Queequegs - A Cure for the Jaded Palate from Yesterday's Island
Food writers become jaded. Week after week of sampling seafood, rating risotto, and tasting tartars, brings about an inevitable ennui. So we’re delighted to report that our team dined this week at a restaurant that reignited our enthusiasm for eating out. Every dish brought to our table has aspects that were imaginative and original. Several were superb. Even the simpler preparations contained an element of surprise that turns a dish that would have been merely very good into something extraordinary.
This treasure waiting to be discovered is Queequeg’s. Tucked behind 21 Federal on Oak Street, between Federal and South Water streets. From the outside, the restaurant is small and unassuming, identified by a quarterboard and patio umbrellas. Inside, it’s warm and welcoming, cozy but not crowded. Whale carvings adorn the walls, reminding guests of the Moby Dick origins of the name of this eatery and giving it a nautical touch without becoming touristy. On fair weather evenings, patio dining is also available.
Owners John Keane and Caroline Montgomery found room in their bistro for a fun and lively 9-seat bar, where an barkeep will cheerfully mix your favorites as well as some of their own creative specialties.
Dinner at Queequeg’s begins with freshly baked breads. The baguette we were served was crusty and delicious, but we fell in love with the multigrain bread with its complex flavor, hints of fennel, and hearty but not heavy texture.
The menu changes seasonally to include what is freshest, and though there is a modest number of selections (six appetizers, five entrees, and three dishes that can be either), the choices cover a wide range. We started with their “Loaded” Spring Green Salad, and “loaded” it is! The mixed greens are tossed in a mellow walnut vinaigrette and adorned with soft, sweet caramelized pear in wedges and in pieces, crispy and smoky applewood bacon, crumbles of tangy Great HIll Blue as well as a generous slice of the cheese. This is hearty for a salad, and the combination of flavors and textures gives it great mouthfeel.
Queequeg’s Tuna Tartar is a perfect example of how the chefs can take a classic dish and make it all their own. The fresh, clean-tasting tuna is cut into chunks, anointed with soy and sesame, and topped with a refreshing citrusy guacamole. Large tortilla chips are served alongside, adding a casual touch and a pleasant crunch to the combination of textures. This appetizer was a table favorite, even with the member of our team who is wary of raw fish.
Our first reaction to the Coach Farm Goat Cheese and Roasted Beet Terrine was suprise. It’s pink. Not just pink, but psychedelic pink. We took the first bite gingerly and then dove in. The flavor is as impressive as the color: the roasted beet tames the goat cheese and the goat cheese smooths out the beet. The slice of terrine is topped with pickled mushrooms that add a slight pucker. Tucked underneath it are spears of beautifully grilled, fresh, crisp asparagus. Drizzles of black balsamic, ruby red beet reduction, and golden mustard vinaigrette give the dish an intriguingly abstract look and add yet more flavor accents. This dish has punch, and the color grows on you.
With such appealing appetizer choices, it’s tempting to make a meal of them. Queequeg’s makes this doable by offering three of their entrees in appetizer sizes as well. If you decide to take this route, we recommend the Lyonnaise Style Braised Short Ribs. Better known as a winter dish, we were were well pleased with the tender, meaty rib glistening with a red wine sauce. The portion truly is a small version of the entree, with the rib topped with sweet and crispy onion rings, a crunchy waffled potato chip, and asparagus. Satiny mashed potato is ideal for finishing off the luscious sauce.
Devoted carnivores can start with the appetizer-sized Rib and continue with the Grilled Sirloin Steak. This is a gorgeous cut of meat, cooked exactly as ordered. Queequeg’s kitchen works its magic by embellishing it with a rich bordelaise sauce, chipotle butter for pleasantly smoky notes, and an onion and pepper marmalade that is so much more than a garnish. House-cut frites, hot and crisp and salty are delicious dipped in the bordelaise-chipotle butter that swirls with the au jus and pools around the plate.
Also very good, but much lighter is Queequeg’s Fresh Herb Fettuccini. The perfect texture of the house-made fettuccini makes this bistro-style dish special. It’s tossed with shreds of chicken confit, bits of firm asparagus, and chunks of shiitake mushroom. Broad shavings of percorino romano cheese finish the dish. The honest flavors of each element shine through in this — the only sauce, a simple garlic butter.
Another stellar dish in which each savory part makes an even better whole is the Oven Roasted Atlantic Halibut. The halibut steak is set atop grilled asparagus on a bed of stunningly good lemon polenta that is infused with the citrusy freshness of the lemon without becoming perfumy. Surrounding this tasty construct is a summery lobster pomodoro sauce drizzled with basil oil.
The Pan Seared Nantucket Bay Scallops is another bold entree. These prized island gems, sweet and succulent despite being out of season, are deliciously seared to caramelize their natural sugars and presented on a vibrant red beet risotto studded with peas. Again combining the flavors of beet and goat cheese, the chefs garnish this dish with whipped Coach Farm, adding another potent flavor to the entree.
The Day Boat Fluke was a special offering the evening we spent at Queequeg’s. Designed around fish fresh off the boat and juicy, ripe nectarines found at the farm, this entree deserves to be added as a permanent addition to the summer menu. The pan-seared fluke was served on a fluffy rice scented with coconut and ginger. On top of the fish was a cool and juicy nectarine salad that gave the dish a taste of summer sunshine. The uncommon combination of flavors works exceptionally well.
Desserts at Queequeg’s change at the whim of the chefs. The Chocolate Chip Walnut Ice Cream Sandwich is a fun treat for grownups. The Rhubarb and Granny Smith Apple Tart (individually sized) is the perfect balance of tart and sweet in a thin and flaky crust with a surprising garnish of candied purple basil. But the dessert you don’t want to miss is a luscious trio of Panna Cotta. Each elegant little silky spoonful left us wanting more. There was Vanilla with blueberry compote made with the intensely flavored wild berries, Mocha drizzled with caramel and topped with a chocolate espresso bean, and an astonishingly good Lavender-Honey panna cotta.
The chefs don’t play it safe at Queequeg’s, and it makes for a meal that exceeds expectation and will excite the most jaded palate.