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If a food critic walks through the door of a new restaurant during its first weeks of operation, the chef will likely have one of two responses: “This dude’s going to put my place on the map!” or “I’m going to saw off this dude’s tongue with a rusty tomato knife for not waiting 30 days for us to get our shit together!”
To his credit, chef Barton Seaver doesn’t raise his voice—or threaten to brandish cutlery—when I tell him that I strolled into his new Tackle Box just eight days after its late April opening. “If we’re taking your money, you should be able to criticize us,” Seaver says during a phone chat. Which is a good thing, because there was no way I could suffer my usual 30-day moratorium before sampling this newbie. I adore lobster shacks and crab shacks and just about any shack that sits by the water and serves up little fried things alongside hot dog rolls stuffed with dressed shellfish. The air around these joints is like one giant salt shaker, making everything taste better.
The Tackle Box differs from the usual fry shacks in one obvious way: It’s in Georgetown, next door to that chic playpen of sustainable seafood, Hook (Young & Hungry, “Vapor Chase,” 8/8/2007). Both places are owned by the same parent company, Seaver’s Pure Hospitality. Now, last time I checked, Georgetown is a good 60 minutes from the nearest beach, though God knows the ’hood is swimming with beautifully tanned people in designer sunglasses who look as if they expect to bump into an American Apparel photographer at any moment.
But Tackle Box is not just a citified fry shack. To notice its other charms, though, you must ignore all the reclaimed barn wood from the Eastern Shore. You have to look past the indoor picnic tables and the hanging lobster buoys purchased on eBay. The evidence can only be spotted in a corner of the kitchen, where these fry cooks display an unusually deft hand at—the horror!—a wood grill.
Case in point: My order of bluefish (part of the $13 “Maine Meal” that includes a protein, two sides, and a sauce) is no mere grilled fillet. The pieces of bluefish have been brushed with basil-walnut pesto and charred to an distinctive shade of blackish-green. The fish looks like someone punched out a frog, but it tastes salty, sweet, oceanic, and unbelievably moist. Literally, unbelievable. So unbelievable that I asked an employee if the restaurant steams its bluefish first. Turns out they brine the fillets before adding that great grill flavor.
The $19 lobster rolls are the featured attraction. Seaver buys lobsters from Canada during the off-season in Maine, but I swear I couldn’t tell the difference when I recently bit into that Canuck shellfish tucked blasphemously into a toasted New England roll. It was sweet and flavorful, slathered with a tad more dressing than purists enjoy. But screw the purists. I like a little creaminess. The appetizer plate of crispy bay scallops is equally moist and sweet, though I think some of the sweetness comes from the sugar-laced house-made spice blend, not the shellfish.
The only item that proves disappointing is the side of hush puppies, which is one of chef Robert Bechtold’s additions to the menu. Now, I’m not trying to pick on the new guy at Pure Hospitality—Bechtold comes to the Tackle Box by way of John Besh’s restaurants in New Orleans and the Oceanaire downtown—but his puppies are thick in the head. They’re dense, dry, and desperately in need of one of the dipping sauces available here. The rest of the sides I tried, however, are dandy, particularly the crisp, lightly dressed slaw.
At this point in Tackle Box’s young existence, it seems its main critics aren’t the ones with food columns. They’re folks at the Humane Society of the United States, who want Seaver & Co. to boycott Canadian seafood as a means to make the country quit its seal hunts. Mr. Sustainability has no desire to see more seal skulls bashed, but he doesn’t think bashing the fishing community is the answer. Maybe it will work in five years, he says, but by then you’ll “put out of business people who have worked hard.”
Fair enough. But let’s be honest: Seaver also really needs those Canadian lobsters.
Earlier this year, former Ceviche chef Javier Angeles-Beron (Young & Hungry, “Incan Dissent,” 12/19/2007) signed on for double duty at Lounge 201 and its sibling restaurant, Union Pub, on Capitol Hill. One of his first duties was to make over the menu at Union Pub. The Peruvian native promptly created a “Burgers of the World” section, which, given the unmistakable American-ness of that sandwich, is sort of like creating a “Moussakas of the World” menu. But no matter.
I recently ordered a pair of burgers here—the Argentina (ground beef topped with chimichurri sauce) and the American Indian (ground turkey mixed with chili and apples). I have to say, I was amazed at the role reversal found between these buns. The menu recommends ordering the Argentina burger “medium,” which means that the patty should be “pink but [with] no blood,” Angeles-Beron tells me. The kitchen, however, cooked my beef to the color of concrete; some overwhelmed, overworked line cook turned what should have been a juicy Angus burger into a hockey puck, which no amount of oily chimichurri could save.
The American Indian burger, by contrast, takes the most tasteless of meats and transforms it into something mouthwatering. The kitchen works chili power and diced green apples into the ground turkey, then steams the patties in a modified double boiler before slapping them on the grill for the all-important char marks. The recipe makes for a moist, sweet-and-savory bite. It may be the most flavorful piece of turkey you’ll ever stick in your mouth. Next Thanksgiving, I may throw 20 of these beauts on a plate and call it a holiday. (Just kidding, honey!)
Our beagle, Coltrane, really likes to eat. In that way, he makes his parents proud. But when we bought him some “100% Certified Kobe Beef” dog treats for his birthday—just go with me, OK?—he went seriously bonkers for these “Carnivore Kisses.” So, well…hell, how do I say this and save face? Carrie and I sampled the sumbitches. Did I mention we were drinking? The treats tasted like…nothing. Absolutely nothing. The episode made me think beagles have extraordinary palates—until I remembered that Coltrane enthusiastically munches on his own ass, too.
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