Summer Lunch at the Summer Shack
A Diamond in the RoughBy Josiah D. Seale
149 Alewife Brook Pkwy
Cambridge, MA 02140
Some restaurants attempt a diamond-in-the-rough feel, leaving patrons with the feeling that they have found a secret known only by a select few. Into this category would fall restaurants such as the Green Street Grill in Central Square, or perhaps Casablanca on Brattle Street. A stand-offish faÇade will conceal an inviting interior dÉcor, soft music, and a distinguished menu. While such restaurants are fun to discover, the Summer Shack is not such a restaurant.
When it comes to dÉcor, the list of stand-offish characteristics begins with its location, and goes downhill from there. The whole situation is reminiscent of Peter Luger's quasi-mafia steakhouse in New York City. Situated directly across from the Alewife T stop, next to the highway, the fact that one must cross the parking lot and walk past the back of the building to get in begins to give one an inkling of what to expect.
After passing the statue of a bearded Yankee sailor, complete with yellow coat and a pipe dangling from the lips, and negotiating the internal staircase, one arrives at the hostess' desk in a somewhat dingy setting. Only the window into the chef's area gives us a clue that this is not only a respectable restaurant, but one of the top 5 new restaurants in the country. Nominated for a 2001 James Beard Award, it was beat out only by the likes of Alain Ducasse's New York establishment.
For Ducasse, it is nearly impossible to obtain reservations (if you slip the maitre d'affaires a $100 bill, you might get reservations for the next week). Thankfully, this is not the case at the Summer Shack. For lunch, although it is busy, it is certainly possible to walk in and obtain a table with a minimal amount of effort.
The menu ranges the full spectrum of gourmet intensity, including sandwiches, a bowl of mussels, and a wok-seared three-pound lobster. There is literally something for everyone, in any price range -- from the hautest of haute cuisine to its leftover dregs.
Beginning with a lime-raspberry rickey and a cherrystone clam ceviche, the experience began with an impressive panoply of flavors. The creativity to be found here was surpassed only by the quality of the ingredients used.
The ceviche was simple in preparation, which only served to emphasize the splendor of its components. Four half-shells of the colorful combination were served on ice, with an attractive garnish in the center. In terms of flavor, a perfect balance between the cilantro and vinegar on one side and the tomato and onions mix was achieved, with the raw clam playing a muted role to give substance to the dish. It leaves one with the desire to discover more, to continue experimenting and examining the flavors.
With an attentive staff in red aprons, the dinner moved along at an appropriately brisk pace. The next item on the agenda was the grilled salmon in soy-ginger sauce. Grilled salmon is often overcooked to the point of becoming dry, which is a travesty. Salmon at its finest is delicate, to the point where it does not even resemble the rest of the aquatic kingdom in flavor or texture. This was salmon at its finest. The first bite quickly allayed any skepticism of the seared exterior, and the sautÉed sauce of finely chopped fresh ginger and soy served to accent its texture and flavor. While the side dish of cooked zucchini was slightly overdone, leaving it somewhat uninteresting, the truth is that it would be difficult for the chefs to combine the salmon with a side dish that did not seem vacuous in comparison. Each bite was followed eagerly by the next, with a sort of this-can't-have-been-that-good-let-me-try-it-again-to-find-out mentality.
The dessert came altogether too quickly, and was altogether too tempting to resist. With the logic that any calories consumed at a lunch will be worked off by the end of the day, a slice of nectarine-raspberry pie somehow made its way onto the table. The enticing contrast of flavors that peacefully complemented each other was served together with a generous ration of very smooth fresh whipped cream. The soft texture and consistency of the cream served as a stabilizer for the flavors and texture of the two fruits and the crust, joining them in a harmonious symbiosis. All on a brown paper tablecloth.
Much like the entrÉe, the only disappointment in the dessert was how quickly it vanished, leaving in its wake only waves of wistful glances at the now-empty dish, with a lonely bit of whipped cream as foam on their crests.
The final surprising factor was the reasonable cost. The total for a three-course lunch for one person, including beverage and tip, came to $25. While more than one might expect to pay at a neighborhood pizza establishment, it is certainly no more than one might expect for Legal Sea Foods, which is far inferior in terms of originality and quality. It was definitely worth every penny, and Jasper White's Summer Shack definitely takes its place on the list of restaurants that people have to go to while in the Boston area. Without a doubt, it is the finest seafood establishment in the area for those who would rather purchase quality over pretense and talent over a tawdry attempt at grandeur.