Raw and Polished

The cooking at Blupointe is often first rate, yet the new multilevel seafood restaurant doesn't quite seduce

“There's no accounting for taste” is a phrase that used to confuse me, a little. But taste is the only thing that counts, I'd think. It makes more sense to me in its Latin original, De gustibis non est disputandum, which looks, to the non-Latin speaker who susses out the word “dispute,” to be saying taste isn't worth arguing about. (Or, as the new Dictionary for Cultural Literacy has it, personal preferences aren't debatable. So there!) In theory, then, I shouldn't be surprised when people respond differently to a restaurant than I do — there's no accounting for taste! But I was still taken aback when a couple of friends conveyed to me their disappointment with a dinner they'd had at Alfred's Steak House. I'd cautioned them when they told me they were going there on the strength of my recent review. “I wasn't nuts about the starters or the desserts,” I told them. “But I did love the meat. I'd go back and have a steak, a baked potato, and creamed spinach. In fact, I intend to.”

They didn't like the room, the service, or the food, they said, amending that last just a bit by saying they'd enjoyed the chopped salad with blue cheese. “You didn't like the steak?” I asked, adding: “I loved two of the three we tried — really, I thought they were terrific. Which one did you have?” The response: “The New York on the bone. It tasted odd.”

That was the steak my father had ordered — charred rare. He'd pronounced it perfect, as I had my big porterhouse, also cooked black and blue. I thought the meat was so good that it canceled out the somewhat dreary décor (besides, the booths are comfy); the noisy party braying next to us (they left, eventually); and the disappointing appetizers and sweets (skip 'em, it'll leave more room for the main event, the juicy, dripping, chewy, fibrous, faintly metallic hunk of beef that you're there for).

All this is to say that I wouldn't be surprised if a number of people like the new seafood restaurant Blupointe a lot more than I did. I've been there twice, with one very demanding friend who's a trained chef and another who's a big hungry boy just grateful to eat out on somebody else's nickel. We managed to try just a fraction of the lengthy menu, which offers a raw bar as well as complicated Asian-fusion, Italianate, and California-cuisine dishes, and pizzas cooked in a wood oven. All three of us thought that the cooking was often first rate, and, even on the dishes that didn't knock me out, careful and sincere. The place has generous hours, $1 oysters Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m., live DJs several nights a week in a downstairs lounge, and a just-added Saturday jazz brunch with live music. It's eager to please.

Restaurants with multiple levels can confuse or alienate patrons: Is there a better room? Or is upstairs Siberia? In Blupointe's case, the multilevels are attributable to its tall, narrow building. Peter and I were offered a choice of sitting outside under the heat lamps on Claude Lane, in back of the restaurant, or upstairs in the dining room, overlooking the ground-floor raw bar (which looks more like a regular bar, backed as it is by a handsome display of liquor bottles). We chose the upstairs, a snug aerie suspended within exposed-brick walls, with warm wood flooring and compact wood tables that had black-leather-and-chrome modernistic chairs and brown banquette seating. We asked to be moved from the first midroom table we were given, because a wall-mounted light was shining directly into my eyes — Peter suggested the move before I even realized how uncomfortable I was. We were given a table in a long, thin alcove just deep enough for one row of tables (and perfect for a large party that wants a view of the action but still a semiprivate feeling). The massive menu occasioned a lot of discussion: seviche, tartare, or poki? Escargot caviar, which we'd never had? Pave d'affinois cheese baked in the oven served with a watercress salad and candied pecans? Mushrooms stuffed with ratatouille and goat cheese? Pizza? And those were just the appetizers.

We decided to start by sharing an order of fried calamari and the medium-sized fruits de mer platter — as the menu put it, “assorted seasonal shellfish and crustaceans … perfect for sharing!” — despite the oddly sullen attitude of our server, who responded to my question about what it contained with a curt, “Oysters and clams.” “Oh, no crustaceans, then?” I asked. He hesitated and then said, “I don't know, I'm just helping out, I'll have to go find out,” and disappeared downstairs, returning to say, “Shrimp.” And that's just what came: shrimp, oysters, and clams, and we were dazzled by the amounts. There were a dozen of each, including four oysters of three different varieties (Hog Island, Malpeque, and Blue Points, chosen by the raw bar from eight different types on offer that night; we could have specified which ones we wanted, but left it up to the staff). At $38, that came to a little more than a dollar per item, quite the bargain when oyster bars (including this one) regularly charge from $2 to $2.50 a bivalve. We also got cups of house-made red cocktail sauce amped up with lots of horseradish, a spicy champagne mignonette, and hot wasabi vinaigrette; I generally prefer nothing on my oysters, but I tried all three on the plump, chewy clams, to good effect. Two of the three oyster varieties were crisp, briny, and sweet; the namesake Blue Points were tasteless, reminding me that, after all, we were eating oysters in June. The shrimp were big, pink, and firm. As generous as it was, the platter needed a little something extra to make it seem truly luxurious; failing cracked crab or lobster, neither of which is on the menu in any form at Blupointe, or a more obscure shellfish like cockles or winkles, perhaps the restaurant should include a bit of the red snapper seviche, salmon tartare, or ahi tuna and salmon pokis that it does offer.

The crispy calamari rings came with the intriguing addition of fried salsify (also called oyster plant because of its supposed oyster taste, not particularly noticeable in this incarnation but a witty choice) and a cup of tasty bell pepper rouille. We went on to pan-seared sea scallops for Peter, the best dish of the evening: The fat, sweet scallops were carefully cooked, golden outside, soft within, and came with a crunchy, well-flavored risotto cake, toothy anisette-scented braised greens, more of the spicy rouille, and just a hint of lemon oil. I was less happy with my bowl of clams in a buttery white wine and roasted garlic sauce, brightened with plenty of chopped parsley and lemon juice; I blame myself — it was just too many clams after the unexpectedly huge helping of raw ones I'd already consumed. I should have chosen the alternative, mussels (you can order either of the two, cooked with your choice of four sauces; another server said his favorite was the red Thai curry, with coconut milk, onions, and galangal. All come with a side of excellent crisp fries).

Over a shared fresh fruit cobbler (blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, under a good crust, with vanilla bean gelato), Peter and I agreed that the cooking was of quite a high order, and yet we weren't in love with the place. The tables were a little too close together, the music was a little too loud.

For my next dinner I asked for a table outside, on Claude Lane, and waited for Tommy and Matt. In the event, only Tommy showed up, Matt having fallen prey to a cold, and I had to revise my food expectations downward (I'd thought one of the boys would order the tarragon chicken or sea-salt-crusted filet mignon put on the menu to appease nonpescatarians). Still, we managed to sample quite a bit: We shared a dozen oysters, two each of the six varieties on offer (Hood Canal, Kumamoto, Hog Island, Malaspina, Sunset, and Beau Soleil; no Blue Points that night), and they were all tasty and properly displayed on crushed ice (though briefly, because they were warmish). We washed them down with Chimay for Tommy and a glass of Fresh Oyster sauvignon blanc for me, which seemed appropriate. We then went on to a plate of delicious white pickled anchovy fillets (boquerones), sea-tangy and meaty, with purple potato chips, a contrast in color and a different kind of crispness that didn't quite make sense together, and a cup of clam chowder that turned out to be a big bowl of creamy soup containing potatoes, clams, a bit of grit, and a big jolt of acid, probably lemon juice, but elusive in flavor. Not a bad chowder, but not the best.

Tommy abandoned his choice of seafood bouillabaisse (tiger prawns, sea scallops, clams, mussels, fish) as soon as he heard the night's special of sautéed soft-shell crab on a bed of fresh corn ragout (charmingly pronounced with the final “t” by our server); a pale-and-emerald-green baby bok choy came alongside the crab, and this night again my companion had chosen the best dish of the evening. I kept on stealing bites of the corn stew, and tasted more of the crab than strictly needed to appreciate its sweet meat and crunchy exterior. Tommy cleaned his plate, and then went on to clean mine: I had lost interest in the two fat slabs of an uncommon fish, hebi from Hawaii (also known as spearfish), and accurately described as being almost like sashimi by the helpful server. Barely cooked for a millimeter under its crust of crushed fennel, coriander, and mustard, the soft, pale fish picked up most of its flavor from the dark ponzu sauce underneath it. The plate needed a bit more help than the carefully stacked logs of delicate (and delicately flavored) baby zucchini that came alongside the fish.

We lingered over coffee, another cobbler, and two big chocolate truffles, coated with macadamia nuts, quite dear, I thought, at $8.50 (a couple of bucks more than the other desserts), and dauntingly firm, having just been removed from the refrigerator (and thus losing the soft, creamy, yielding appeal of fancy truffles). Was it brave, I thought, to open a seafood restaurant and not offer crab cakes or cracked crab or lobster, or was it just because of costs? The fish main courses were already quite pricey (between $23.95 for halibut and $29.95 for sea bass); what would they have to charge for wild salmon, also not on the current menu, if a plate of spearfish and zucchini costs $26.95? I liked Blupointe more tonight, but I wasn't entirely seduced. Still, as we were finishing, two guys came out the back door and one said to the other, “Let's eat out here next time, this looks nice.” They were happy regulars already.

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