I have always loved the idea of yin and yang- opposite ideals coming together in beautiful harmony. There is something about their coexistence that I feel creates true beauty- hot and cold, salty and sweet, old and new. One of my favorite buildings in Boston is the Old State House- it sits in the heart of the financial district, skyscrapers tower over it, but there it sits, in all of its colonial charm, a beacon of our history in the middle of our present and future. It was for this reason, this love of combining opposite elements, that I was thrilled to celebrate the New Year at Locke Ober, one of Boston's oldest restaurants.
The history of Locke Ober, located on Winter Place in the Downtown Crossing district, begins roughly in 1870, when it is believed that a man by the name of Luis Ober took over ownership of a small restaurant that was being operated in the location, and redefined its purpose. Locke Ober was born several years later, and with it the true meaning of haute cuisine in Boston was established. The detail that Mr. Ober placed into his dining rooms was glorious. He imported much of what still stands in the restaurant today- mahogany panels, mirrors, silver, art work, etc. It truly was a magnificent place.
Unfortunately the magnificence faded for a time during the later 1900's but was restored to its greatness by its purchase in 2001 by the Winter Place LLC with kitchen leadership by the great Lydia Shire. My experience with it before now was of almost whispered greatness, and knew it be the pinnacle of what it means to dine out.
What better place could one celebrate a new year? A new decade? In my opinion- no better place.
We arrived out of the cold and revelry of First Night into the warmth of the restaurant, which I can only explain as austere, and yet welcoming. We were led into the main dining room, which is gorgeous in rich mahogany and brass, with acclaimed artwork, and looked like a picture with patrons laughing and waiters bustling. We were seated at a small table under a beautiful painting towards the back of the room, which gave us a wonderful view of the room and all those who had chosen to spend their last evening of 2009 in this beauty.
I wish that I had read the full history of Locke Ober prior to dining there, perhaps then I wouldn't have been so surprised when a family chose to stand beneath the portrait that hung just slightly to the side of our table to have their photo taken. It seemed so out of character for the restaurant, that we had to ask our server if there was significance to the painting. He informed us that the portrait of a lady, was once known as the guardian of the room, a men's club for many years. He told us that historically women were actually not allowed in the room aside from two occasions- New Years Eve, and the eve of the Harvard Yale football game, on both occasions the portrait would be covered. That tradition has evolved slightly now, and on the eve of the big game, should Harvard lose, the lady is covered, apparently to hide her disappointment. We vowed to return to Locke Ober for the game sometime in the future.
Turing our attention to the food- we decided to start with a shared appetizer of Sea Scallops with parsnip gnocchi and a bacon vinaigrette. This was such a delicious way to begin. The Scallops were perfectly cooked and paired so beautifully the beautifully soft gnocchi that really were just delicious pillows with the ever so light taste of parsnip. The smokey bacon presented a gorgeous flavor throughout and they had topped the dish with what I assume were fried strips of parsnip which really added a great texture contrast.
Our next course was also shared- a salad of baby iceberg enhanced with Humboldt Fog cheese and what they described again as a warm bacon vinaigrette. This vinaigrette though was entirely different from the first as this seemed to have a creamier base. The bacon was thick cut and really wonderful and the iceberg was crisp and refreshing. That Humboldt Fog cheese though- wow! Rich and creamy-a wonderful compliment to the freshness of the lettuce.
I had chosen to have their grilled Atlantic Salmon for my main course. This was described as being served with an Oyster and bacon souffle and a horseradish buerre fondu. The salmon itself was quite delicious. Great flavor, crispy skin, perhaps a bit more over cooked than I like, but cooked to the description that our server told me. It was a really beautiful piece of fish. On the side was actually what seemed to be a broiled Oyster served in its shell, and the molded souffle. The Oyster in its shell was delicious- it had been well seasoned and had almost a slight kick to it. Lovely. The Souffle did not seem to have any of those great "airy and light" textures that you come to expect from Souffle. It seemed to have almost gelatenous qualities. The flavor was nice, but I couldn't get past the texture unfortunately. Sadly I also didn't detect any horseradish and remain unclear as to where the "Fondu" was located on my plate.
John had chosen the Filet Mignon for his dinner, which had incredible flavor but was a bit dry for his taste.
They also brought sides of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes to the table- both were fine. Well executed, well cooked, though nothing particularly remarkable.
We chose to end the meal with their Baked Alaska as you so rarely see it on menus anymore. We were thrilled by our selection. Our served came to our table to show us the dessert prior to serving it, and then stepped away from to the table and flambeed it for all to see. He then plated and served it to is- what a gorgeous dessert- ice cream encased in flambeed meringue that tasted more like fire roasted marshmallows. Just delicious.
Locke Ober was a tremendous meal. Though there were some hang ups with the actual food, the service and ambiance more than made up for it. A while back I read the book The Last Days of Haute Cuisine by Patric Kuh and have since longed to experience what those glorious places must have been like. The attention to detail, the bustling servers, the way things used to be. Locke Ober opens a page of history and makes dining a very special occasion. Chef Shire seals the deal with some very delicious dishes. I can't wait to return and cheer on Harvard!