In an issue of San Diego CityBeat about a month ago, I reviewed Ironside Fish & Oyster (1654 India St.), Consortium Holdings’ new high-end seafood restaurant in Little Italy. I raved about Paul Basile’s design and the ambitious oyster program, either of which might be reason enough to go. But I also questioned whether the East Coast-style seafood concept that appeared to inform the restaurant’s food lived up to the “ambitious, culinary-focused” menu the owners – and the Chef’s Michelin starred resume — had promised.
Since writing the review I had not devoted much mental space to Ironside. That changed this past week when I flew to New England, the land of fried clams, steamers, lobster rolls and clam chowder (or, more properly “chowdah”). From Belle Isle Seafood in Winthrop – across the water from Boston’s Logan Airport – to the Lobster Pot in Wareham, the Sagamore Inn Restaurant on Cape Cod and the Neptune Oyster, I realized that these were the places offering the type of food that was, in many ways, the inspiration (if not exactly the models) for Ironside’s menu.
Fried clams, as I have documented elsewhere, are a particular favorite (and weakness) of mine: deep fried soft-shelled Ipswich clams (though nowadays often from Maine), dipped in evaporated milk, coated with a combination of regular, corn, and/or pastry flour, fried in canola oil, soybean oil, or lard. There is absolutely nothing fancy about them nor, generally, about the places that serve them. This is food-of-the-people type of stuff, a simple and tasty preparation of a (once) abundant natural resource. The clams at Sagamore are served with both the necks and the big, fat, meaty bellies. The breading is particularly light, crispy and greaseless. It is simple food, expertly prepared.
Another New England classic is steamers – steamed soft shell clams served with their broth and drawn butter. One of the best places to get steamers is at the Lobster Pot (which also has excellent fried clams and lobster rolls). Steamers definitely involve participatory eating. Proper steamer technique requires the eater to remove the clam meat from its shell, pull the rough skin off the siphon (neck) and deposit the meat in the waiting broth until critical mass (enough to fill the broth cup) is achieved. The eater then picks the clam up by the siphon, dips it into butter for a moment and then into his (or her) waiting maw. Its fun, its tasty and there is no cleaner, purer way to enjoy the essence of clam.
Likely the dish most often associated with New England is the Lobster Roll. There is probably no better place in the Boston area to get it than at Belle Isle Seafood just over the city limit in Winthrop (the view of Logan Airport and the downtown skyline definitely does not suck). I took Ironside to task for the price of its lobster roll. $19.00, I said, was a lot of money to pay for a lobster roll. And it was when I last spent significant chunks of time in New England. Perhaps, though, someone should have told me that it was no longer the Nineties and Clinton was no longer President. No worries. All that is old is eventually new again. Now, though, $19.00 is rather comfortably in the middle of the price range for a good lobster roll.
Belle Isle’s lobster roll features generous chunks of perfectly moist lobster, lettuce for crunch and color, and a wash of mayonnaise all on a buttery toasted bun. It is nothing if not classic. Ironside’s, in contrast, was essentially a classic New England steamed lobster with drawn butter, in chunks on a rich brioche bun. There is nothing wrong with such innovation. And it really was tasty.
Perhaps the classic New England seafood dish that fits most comfortably – and is found most often – on higher end restaurant menus is clam chowder. The New England style is traditionally milk or cream based with potatoes, onions and clams but very definitely not tomatoes. The version at Neptune Oyster is particularly good. Where many New England clam chowders are thick enough to support a standing fork, Neptune’s is brothier. Part of this is because Neptune uses waxy rather than starchy potato varieties (cooked separately from the rest of the dish and combined later) meaning that the potato chunks hold their shape rather than breaking down and thickening the salt-pork and cream spiked clam broth. The richness of the dish is cut by a beautiful garnish of chopped parsley.
Indeed, Neptune was the restaurant that is the closest analog to Ironside, a bit upscale and in the North End (Boston’s Italian district). Neptune’s chowder, excellent as it was, though, was not the best dish I had there. That honor would have to go to the Razor Clam ceviche in Leche de Tigre. Razor clams are a variety of shellfish named for their long and thin shells – much like a barber’s old straight razor. The meat comes in the form of a long, tubular clam inside those shells with a flavor that is richer and brinier than that of more familiar clams. Leche de tigre is the classic sauce for Peruvian ceviche (and, served as an elixir on its own, a hangover cure of high repute) often consisting of citrus juice (particularly lime), onion, garlic, herbs and chiles (particularly Peru’s ubiquitous aji). Neptune served chunks of the toothsome, savory razor clams in a bath of the acidic, spicy and fruity leche de tigre with the razor-like shells sticking out the top – almost like rabbit ears – for use as the dish’s utensil. It was a remarkable, surprising dish that celebrated the perfectly fresh seafood in a unique and creative way.
As I wrote in my original Ironside review, “[s]imple, fresh seafood, perfectly executed, can be spectacular…[b]ut it doesn’t exactly make for an ‘ambitious, culinary-focused’ menu.” And there is no simpler or fresher seafood than I tasted on this trip to New England (or, for that matter, previous blue crab feeds in Maryland). Ambitious? No. But it is hard to improve on perfection. And in that razor clam dish perhaps there was a suggestion of a way. No doubt it was simple, fresh and perfectly executed but it was also surprising. It was, in the end, at least a little spectacular. And that, ultimately, is what was missing at Ironside. It lacked the authenticity and organic feel of the down and dirty East Coast seafood joint while also missing that something more – that ambition – it had promised…and Neptune, by way of contrast, delivered.
— Michael A. Gardiner