“Endorse what you love.” That’s the message NASCAR driver Tony Stewart delivers to Eric Estrada, Carrot Top and a host of other candidates the stature of which usually grace Dancing With The Stars and other dreadful reality shows. If the television commercial is to be believed, what Stewart loves is Burger King, the fast food sponsor who supplanted Subway on the hood of his car and which is now paying for Stewart’s love.
What it seems celebrities, including celebrity chefs, love most is having their names and smiling countenances visible to the general public and getting paid wheelbarrow’s full of money for the privilege. Do you really believe Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri loves TGI Fridays or that Applebee’s can really execute Tyler Florence’s recipes? Television commercials would have you believe that (then they’d also have you believe the myth about honest politicians, too).
Some celebrity chefs not only “sell out” to the corporate cabal, they leave the chef work to someone else (an underpaid “executive” chef) and begin to proliferate the myth that is them by becoming restaurant impresarios. It doesn’t take long before the celebrity chef’s name adorns the marquee of several restaurants, sometimes in several cities. Sure a restaurant may carry the celebrity chef’s name on the flamboyant, mega-watted signage, but how often, for example, do you think Mario Batali is actually in the kitchen of his Las Vegas or Los Angeles restaurants?
Even within their own cities, some celebrity chefs seem to have abandoned some of the restaurant concepts they spawned during the height of their celebrity. We found that out the hard way when we visited Kingfish Hall, a restaurant owned by Todd English, the Boston-based restaurateur, entrepreneur, author, television star and chef. To be honest, visiting Kingfish wasn’t my idea as I don’t think Todd English is that cute nor did I believe for one second that he’d be up on a Sunday morning personally preparing our meal, but having an egalitarian marriage means deferring to Kim’s wishes even if I have reservations about it.
Kingfish Hall is situated in the heart of Boston’s historic Fanueil Hall Market Place, one of America’s most famous and august shopping and dining venues. While many Bostonians consider Fanueil Hall a tourist trap within easy walking distance of far superior dining opportunities, locals and tourists both flock to this legendary marketplace. The locals visit for something quick–a hot dog, a slice of pizza, ice cream and the like. Most locals wouldn’t seriously consider or equate fine dining with Fanueil Hall.
When it first opened, Kingfish Hall was, nonetheless, the place to be–a raucous, festive, hip and happening place in the heart of Boston. It earned accolades and awards in a tough market. It was hailed as a triumph of genius. In contrast to other seafood restaurants in the city which are mostly thematically nautical, Kingfish took that theme to Disneyesque proportions. Oversized booths shaped like clamshells envelop patrons as even more clamshells hang from the rafters. Disco lights over the bar and bright glass mobiles and plenty of color add to the theme park ambience.
Only the patio, weather permitting, offers a respite from the warehouse meets theme park feel of the 225-seat restaurant. The patio offers a terrific vantage point for people watching as well as gawking at the street performers, some of whom defy gravity with their feats of aerial dynamics. The restaurant is a yawning edifice, two stories high of prime real estate dressed up as if Donald Duck had decorated it. The patio lets you avoid that.
The menu is unlike the seafood menu at most Boston seafood emporiums. It’s an American seafood meets the world menu with Asian inspired dishes as well as other liberties taken with the familiar seafood favorites. It’s got a Todd English stamp in that it has imagination and flair.
Shortly after you’re seated, a basket of Parker House Rolls with hard butter are delivered to your table. Parker House Rolls are a Boston institution having been invented at the Omni Parker House in downtown beantown. They are made with milk and tend to be quite buttery, soft, and slightly sweet. Even though served warm, they’re not warm enough to melt the hard butter. Still, if you like yeasty rolls that melt in your mouth, these will make you very happy. Make sure you save some to sop up the clam chowder which sticks to the bowl when you’re done sipping and slurping the chowder.
The Kingfish Hall Clam chowder is a bowl full of smoky bacon, leeks, potatoes, chopped clams with two house-made oyster crackers floating on top. It’s rich and creamy, but there are better “chowdahs” in Boston. For me, better clam chowder means a more clam prevalent flavor, not a mingling of ingredients to form a composite of monotony. Frankly, we expected better clam chowder, the celebrity chef’s name driving that expectation a bit. Alternative options include a lobster corn chowder or seafood gumbo.
A more authentic seafood taste can be found in the lump crab cake, a timbale shaped mound of Jonah Crab from Maine served with an endive salad. Inner endive leaves are formed into scoop-shaped cups in which are placed a single cherry and a tart cherry vinaigrette. The inner endive leaves are milder than their astringent outer leaf brethren and the tangy cherry vinaigrette complements them very well.
The lump crab, a sweet and meaty cake, is served with a Dijon mustard glaze which contrasts yet complements the just slightly briny crab. It’s a nice marriage of flavors which go well together. Though ascribed an impressive name, Jonah crab is a relatively low-priced species many restaurants use to bolster their profit margins. Not quite as sweet as Dungeness crab to which it is related or as impressive as king crab, it’s got a fairly sweet, fresh flavor. The secret to maximizing its flavor is in its preparation. Kingfish Hall offers a good lump crab.
Lobster boils on the beach are a favorite Northeast activity. In fact, whether the summer seafood soirée is on the beach or in your backyard, few things spell summer more deliciously than a lobster boil. Lobster boils also spell friends and family. They’re a social event that the Kingfish Hall endeavors to duplicate.
The Kingfish Hall’s version of the New England Lobster Boil is at a price befitting the stature of the man paying the bills. The menu reads “market price,” but even in a market in which the price of lobster is dropping, expect to pay at least twice as much as you might pay for a similar meal in Maine. Is it twice as good? Hardly, so you must be paying for the privilege of being in a complex bearing the celebrity chef’s name.
This New England Lobster Boil is a netted feast of a one-and-a-half pound lobster, steamers, kielbasa, corn and baby red potatoes. The lobster is meaty, succulent and sweet, a delicious decapod with a plucked out of the sea freshness and flavor. Dip it into melted butter and there are few things that will arouse your taste buds quite as much. The lobster knuckles, in particular, offer up a veritable boatload of deliciousness.
The steamers (clams that are steamed in their shell) are excellent with a slightly briny but mellow flavor and a chewiness not wholly unlike oysters. To an aficionado clams are good in any form, the more the better. The kielbasa has a smoky aftertaste and is moist when you cut into it, but it lacks the spiciness of some traditional Polish sausages. The corn is sweet and buttery. In all, this is a very good lobster boil, better than I could do. That price point, however, is a sticking point.
During business trips to the San Francisco area, I became enamored of Zuppa di Pesce, a mixed seafood stew as well as Cioppino, a rich, fragrant and messy to eat seafood stew. It’s hard to be near water without thinking of these inspired stews. Kingfish Hall’s answer to the stews of the city on the bay is a Thai Bouillabaisse, a chef’s selection of local northern fish, lobster, Price Edward Island mussels, littlenecks, sweet shrimp, lobster curry broth, Chinese eggplant, Thai basil and sesame crouton. A lump of rice and a triangle of pita bread topped with a garlic aioli spread crown the entree.
Though it sounds like something which might be concocted on the west coast, this Asian spin on a French standard falls short in everything but imagination though the freshness of the seafood and the uniqueness of the Chinese eggplant do their darnedest to save the dish. Instead of playing off the inherent heat and sweetness of the Thai curry influence, the acidic tomatoes render the broth more than a bit astringent, a quality that also detracts from the sweetness of the seafood.
Extricating the clams from within their shell is such a sloppy endeavor that it makes the experience unpleasant. The rice may have been a saving grace in that it cut some of the acidity of the broth. In all, this dish served more to remind me that it’s been to long since I left my heart and money in San Francisco than it did to make me fall in love with Boston’s seafood all over again.
We found the tandem service at Kingfish very efficient and pleasant. Our waiter was very knowledgeable, but like an ebullient car salesperson, he probably would have told us the napkins were fabulous. Here’s a hint to wait staff everywhere–not everything is fabulous and your honesty would be much appreciated.
The menu offers several desserts, all of which sound good, but for the sheer experience, you might want to opt instead to walk a hundred feet or so for Indian Pudding from a nineteenth century eating hall called Durgin Park in the sprawling Fanueil Hall complex. Durgin Park has been specializing in authentic “Yankee cooking” for more than a century and a half. It’s one of few landmark restaurants which can truly be called an institution.
Indian Pudding is a dessert porridge made from cornmeal and molasses served warm with a scoop of ice cream. In their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, Michael and Jane Stern relate that Durgin Hall is peerless when it comes to the preparation of this unique Yankee dessert. You might not like it, you might never have it again, but you should try this perhaps once in a lifetime treat.
Though I have not resounded the praises of Kingfish Hall, the truth is if this seafood emporium was in Albuquerque, it would be one of my favorite restaurants, one I would rate very highly. Allow me to take a “when in Boston, rate as the Bostonians do” approach as I did live in the area for a couple of years and have a good understanding of the seafood culture.
188 South Market Street
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Thai Bouillabaisse, Lobster Boil, Lump Crab cake, Clam Chowder