FRY FREEDOM: There’s nothing wrong with the “American Kobe Burger.” But there’s a lot right with the fries — thin, skin-on, and firm.
How many times have I reviewed fried calamari just in the last decade? Maybe 70, 80 times, right? Once in a while the squid is especially fresh and sweet; sometimes the frying is really neat and crisp; occasionally there is a new angle on a dip or some other fried things like rings of hot pepper. Usually, I'm just testing the fry cook without having to get through a whole order of fish and chips.
|The Local | 1391 Washington Street, West Newton | 617.340.2160 | Open Monday–Thursday, 5 pm–1 am, and Friday–Sunday, noon–1 am | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access to some tables, most down two steps | No valet parking|
But at the Local, a self-styled "gastro-pub" out past Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q and Lumière, the first dish to hit the table was a fried calamari ($9) that was really . . . unique. I couldn't quite pin down the delightful flavor, and finally asked the waitress about "that herb." A mixture of parsley, rosemary, and thyme, she said, adding that this particular combination goes into several dishes. And so it did, but never with more subtle and wonderfully enhancing effects than on the opening plate of calamari. Given sweet squid, a dry fry job, quick table service, and a handful of fried jalapeño rings plus pickled onions, this was fried calamari on another level. And maybe on a third level, if you take into account the shockingly complementary soy-sauce dip.
Oddly, they've since dropped calamari from the menu. But luckily, it was just one of several lovely surprises at the Local, which also offers a few items that are merely very fine and even one over-salted entrée. On the whole, though, Newton now has itself one truly excellent gastro-pub, attempting less, achieving more. All this in the worst time of the year for local produce, a stretch of early spring known as the "six weeks of want" only 200 years ago, when almost everyone ate local slow food, because that's all there was.
Now, we live in the 52 weeks of everything we want, but how often do our meals really shine like that box of fried calamari? At the Local, our next fantastic dish came almost immediately, when they set down a "Flatbread Thing" with roasted tomato, basil, pecorino, and extra-virgin olive oil ($10). This column has been through a lot of gourmet pizza, too. But I've seldom had one so light and tasty as this, with a crust thinner than most crackers and so little cheese that the shreds of just-picked basil shine through. Chicken wings ($8) with homemade hot sauce and blue-cheese dressing were also fried well. The hot sauce was not overpowering but still had a Frank's/Tabasco level of mild heat; the dip cooler than bottled blue-cheese dressing. Eat your heart out, Buffalonians.
Even "Clam 'Chowda' " ($4/cup; $7/bowl) was above the common lot. I am suspicious of funny spelling on menus. It's hard enough to read regularly worded items in the half-light and with all those odd typefaces the computer spits out. But this was solid, clam-tasting chowder with potatoes for a background, thick and unharmed by a pretty swirl of parsley oil. A special salad ($7) of baby greens with sliced apple and cheese was lifted by a superior dressing.
Entrées were perhaps a step down, but there was nothing wrong with our "American Kobe Burger & Hand-Cut Fries" ($10), browned enough to taste like cheap meat, and a lot was right with the fries — thin, skin-on, firm, and doused with the same herb mix in a more prominent role, which gave it a distinct flavoring from the calamari. A small dose of that spice combination even worked on "Uncle Skip's Day Boat Lobster Roll" ($16), which still tasted like the $20 lobster rolls downtown, and yet different from the same-spice fries on the plate.
Almost all lobsters come from day boats, but when you see a menu item simply called "Atlantic Salmon" ($18), it's almost a sure bet that it's been "farmed." Oh, well, salmon farms well. This was a small chunk at the price, but with superb garlic mashed potatoes, few will complain. I am not so sure about the bacon-mushroom salad on the side, an over-salty sauté of mostly shitake and oyster mushrooms. Throw that same side on a chicken breast ($16) coated with prosciutto and cheese and the salt overwhelms. I had to take off the ham and cheese, and eat only the chicken and buttery spinach underneath it. I also had some minor problems with a side pilaf of white and wild rice — it's not easy to schedule the various cooking times in order to get something of reasonable texture.