The public loves a second act, a comeback that puts the sparkle back into a faded star. But often there's an element of distrust: Can Cher or even Britney recapture that first big splash? We can be just as leery of restaurant remakes.
Anthony Ambrose, one of the star chefs of Boston's nascent food scene in the '80s, opened his own place, Ambrosia on Huntington, in 1994. Set like a jewel inside a glass-walled room, Ambrosia celebrated the trend of Asian ingredients fused with French technique. The restaurant was splashy, with its lime-colored oven in an open kitchen. The food was sometimes daring, sometimes even a little silly, with purple Peruvian potatoes popping up in several dishes.
Fusion flattened as a trend (although it seems to be trying a comeback of its own), and now Ambrose has completely overhauled Ambrosia. Instead of intricate Asian constructions, he's offering simple seafood and steak and mashed potatoes; instead of a lime green oven and a light and airy ambience, a nautical theme prevails inside walls painted a deep blue-gray.
The change was made, Ambrose has said, after his first Blackfin's opened to success in Hingham last summer and he decided this more straightforward and somewhat lower-priced concept would work in the city, too.
Luckily, in a city getting saturated with steak options, Ambrose injected whimsy with a raw/sushi bar that may just be one of the coolest spots around. To describe why, it helps to set the scene:
It takes muscle to get into Blackfin. I'm not talking about an "in" with the reservationist but of the doors at the entrance. One heavy outside door leads to a second handsome and heavy wood door, necessitating a hefty push. Once inside, after catching your breath, the dining room is full even on a weeknight. The sushi bar, under a gargantuan fish tank called a tuna coffin hanging from the ceiling, is flanked by big white high chairs, the kind used on sport fishing boats. They're almost immovable (pity the poor waitress trying to maneuver through to pour water), but comfortable once you're in them.
Once perched, you have a clear view of the oysters displayed -- Wellfleet and Duxbury, bluepoint and kumamoto as well as less frequently seen varieties such as Salutation Bay and Scotia Cup from Eastern Canada. One evening, our waitress suggests Kusshi from British Columbia, and we intersperse them with Wellfleet, slurping the briny juices along with the delectable bivalves. They're so good, they could be the meal, but we're drawn to the sushi being prepared before us.
Bar seats are crowded with young Asians chatting with those making the sushi. A young man uses a torch to give a smokey taste to the rice under a spicy tuna maki, a lovely contrast to the richness of the tuna belly and the mayonnaise spiked with jalapeno pepper.
Another maki combines shrimp, salmon, cucumber, and avocado: such a profusion of flavors that it's almost impossible to taste the flying fish roe except as pinpricks of salt. Another roll, of chopped yellowtail and scallion, is excessively oniony, masking the fish.
However, a sashimi of fluke is particularly appealing -- the clean sea taste needing no adornment to be winning.
Though sushi and raw shellfish seem to be choices at the bar one evening, on another everyone around us tucks into steaks. Blackfin's steak offerings are fine -- a 12-ounce filet mignon is juicy and nicely cooked to order.
However, Ambrose, who holds a commercial fishing license, revels in offering choice items from the fish market, and those are worth gravitating to. An appetizer of big-eye tuna tartare, cucumber, and avocado is fashioned into a tightly wrapped circle. It's really sushi in a slightly different form, deliciously cool against the tongue.
Scallops in a lemon thyme sauce are a special one evening. Simply prepared, they're delicious, especially because their exceptionally sweet flavor really stands out. Swordfish, a super-thick cut, is beautifully caramelized on the outside but just a shade too done in the center.
Like the Hingham branch, this Blackfin serves a starch and vegetable with the main course. That does make the entree more economical for the customer, relieving them of that sticker shock of many steakhouses where everything is a la carte. But somehow the presentation muddles the effect -- creamed spinach atop scallops or steak isn't very appealing and cooled too quickly. However, the generous portion of scalloped potatoes with the swordfish came in a separate oval dish, piping hot and irresistibly good.
Blackfin's wine list offers a good selection by the glass and bottle and a broad price range. A tower of wine in the center of the room is impressive, although it seems to be for display since waitstaff would have to crawl over diners to get to the bottles. In fact, the dining room is a little chaotically crowded anyway, with the tables close to one another and the upholstered chairs making it a tight fit for the waitstaff.
On my last visit, the waitress told us the dessert offerings are changing. The list had concentrated on classics, and though an apple tart tatin with caramel ice cream is sweet and good, the newer ideas are more interesting. A warm molten cheesecake is a nifty cross between a souffle and the classic, and a whoopie pie, really an intensely chocolatey cake, has such minty ice cream with mint syrup around the edges that your breath feels suddenly fresher.
Blackfin is a fresh approach, too, not so much for the steakhouse approach, but for the quality of a seafood and the draw of the sushi bar. It's a comeback worth cheering on.