For the past few months the buzz in Boston has been over Summer Shack, Jasper White's new restaurant which opened in Cambridge last month. The idea is a marriage of seaside camp and high standards, which it mostly manages to pull off.
Arriving at 9pm on a Friday night, the parking lot (adjacent to the Alewife T stop in Cambridge) was pretty full. We were told that there was a half-hour to 45 minute wait; however, we managed to snag seats at the raw bar within 10 minutes, where there is full menu service. We started with a dozen oysters, which turned out to the night's big disappointment; we picked from as far north as their small selection allowed--Prince Edward Island--but the oysters were still flabby and creamy. One can't really fault the restaurant, though, as this isn't quite the season for oysters--nonetheless, at $21 for a dozen one might expect a better selection.
We ordered batter-fried skate wings and the clam bake. The skate wings were perfectly fried, but the skate itself is too delicate of a fish to be fried and it seems to lose some of its character in the process; unfortunately, this is the only preparation they offer.
The clam bake was great; the lobster was expertly done, succulent and perfectly cooked, and the clams and mussels were plump and juicy. Still, for $28, they could have given you a bit more of the shellfish. We also made short work of a mistakenly delivered order of chicken wings, awesomely done in a teriyaki-style preparation--a perfect balance of savory and lightly sweet.
Incidentally, lobster seems to be what Summer Shack does best; you can get it steamed, wood-grilled, wok-seared, stuffed with shrimp or pan-roasted. At the center of the garantuan restaurant is a 1500-gallon tank which can hold 1000 pounds of lobsters, and two 80-gallon steam kettles.
Still hungry, we got a pound of steamers ($11) and a positively decadent dessert of deep-fried apple fritters with caramel sauce ($4.50).
Summer Shack is a fun place. As mentioned; the restaurant is huge (not even including an adjacent lounge); the main dining area is mostly taken-up by long tables, covered in brown paper tablecloth. The atmosphere is seaside casual. The B-52's blare from the sound system (what else would you play?) and service is friendly if somewhat harried. I can easily imagine taking friends from out of town or extended family here; there's something that everyone will enjoy (except vegetarians) and it will be done unpretentiously and well.
Still, we left feel that everything was just a bit too expensive. At the end of the night we had a $100 bill with tip, when $75 probably would have been more reasonable. This could be because Cambridge is still awash in Internet money these days; nonetheless, if Jasper wants to bring his food to the people, he might bring the prices down to them as well.
We happened by the Summer Shack on our way to Lanes and Games this past Saturday and thought we'd give it a try. Since they take no reservations, we found ourselves settling in to the cocktail lounge for a one and a half hour wait. Personally, I was rather disappointed that there wasn't a menu of funky drinks to match with the kitchy decor and theme of the restaurant. We made do with a Planter's Punch or two and listened to disgruntled customers hem and haw at the overworked 2-man bar staff.
Once we were seated, we were completely awed at the sheer size of the restaurant. I wondered how we had to wait for so long when it seemed that there was so much space to fill. But like some one else mentioned, much of the space is filled with their cocktail lounge and 2 huge steaming tanks for lobsters.
By this time we had worked up quite an appetite, so we decided on a meal of lobster tomalley toast appetizers, a clam bake entree and a fried clam entree. We also ordered a side of creamy mashed potatos. The appetizer was disappointing to say the least, and I don't know if we were to blame for that since we didn't know the meaning of the word "tomalley." Basically we got 6 small crostini, topped with a thin layer of butter and herb spread and a small dipping bowl half filled with a lobster bisque-like concoction. Had we known that the crostini were not going to have lobster bits on them directly, we would not have ordered this dish.
The clam bake was fresh and tasty, but was small for a $28 price tag. One hard boiled egg, one portuguese sausage, one corn on the cob, lobster and mussels. It came in an unsightly plastic wrapping. With their note that their meals are served "family style" I had expected that the clam bake would feed two. Not the case.
The fried clams were the gigantic disappointment of the night. Not something to get as an entree with no other side dish to break up the monotony of grease and heavy clam taste. And for the "market price" of $24....whoosh! What a rip off. Thank goodness for the lackluster mashed potatos. They really took the edge off.
I would go again, just to give the "other part" of the menu a try. A good part of their specials were fresh fish dishes and under "big bucks" there were several preparations of lobster.
My dining partner recognized Jasper White sitting at a table near us. I was tempted to ask for him to start taking reservations and to lower those prices! It's one thing to have the kitchy storefront saying "food is love" but it's another to give the people the opportunity to love it. And with these ridiculous prices, it's gonna take a whole lot to start the love flowin'.
Went to the grand opening on Monday night. I arrived at 7:00 and got a chance to ask Jasper how his Heads-on shrimp were being received. He said the comments were mixed but felt they were going to catch on. My friends came in a few minutes later and we grabbed a table. The staff serving passed samples were showing up at our table about every 15 seconds. This went on for about 20 minutes,until more people began to arrive. It was great while it lasted.
Several of the "Greats" and "Near Greats" were in attendance. Lydia Shire and Jasper had a warm embrace and several minutes of conversation. Julia arrived about 10:00 and was seated at one of the long paper covered tables. Soon the table was full of people (Jasper, Lydia etc.) and plenty of food. Julia was drinking a dark beer of some kind.
The food samples were very good and along with the open bar and a place to sit down it made for a very pleasant evening. After looking at the menu, I think Seth's observation about pricing is correct. Most all items are served a la carte without a starch or vegetable. When I stopped in on Wednesday night the market price for the Fried Clam Plate was $24 French Fries are $4 and I think Coleslaw is about $3. At $31 a pop, I think that is going to be a hard sell even for Jasper. It will be interesting to see if the pricing changes after the newness wares off.
Off to the grand opening tonight. Don't know how you can have a Grand Opening, after being open for three weeks, but what do I know. Not sure what they will be feeding us but I suspect it won't be massive quantities of Pan Roasted Lobster. Whatever it is I will report back later in the week.
yes, summer shack is rather over priced, for food that is simply prepared (and dining this casual). the award wining fried chicken is pretty disappointing and the corn and oyster fritters were a joke- could barely taste the few bits of oyster in the batter. cornbread was excellent though.
re: sam t.
Been a fan of Jaspers for years going to his restaurant and when he started at the Harvard book store Cafe. So we went to the Summer shack and when I saw grilled Lobster on the menu , my heart leaped. It's something you don't find in New England. Here it's boiled or steamed. I asked my husband if I shoulkd order it(the budget is tight) He agreed I should-What a big disappointment. It was so dried up (overcooked) We spent alot of money that night but we would not go back. I wrote a letter of my critisizem, but never got a reply.