a little less accompaniment or a little more scallop. Still delicious, however, and my complaints ended there -- not for the dish, but for the meal.

Butter Poached Lobster with SalsifyDominic Armato

Our second amuse was bright and explosive, a segment of grapefruit poached in something I was too stricken by to identify, with more celery (though a different cut -- detail!), sliced baby fennel and a lone pomegranate seed. Citrus and fennel is, of course, a time-honored tradition, but this bite was a thrilling little riff thereon. A spectacular amuse, and I'd love to know more about how it was done. This amuse gave way to our first official course of the evening, a hirame tartare with lemon oil, crème fraîche, slices of Seckel pear and a scattering of microgreens, with toast point escorts. It was a clean and refreshing dish, taking the right tack of pairing beautiful raw fish with just a couple of complementary flavors to draw out its character. The toast points? Completely unnecessary. I pretended that half of the plate wasn't there and simply enjoyed how the crème fraîche brought out the raw fish's creaminess while the pear highlighted its sweetness.

Ricotta and Chicken Yolk RavioloDominic Armato

Next up, a supplementary course disingenuously described as "optional" (are we not obligated, as food lovers, not to pass on the lobster?). Butter-poached lobster, both tail and claw, were supported by salsify presented two ways, as a creamy puree and caramelized slices. A hint of vanilla, a light roasted onion sauce, a microplaned white truffle toupee and hooooooly cow, that's a good dish. This was one to get lost in, sweet and delicious and harmonious and all-encompassing, I've no doubt it'll stick with me for quite some time. From an intellectual standpoint, I loved how the same base vegetable brought two different characteristics to the dish, and I loved that the lobster tail was just one tiny tick right of center on the uncooked/cooked scale. But two bites in, my intellect got a little delirious and forgot why the dish was so damn good. Epic win.

NY Strip with Gnocchi and BordelaiseDominic Armato

The photo of our next course lacks all sense of scale, so I'll just tell you that this raviolo was a big'un. Six inches in diameter wouldn't surprise me, though I didn't bust out the measuring tape, with a core the size of a hockey puck. But while that last comparison is generally used in derogatory fashion when it comes to food, there's no such intention here. It was simply big, a ricotta and egg yolk raviolo with brown butter sauce and more microplaned truffle. The pasta was perfect, fresh with excellent bite and the ricotta was some lovely, airy product that struck me as a little overly abundant until my second bite when -- punchline -- I hit the egg yolk that I wasn't expecting since I didn't look at the menu very carefully. Hidden in the center is a perfectly poached egg yolk that comes rushing out to bathe the pasta and cheese when you puncture it. Of course, while this prompts the inevitable comparison to Michael Carlson's de facto signature dish over at Schwa, I'm hesitant to declare a victor. Noca's is somehow more brash and plentiful and decadent though no more lovable, as though two skilled chefs were working from the same playbook and managed to do beautiful things with it. So while the novelty was lost on me, here's yet another dish that was flat-out good, fresh and rich and -- absolutely key -- salty enough to keep it lively.

Salted Butter Ice CreamDominic Armato

Our meaty course was another that made my brain a little giddy, as smart touches came together to make an unusually compelling whole. Steak is, so often, steak. Even in creative restaurants, it's a tough rut to break out of. But Chris Curtiss -- the chef whose name I'm a little embarrassed to have neglected mentioning up until this point -- made a NY strip light and appealing while still maintaining that beefy essence. Thick slices were fanned over melted onions and a restrained application of bordelaise that looked as though it had been strained about seventeen times. The brilliant little touches, however, started with the gnocchi -- potato-based, Parisian style and pan-fried to a deep golden exterior crisp, adding a depth of flavor and the perfect textural aspect to the dish. The other touch, which had me doing little backflips, was a single nugget of battered and crisply fried marrow, a succulent little treasure trove that I strove to stretch into as many bites as possible. Bordelaise is often served with a bit of the marrow that helped to create it, but having a crisp, hot fried shell surrounding that unctuous goo was a first for me, and I loved it.

Cotton CandyDominic Armato

To finish, yet another strong dessert for somebody who typically doesn't get all that excited about them. I'm still trying to figure out whether it's the desserts that are changing or me, but I've been atypically entranced by far too many this past year to consider it anything short of a trend. The star here was a salted butter ice cream, set atop shortbread and drizzled with truffle honey. The frozen centerpiece was delightfully creamy, the salt is always a welcome addition to the sweet in my book, the shortbread was light and moist for the breed, but not without maintaining texture and density, and the honey just put it over the top.

A Devils Tower of cotton candy -- apparently Richard Dreyfuss is the pastry chef and has graduated from mashed potatoes to spun sugar -- provided a playful finish and a little time to reflect. This was a great meal. Curtiss isn't gilding the lily, but his creative juices are flowing and his technique is on point. And even more striking than this creative and bold but ingredient-focused and comforting style was the fact that it produced a menu that was so strong, start to finish. To have a dish as good as some of these isn't entirely uncommon. I can think of favorites from meals throughout the year that I enjoyed as much. But to have such an unfaltering series of dishes -- to have a lengthy dinner exclusively comprised of peaks -- is, indeed, an uncommon experience. Though I love the idea of becoming a regular somewhere, I find it hard to settle down with a favorite restaurant. Our nights out have been so infrequent and my list of must-trys so lengthy that I'm almost always driven to go someplace new when we have the opportunity. But if Noca is always this consistently delicious, we're going to be spending a lot of time there.

3118 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Tue - Sat5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Mon5:30 PM - 10:00 PM  (Dec - Mar only)

December 17, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter X - James Hook & Co.

A Very Big Lobster Dominic Armato

He may not look it in the closeup, but trust me, this fella was a monster.

It's been a lobstery week here at Skillet Doux, and this may or may not be the final installment of the Roll-Off. We'll see what I can get to next week before I skip town. But one thing's for certain. I'm definitely getting a pretty firm grasp on the genre.

James Hook & Co.Dominic Armato

For our tenth entry, we hit another Boston stalwart, James Hook & Co. Much like Yankee Lobster, they've been around forever. And they'd have to be. Otherwise there's no way you'd devote so much prime real estate smack dab in the middle of downtown Boston to a lobster shop sitting on a mostly vacant lot. It's a funny little place, looking almost like a doublewide trailer that's split between offices and a retail outlet that devotes almost as much space to tee shirts as it does to seafood. I exaggerate, but let's just say there are a lot of little plush lobsters lying around. Of course, there are also huge tanks of the genuine article, including some that look beefy enough to fill a score of rolls all on their own. It's a seafood market, and it has no seating other than a couple of random chairs that don't really seem to be intended for eating. But James Hook does have the requisite cold seafood case which, sadly, contains the lobster rolls.

Lobster Roll - James Hook & Co.Dominic Armato

James Hook's roll is premade, and it shows. For a large-scale lobster purveyor, they make a lobster roll that doesn't have much in the way of fresh lobster flavor. The salad's a mix of medium dice and the occasional large chunk, studded with chunks of celery here and there. It's a very mayo-heavy salad and, like Fred's a few entries back, has a thick, almost cheesy quality the genesis of which I can't divine. It's not as thick and strong as in Fred's case, but it's heading in that direction. Of course, a huge problem is that the bun, having sat in a very cold refrigerator case whilst piled with very wet lobster salad, is cold and gummy. Its best feature is the cheap $12 price tag, but it's not worth saving a few bucks, especially when Alive and Kicking's sandwich -- similarly slathered in stuff but puzzlingly oodles more enjoyable -- is only a dollar more and comes with a bag of chips.

James Hook's, along with Skipjack's and Fred's, is one of only three entrants in the Roll-Off about which I harbor negative feelings. It's better than Fred's, no doubt, but I think I actually have to put it below Skipjack's. They both had lousy bread, but at least Skipjack's lobster was okay, if a little flat. And it's hard to look at a pile of premade sandwiches sitting in a refrigerator case without kind of feeling like Hook's deserves to be on the precipice of the basement. They may be a great seafood market, I don't know. But as a purveyor of lobster rolls, there's not much to like.

James Hook & Co.
15 Northern Avenue
Boston, MA 02210
Mon - Thu8:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Fri8:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sat9:00 AM - 4:00 PM
Fri9:00 AM - 1:00 PM
  1) Kelly's Roast Beef
2) B&G Oysters
3) Alive And Kicking
4) The Clam Box
5) Neptune Oyster
6) Belle Isle Seafood
7) Yankee Lobster
8) Skipjack's
9) James Hook & Co.
10) Fred's Sea Foods

December 16, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter IX - Alive And Kicking

Lobster Roll - Alive And Kicking Dominic Armato

Okay, I have no idea what to do with this one. Can an entrant be disqualified? What if it's really good?

Alive And KickingDominic Armato

Alive and Kicking is another cute little seafood shack, though the focus is clearly on lobsters. They have those enormous blue plastic tanks of the little buggers, sorted by size and separated by netting, and though the case holds a few other items, there's no question that this is a lobster place. What makes it unusual is the location. It's weirdly dropped into a residential neighborhood in Cambridge, a glorified garage complete with rolldown front sitting on the back of a small paved lot. There's no seating of any kind, though the few wooden picnic tables stacked off to the side indicate that there might be during warmer weather, so lunchtime in the car it is! The folks running the place are exceptionally friendly, and they serve a lobster "roll" that's... well... perhaps not a lobster roll?

Lobster Roll - Alive And KickingDominic Armato

One look is all you should need to know that Alive and Kicking's entry is a little atypical. Where to start? It's not a roll. The lobster concoction is between two freshly toasted slices of white bread, studded with sesame seeds. Yup. It's a sandwich sandwich. The lobster is chopped more finely than most of the others, and it has an abundance of mayo. It really plays like more of a lobster salad, and I'd be less hesitant to call it such if it were notably seasoned in any other way, which it doesn't appear to be. There's also less meat than most of the other rolls I've sampled, but at $13 including a bag of good chips, it's also one of the cheapest. The biggest departure, however, makes itself known upon first bite. BUTTER. Gobs of it. We're not talking a tiny bit spread into the bread ala Kelly's. We're talking full-on pats of rich, creamy butter. I would have thought the mayo plus butter would have put it over the edge, but I actually enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. I probably shouldn't enjoy it too often, but this is a good sandwich.

The dilemma, of course, is how to consider this against the others? I'm halfway tempted to disqualify it for its lack of rollness, but I also hate to eliminate a contender that I liked as much as I did. It's so different that I'm not sure how I compare it to the rest. So I won't. We're going to go pure enjoyment scale. I think I enjoyed it more than The Clam Box, and less than B&G. If you find yourself saying that it doesn't belong on the list with the rest, just put your finger over Alive and Kicking on the screen. Done and done.

Alive And Kicking
269 Putnam Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 3:00 PM
  1) Kelly's Roast Beef
2) B&G Oysters
3) Alive And Kicking
4) The Clam Box
5) Neptune Oyster
6) Belle Isle Seafood
7) Yankee Lobster
8) Skipjack's
9) Fred's Sea Foods

December 15, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter VIII - Yankee Lobster

Lobster Roll - Yankee Lobster Dominic Armato

Kelly's is tough to follow. Unfair, really. But our next stop on the Roll-Off certainly captures the spirit of the town, a place opened by Italian immigrants that goes by the name of Yankee Lobster.

Yankee LobsterDominic Armato

Yankee Lobster's in the little industrial area just east of downtown, near the convention center, where its small retail front is nestled into a larger wholesale operation. For an add-on to a seafood plant, it's far cozier than most, a comfortable little dining room that seats about 15-20 and doubles as a small fish market. Fried seafood dominates in typical Boston fashion, but the menu's more extensive than most, including steamed clams, some other baked and grilled items and nondescript non-seafood items. They seem to have some pretty reasonable daily specials, even if I wouldn't trust the listings on the website (currently shown, the specials for November 31st -- you read that right). On the day we visited, the normally $17 lobster roll was a $14 lunchtime special. Good timing!

Lobster Roll - Yankee LobsterDominic Armato

As you might expect from the on-site retail outlet for a lobster fishery, the meat's incredibly fresh. It's kind of a medium dice with very little in the way of larger chunks, and its most notable feature is that, as far I can tell, there's no mayo whatsoever. Or if there is, it's undetectable, at least to me. It seems like an unadulterated pile of fresh lobster meat. The split roll is lightly toasted, if a touch gummy, and there's a small pile of shredded lettuce separating the lobster from the bun. I'm not sure I understand why it's there, but it doesn't exactly detract from the experience, so I consider it neither a positive nor a negative. I'm not sure whether the size was adjusted for the special price, but it was definitely on the smaller side as compared to the others I've sampled thus far. I couldn't knock the freshness of the lobster, but this one taught me that while there's definitely such a thing as too much, I like the mayo. The roll was served with a slice of lemon, so I went ahead and gave it a shot for one bite. Not an improvement. Or at least, it just didn't feel like what I've come to know as a lobster roll. When the lobster meat is so completely unadorned, I kind of wonder why you bother putting it on bread at all.

That said, it's some beautiful, fresh meat, which counts for something, even if it isn't my thing. The question, for me, really came down to whether I prefer not enough mayo or too much mayo. Unsurprisingly, I come down on the side of too much mayo, so Yankee Lobster drops into the rankings just behind Belle Isle. It's delicious for what it is, just way too minimal for my tastes.

Yankee Lobster
300 Northern Avenue
Boston, MA 02210
Mon - Sat10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Sun10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
  1) Kelly's Roast Beef
2) B&G Oysters
3) The Clam Box
4) Neptune Oyster
5) Belle Isle Seafood
6) Yankee Lobster
7) Skipjack's
8) Fred's Sea Foods

December 14, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter VII - Kelly's Roast Beef

Lobster Roll - Kelly's Roast Beef Dominic Armato

Awkward framing, I know. I originally tried setting it down on the ledge to get a good angle, but the seagulls threatened to steal my lunch.

Kelly's is a place I initially met with suspicion for a lot of reasons. Its website just screams mediocre fast food chain. It's not purely a seafood restaurant. It isn't even predominantly a seafood restaurant. The full name of the place is Kelly's Roast Beef, for cryin' out loud. But it's gotten quite a bit of love, most notably from one of my most trusted chow pals here in Boston. So as always, I enter with an open mind.

The original Kelly's is a well-polished walkup establishment, located right on the water in Revere. I actually didn't realize there wasn't any indoor seating, but in a bit of fortunate happenstance, we visited Kelly's on what turned out to be the last beautiful day of the season. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the temperature was crisp but enjoyable in the lower '50s, and the beach was beckoning. Given the time of year, we couldn't have asked for a more perfect day to pick up a lobster roll, cross the street, sit at a picnic table overlooking the beach and do our best to pretend it was summer. It didn't look like much, packed into a plastic takeout container with a pickle and some nondescript fries, but hooooooo, buddy... was this one a winner.

Lobster Roll - Kelly's Roast BeefDominic Armato

I've heard tales of those magical lobster rolls that you just melt into, and Kelly's was my first. It starts with the meat, and while I was enjoying it too much to take note of the precise composition, it doesn't take much attention to not the massive claws draped across the top, which were tender and luscious and perfectly sweet. The entire thing was beautifully moist and tender, hit with the perfect amount of mayo for my tastes, and so little celery that it was borderline symbolic. The salad had already so thoroughly dominated its competition, that the bread was really just rubbing it in. It was a very thin split roll, toasted on the outside to a perfect, even crisp, light and moist on the inside, portioned perfectly to the lobster meat within, and -- in a bit of a departure -- generously buttered, adding just a little bit of richness that worked wonders.

I'm really not sure what else to say. It was freaking delicious. I'm sure it can be done, but I don't know how you improve upon this. It was said somewhere that Kelly's uses frozen lobster meat, and while I have no idea if this is true -- I don't have enough experience with frozen lobster to know the telltale signs -- I have a really hard time believing it. And if it is true, I'm going to go ahead and say it. Don't care. If freezing the lobster meat is what they have to do to make this sandwich, I say bring on the lobsicles! And at $17, it's a small but more than worth it premium over some of the bargain rolls, while remaining comfortably under the upscale joints. It's not even close. There's a new king in town.

And lastly, for the purists, truth is I tried Kelly's before B&G. Just thought I'd have a little fun with you :-)

Kelly's Roast Beef
410 Revere Beach Boulevard
Revere, MA 02151
Sun - Thu5:00 AM - 2:30 AM
Fri - Sat5:00 AM - 3:00 AM
  1) Kelly's Roast Beef
2) B&G Oysters
3) The Clam Box
4) Neptune Oyster
5) Belle Isle Seafood
6) Skipjack's
7) Fred's Sea Foods

December 13, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter VI - B&G Oysters

B&G Oysters Dominic Armato

Oh, the purists are going to hate me for this one.

The other half of the dynamic upscale lobster roll duo is B&G Oysters in the Back Bay. It's a tiny, basement place that's very cozy, very hip and very expensive. Barbara Lynch needs no introduction around these parts, but for those not up on the Boston restaurant scene, she's as big as restaurant names come in this town, sitting atop a local empire that also includes No. 9 Park, The Butcher Shop and Sportello, along with craft cocktail bar Drink, demonstration kitchen Stir, and fresh market Plum Produce. B&G is the kind of place that frustrates food nerds. It's the antithesis of the divey seafood joint that's long on character, full of delicious sea critters and short on prices. To sum up? $27 lobster roll.

Now, there are many who will insist that there is absolutely no reason to spend $27 on a lobster roll. And I have a hard time arguing with that sentiment. But again, the aim of the Lobster Roll-Off is to cover all bases, and B&G is quite notable, so I felt it would be a dereliction of duty not to sample what may be the most expensive lobster roll in the Boston metro area.

Here's the problem: I liked it.

Lobster Roll - B&G OystersDominic Armato

I'm seriously going to make enemies of both food nerds and lobster roll enthusiasts for this one. B&G's lobster is highly non-canonical. And it's also not without its faults. But I still really, really enjoyed it. The salad is a mix of pieces, diced to a pretty uniform medium cut, dressed with the perfect (for me) amount of mayo, celery brunoise -- I'm allowed to use that word here because it's a Barbara Lynch restaurant -- and a smattering of minced chives on top. The lobster itself, like Neptune's, was a little on the denser, more toothsome side (I'm trying to avoid the word "tougher" on the grounds that it carries too negative of a connotation), and the flavor was, well, appropriately lobster-ey. Unlike the other upscale lobster rolls, B&G has the bread right. It's a no-frills hot dog bun, lightly toasted. It's not too bready, it doesn't get in the way -- it does precisely the job it's supposed to do. And while I try not to give much if any weight to whatever accompaniments may adorn the plate, I just can't help myself here. There's a little dollop of a very nice slaw. There's a huge pile of some really, really excellent fries. They're hot and crisp and absolutely delicious. And most importantly, there are the bread and butter pickles. Here's where I'll earn the ire of the purists, and in deference to them the pickles were never actually added to the roll. But these crisp little pickles, subtly flavored and ever-so-slightly sweet, were just the perfect accompaniment to the lobster roll in between bites. Any more potent and they would have been too much, but these are some very tame pickles, and they don't get in the way. The roll is not without its faults. I'm rather open to lobster with a little chew, which I realize is highly off-putting for some. B&G's is as far towards that end of the spectrum as I'd care to go. And a little more of that natural lobster sweetness would help.

But as much as I'd love to abuse the $27 lobster roll, I can't... for anything besides its price, I mean. And everything at B&G is expensive. If you walk in the front door, you've already conceded that you're willing to overpay for very good seafood in a trendy setting in a ritzy neighborhood. And I'M forced to concede that of all of the rolls I've tried so far, especially when I consider the accompaniments, this is the one I've enjoyed the most. There's room for improvement, to be sure. But for now, B&G sits atop the heap.


B&G Oysters
550 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
Mon11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Tue - Fri11:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sat12:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 10:00 PM
  1) B&G Oysters
2) The Clam Box
3) Neptune Oyster
4) Belle Isle Seafood
5) Skipjack's
6) Fred's Sea Foods

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter V - Neptune Oyster

Neptune Oyster Dominic Armato

Well, The Clam Box was meant to be a jumping-off point -- a no-frills benchmark that'd fall somewhere near the middle of the pack. But the rankings are looking pretty lopsided so far, and headed in the wrong direction, no less. We need to reverse this trend. Time to bring out the big guns. When it comes to lobster rolls in upscale locales, two names always seem to receive mention as favorites. One of those two is Neptune Oyster. Can one of the city's favored upscale seafood eateries get us out of the lobster roll doldrums?

Neptune Oyster is a tiny, tiny place, crammed into a small storefront in the North End, and seemingly always packed wall-to-wall. When seats are filled, it's impossible to navigate the single aisle without getting up close and personal with other diners. Seven or eight high tables, a long marble(?) bar, dark wood, white tile, brass details here and there -- it has a classic look. And for the most part, it sells very classic seafood, including a raw bar for which it's particularly well-known. Today's goal, however, was the lobster roll, and from the look of things, I wasn't alone. I saw perhaps eight or nine plates on other tables, and I was shocked to discover that all but one or two were lobster rolls. Hyped, indeed. I'd actually partaken of Neptune's lobster roll before, but had opted for the hot version with butter and garlic. It was, as is widely reported, fabulous. But there's no sense in comparing a hot butter roll to a cold mayo roll, so a return trip for the cold was in order.

Lobster Roll - Neptune OysterDominic Armato

What's immediately evident about Neptune's lobster roll is that it's pretty darn straightforward. The bread's a little different (we'll get to that), but the salad looks to be completely unadorned. Medium to big chunks were the story, a mix of pieces that were a little firmer than places like The Clam Box and Belle Isle, which wasn't entirely unwelcome. I know some are all about the meltingly tender, but I think there's something to be said for a little bit of toothsome texture -- a reason I dig the tail just as much as the beloved claws. For me, this is just the right amount of mayo... noticeable, but not overpowering. And I don't know if there was some kind of super sneaky seasoning mixed therein, but the lobster had an unusually strong flavor, not just the light sweetness, but a light hit of that unmistakable lobstery funk -- the kind that comes to the fore when you make lobster stock. The seasoning was almost a touch briny, which I think might have brought out that character in a way typical salting wouldn't. Maybe I'm making this all up in my head, I don't know, but suffice it to say, the flavor was notably good. The bread, not so much. It came atop a fairly large brioche bun, the flavor of which I thought worked well, but the size of which was problematic. I think the lesson for places like Skipjack's and Neptune is that fancier bread isn't necessarily better bread for the intended purpose. But still, I really enjoyed this one. And it came with some great, fresh fries to boot.

Where to put it in the standings? This one was an agonizing call. I dug that little extra something in the seasoning that The Clam Box's lacked, but the bread was an issue. I waffled back and forth on this one a good 15-20 times, and finally decided to let price performance be the deciding factor. At $25, even if I can say I prefer Neptune's -- and I'm not 100% I can -- I'm certain I can say that I don't like it $10 more. Our "benchmark" remains at the top of the pile.

(The hot roll with butter and garlic, however, is another story... big winner, even if not applicable here.)

Neptune Oyster
63 Salem Street
Boston, MA 02110
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sun11:30 AM - 10:30 PM
  1) The Clam Box
2) Neptune Oyster
3) Belle Isle Seafood
4) Skipjack's
5) Fred's Sea Foods

December 12, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter IV - Fred's Sea Foods

The Counter at Fred's Sea Foods Dominic Armato

Fred's Sea Foods is the kind of place I wish had a better lobster roll.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As I've been gallivanting around town the past couple of weeks, getting in appointments while I can, making preparations for the move, I've maintained a long list of places I'd like to get into the Roll-Off. It's much longer, sadly, than I'll have time for, but whenever I have an errand in a particular part of town, to the list I go.

So, this past week when a quick run to Ikea was on the agenda (yes, we're buying more furniture two weeks before a cross-country move), I was a little surprised to find that my list had absolutely nothing near Stoughton. The solution? Google Maps and a search for "seafood near Stoughton". What's a good ol' sandwich-off without a couple of random, new selections in the mix? While it's easy just to check out all of the well-publicized favorites, you have to pound the pavement a little bit and Fred's Sea Foods in nearby Randolph seemed to fit the bill.

The place is a trip. It's obviously been around for a while, though I won't hazard a guess, and unlike places that have been around forever but have seen regular renovation, I suspect Fred's doesn't look much different now than it did 30 years ago. There's a small case with fresh seafood for sale, a large menu of mostly fried items to dine in, quite a bit of seating -- I counted 18-20 chairs -- and a soda machine for beverages. The walls are plastered with painted paper signs proclaiming the specials, like those you see in the photo above, as well as assorted sea-related trophies and faded posters depicting numerous species of fish. Between the room and a colorful crowd, it's a fun place to hang out and grab some lunch. Which makes it kind of unfortunate that the roll left a lot to be desired.

Lobster Roll - Fred's Sea FoodsDominic Armato

The most notable quality of Fred's lobster roll is that it's cheap. At $10, it's not only the cheapest I've tasted, but the cheapest I've seen. what's more, that's the large, with the normal size coming in at $7. Of course, it could be argued that you get what you pay for. Don't let its verticality fool you. This was definitely the smallest of the class thus far. Shortly after ordering, one of the staff walked out of the back room, mixing the lobster salad in a small metal bowl -- made to order -- bonus! But the quality wasn't up to snuff. It had kind of a shredded quality with a few larger chunks mixed in, and the meat was disheveled enough that I couldn't really identify most of the bits. While the meat wasn't problematic, I suppose, it didn't exactly sing fresh or sweet. A little bit of roe that found its way into the mix was a nice little touch, intentional or otherwise, but the binding element was... strange. It was very thick and sticky, and it had an almost cheesy quality. Shred the lobster up a little finer and it's not quite lobster dip, but you're headed in that direction. I have no idea what gave it that consistency, and if any lobster roll veterans would like to hazard a guess, I'd love to know. And the bun was a total throwaway. Not a split roll, but the kind of hot dog bun I'm used to (minus the poppyseeds, of course), cold and untoasted.

Really, unless you like thick and sticky with an almost spreadable quality, pretty much the only redeeming factor of Fred's lobster roll is the price. And yet, I found myself debating whether I preferred Fred's or Skipjack's. There's no question that despite how flat it came across, Skipjack's lobster was much better. That Skipjack's baguette was so dry and so bad and so distracting almost kept it in the basement, but while all of the components are important, if I center my attention where it most properly belongs, I have to put Fred's at the bottom. Sorry, Fred. I'd love to try your fried seafood sometime, because you've got a charming little place, there.

Fred's Sea Foods
49 North Main Street
Randolph, MA 02368
  1) The Clam Box
2) Belle Isle Seafood
3) Skipjack's
4) Fred's Sea Foods

December 10, 2009

The Lobster Roll-Off - Chapter III - Skipjack's

Lobster Roll - Skipjack's Dominic Armato

Though the title of this post may give some of the local food nerds hives, allow me to explain. First, the purpose of the Roll-Off is not only to suss out the best sandwiches, but also to educate me in the way of the lobster roll. To that end, I try to cover a range of establishments and styles. Second, in more than one place, I've found recommendations for Skipjack's, a local chain with four locations. And perhaps most importantly, Skillet Doux is ardently chain-neutral. Well, perhaps chain-suspicious. Growth tends to have a negative effect on quality. But not always! And if it's delicious, I don't give a damn where it comes from.

And so it was, on a day when I wanted to squeeze in another entry but didn't have much time to drive around town, that I fell into the Newton location of Skipjack's. It was... not what I expected. For some reason, I was under the false impression that it was a slightly corporatized casual/family seafood shack chain. Not so! While slightly corporatized, it's vaguely upscale-ish. Suffice it to say that the host was in jacket and tie and they're going more for that fine seafood vibe. But again, surroundings mean nothing. It's all about the roll.

Lobster Roll - Skipjack'sDominic Armato

Skipjack's roll was loooooong. Think footlong hot dog. Except not on a hot dog bun, but we'll get to that in a moment. It's touted as a larger offering, but I'm not entirely convinced there's that much more meat on it than some of the other standards. Rather than heaped high, it was spread out a bit. Though it looks heavy on the mayo in the photo, it didn't play that way to me, though I did catch the bits of celery -- something I don't mind one bit. The meat appeared to be almost exclusively claw and knuckle, chopped into large-ish, mostly uniform chunks, though as you can see, a little claw slipped through. It certainly looked nice enough, but there were two major issues with the sandwich. First, the meat -- while perfectly tender -- tasted absolutely flat. I think it was a little shy on seasoning, but more importantly, it didn't have any of that fresh, sweet lobster flavor. I don't know if it was an issue of selection or preparation or holding method, but it was way short on flavor. This alone would have made it a ho-hum sandwich, but the bread weighed it down like an anchor. Eschewing the standard buns (too downscale for such an establishment, I imagine), they went with a baguette. First, it was a bad baguette. Not that I think a crusty one would be appropriate for such a soft, supple filling. But most importantly, it was bone dry, bordering on breadcrumb fodder, so every bite was essentially a mouthful of dry bread with a little lobster texture on top. Even the sides -- soggy, overly creamy cole slaw and overseasoned, limp fries -- were lame.

I've heard a couple of other decent reports, and this wasn't the main location, so who knows... could have been a bad sandwich. But there's no question -- especially considering the $23 price tag -- where this one lands on the rankings thus far.

55 Needham Street
Newton, MA 02461
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sunt12:00 PM - 9:00 PM
  1) The Clam Box
2) Belle Isle Seafood
3) Skipjack's