|The monkfish osso buco - a standout among the fish dishes at Top of the Hub - is served with capers, roasted peppers, and olives for a bold Mediterranean flavor. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF)|
Let it just be said. You eat here for the view. You eat here for the ear-clogging, amusement park thrill of the elevator ride, for the feeling of being so high up: 52 stories above the city. There's Fenway Park! That must be the airport. I think my apartment is over there.
You don't really eat at Top of the Hub for the food. But you do hope the food will be good while you're here. It doesn't have to be. The restaurant is consistently in the top three booked online via OpenTable. It's always full, of tourists, people speaking foreign languages, businessmen, and couples and groups of friends dressed in their best. Top of the Hub is a special occasion restaurant - a stalwart of New Year's Eves, the holiday season, birthdays, and anniversaries. People will come even if the food is mediocre. As with politicians, so with restaurants: Height is a good predictor of success.
And so the food is exactly as good as it needs to be to keep guests happy. Some dishes are quite tasty. Some are less so. The service ranges from fine to excellent, depending on the skill of the practitioner. One visit you might get a waiter who pours water as clumsily as he delivers the line, like a telemarketer reading from a script, "And are we celebrating a special occasion tonight?" (You hear this question repeated at tables around the room.) Another visit you might be ministered to by the waiter of the year, a man who makes jokes that are genuinely funny but knows when to stop, who shows up when you need him and makes himself scarce when you don't, and who, when presented with a serious problem with the food, knows exactly what to do - even when the problematic dish is a $44 lobster. "Let me take that away and bring you another one," he says, without a moment's hesitation.
That's as it should be, but it's testimony to the management at Top of the Hub that a server feels comfortable taking responsibility like this. You shouldn't have to check with your boss, and you shouldn't need your boss to tell you that $44 isn't a lot to pay to keep a customer happy and healthy, to keep a customer from telling other potential customers: I was served a lobster that smelled strongly of ammonia at Top of the Hub.
It's unfortunate that on that particular night the lobster we were served was bad, almost certainly a fluke - executive chef Mark J. Porcaro says they get fresh lobster delivered regularly throughout the week. The lobster at Top of the Hub is served in a tempura batter with bok choy, sushi rice, and a gloppy sauce that tastes a lot like La Choy sweet and sour (mostly sweet). If the lobster meat tasted fresh, that sauce might be forgivable. But it simply tastes like nothing, despite the ammonia smell (duty bound, I took a few bites). The replacement lobster doesn't have any more flavor, though the smell is improved.
The rest of the seafood on the menu is better, if too often crusted in nuts. Two out of four fish dishes on the current menu, plus a special one night, receive this treatment (and in one of the remaining dishes, the fish is crusted in potato). Why? One nut-crusted fish seems ample. (Not to mention that there's something unappealing about the word "crusted" as a descriptor for fish.) The macadamias that edge a tuna steak don't really add anything; the fish itself is fine and served with crisp stir-fried vegetables.
Happily, the monkfish osso buco isn't crusted in anything, and it's the best entree I tried at Top of the Hub. The fish, on the bone, is succulent and satisfying, served with capers, roasted peppers, and olives. The Mediterranean flavors are bold, but the fish is meaty enough to support them.
Roasted chicken is also very good, juicy inside and crisp-skinned. Pork chops, slightly overcooked, get a Southwestern flair with a side of creamy masa and zippy tomatillo cream. Porcaro's menu isn't particularly adventurous, but it's more so than you might expect - he could easily serve plain crab cakes rather than jazzing them up with avocado cream, crispy plantains, and cucumber and soybean salad. In this respect, the menu is quite clever - for every bowl of surprisingly good clam chowder (not too thick, with plenty of potatoes, clams, and pepper), there's a spicy lobster soup with coconut, lemongrass, and ginger; for every piece of steak, there's an appetizer of scallops, milky on the inside with a nice sear, served with sweet potato chorizo hash and pear and pepper relish. Even the pickiest crowd is pleased, and the chef isn't stabbing himself with his santoku out of sheer boredom. The wine list has a similar aesthetic - two new, glassed-in wine rooms contain treasures, even as the by-the-glass list trots out chardonnay after chardonnay.
Dessert, too, makes the effort with the likes of caramelized pineapple vanilla bean tea cake with chai ice cream, but the cake is too dry to enjoy. A creme brulee special offered on several visits has the thinnest-ever sugar topping, so soggy the spoon sinks in without resistance. Here, the crowd-pleaser - a plate of cookies baked fresh when you order them - is the clear choice. Peanut butter, chocolate chip, and vanilla cookies arrive warm, in large quantities. One night they could have baked longer but are satisfyingly soft. Another, they've been scorched. Rather than bake a new batch, the cookie elves in the kitchen dust them with so much powdered sugar we can barely see they're burned. Maybe we just won't notice! We notice.
Top of the Hub recently underwent a renovation, and the place looks swank, painted in manly chocolate-and-caramel horizontal stripes. Walls have been knocked down and the bar has been moved to face the windows, creating a nice flow to the restaurant. Top of the Hub remains a great place to come for a drink, with sassy, friendly barmaids, strong cocktails, and, of course, that view. The space and the staff make dining here feel special. The food doesn't reach the same heights.
Top of the Hub is among the many local restaurants with a menu just for New Year's Eve. See page 12.