By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
The fish fry was even more horrifying. I don't how this kitchen found a fish that grows cylindrical filets, but just because it comes a little cheaper from the distributor with the Chernobyl billing address doesn't mean that anyone ought to buy it. I've had better fish from the drive-thru at Long John Silver's. This should have come with an eye patch and a paper pirate hat. And the potato wedges somehow managed to be both burnt and limp at the same time. The burgers were passable, though, and the New England seafood chowder was fantastic — so good, in fact, that it convinced me I should return, if only to figure out how a kitchen that had screwed itself so badly on a simple fish-and-chips platter could make such a dense, layered and deeply flavorful chowder.
The next night, our dinner at the Palace Arms passed pleasantly enough (see Second Helping, page 62) and bled over even more pleasantly into Saturday night at the Churchill Bar. But you can't compare a meal at the Ship to one at the Palace Arms; it would be less like comparing apples to oranges than comparing apples to osetra caviar. I'm not (yet) so addled as to insist that all restaurants serve duck consommé or saumon braconné dans l'aspic; besides, put a really good cheeseburger and a really good foie-gras-topped Rossini on the table in front of me, and eight nights out of ten I'm going to just murder that cheeseburger and ask for seconds.
Still, it killed me that the Ship — with its separate kitchen, own crew and dedicated chef — existed in the same hotel as the Palace Arms yet was turning out food like the cooks were wearing mittens. There were only two possible reasons: Either the kitchen was cooking for some sort of totally imaginary lowest common denominator, or it had been kept isolated in its heat-lamped hotel arcology for too long to understand that a tuna steak with more stamps on its passport than an international jewel thief was not going to impress anyone. I was determined to find out what the problem was.
Jalapeño poppers: $15
Shrimp cocktail: $13
Seafood chowder: $6
Lobster roll: $18
Tuna steak: $33
Fish and chips: $18.50
So I returned to the Ship the next Saturday night, after my relatives had left town, and sat at the bar, drinking and watching the floor to see what the guests were eating: steaks, the tuna, burgers and (fuck me) jalapeño poppers. I, on the other hand, ordered another simple classic, the steamers: clams and oysters in a simple broth redolent of garlic and pancetta. Thinking I was on to something with the chowder and clams, I went back again on Monday and skipped the pistachio-crusted halibut in chardonnay sauce (ugh) and the mushroom risotto with scallops and truffle-chive emulsion (because together, truffles and seafood smell like a foot), and instead started with a shrimp cocktail of massive U-15 shrimp. The shrimp were poorly deveined but perfectly boiled in court bouillon (something that most restaurants just don't do anymore because it's old-fashioned and not progressive enough). Bad knife work aside, it was amazing to taste chilled shrimp that were allowed to taste like shrimp, rather than sugarcane or galangal or adobo or whatever else some uppity, smarty-pants, book-smart cook gets it in his head to marinate, poach or pickle them in. Eternally hopeful, I next tried the Maine lobster-salad sandwich — really a lobster roll, and a great one: half a good-sized Maine lobster, ideally cooked, thinly dressed in what I swear must have been handmade mayonnaise, topped with sliced avocado (which I pushed off to the side) and mounted on a brioche roll that I knowwas made in-house.
That final meal confirmed what I'd decided about the Ship: Go with the strength of the house, which is basically anything that might have been found on the menu back when the place opened seven decades ago, and skip absolutely everything displaying a misguided urge toward contemporary relevance, even a whiff of modernity.
There's this joke: A guy walks into a museum and sees George Washington's ax, the one he used to chop down the cherry tree. The guy goes to the curator and says, "No way. Is that really George Washington's ax?" And the curator says, "Absolutely. Of course, it's very old, so the head has been replaced twice and the handle three times. But, yes, that's George Washington's ax, all right."
As I walked out of the Ship on Monday night, having finally gotten a good meal on my third try, I couldn't help but think of that joke. Over the years, the walls have been repainted, the stools replaced and the kitchen rebuilt a few times, the menu stuffed full of wasabi and pistachio, Kobe burgers and Hawaiian ahi in unagi sauce — but it's the Ship Tavern, all right.
So, can I interest you in some jalapeño poppers?