A neighborly night out
Blue Ox bound to turn locals into regulars
Lynn, Lynn, city of Gin & Sin. And Gina’s Killer Margarita. Oh, and don’t forget the Dirty Water. These are among the cocktails at the Blue Ox, a four-month-old restaurant that practically demands to be called “neighborhood gem’’: the Franklin Cafe, Highland Kitchen, or Ashmont Grill of its neck of the woods.
It offers all the right enticements to turn locals into regulars: friendly staff, good drinks, reasonable prices. There’s a comfortable bar area with TVs tuned to the game, and a dining room that attracts both families and groups of friends. The menu is a bit too sophisticated to be referred to as comfort food, but this is fare you can ease into: calamari and clam chowder, salads, pan-roasted salmon, burgers. The most conservative diner would order these stolid-sounding dishes; the more adventurous diner would be happily surprised at how not-stolid they actually are.
Chef Matt O’Neil has spent time in the kitchens of Copia, Prezza, and No. 9 Park, which helps explain the skill with which dishes are prepared. His versions of standard offerings are much better than standard, full of bold and layered flavors. Clam chowder is rich and smoky with applewood bacon, one of the best cups we’ve had in a long time. Pear salad combines ripe fruit, hazelnuts, and goat cheese, the elements bound together by a complex tart-and-sweet maple vinaigrette. (The maple butter that comes with the bread is good enough to make an otherwise undistinguished loaf addictive.) Salmon is juicy, the skin ultra-crispy, and it’s served with tender plumes of spinach in a tomato broth with Sardinian couscous, which rolls tapioca-like on the tongue.
A bruschetta appetizer is eye candy that’s good for you, toasts topped with a bright melange of tomato, corn, scallions, and feta. A salad of prosciutto and melon is unexpectedly pretty, the prosciutto woven into a latticework, then topped with a tumble of honeydew and cantaloupe chunks. The honeydew is a bit underripe, but it’s forgivable.
If you’re hoping to be a neighborhood gem, it’s nearly mandatory to put a burger on your menu. The Blue Ox has two options, standard issue and stuffed with blue cheese and topped with applewood-smoked bacon. The latter are called, inevitably, Blue Ox burgers, and they’re worthy of being a signature dish; these juicy, plump quarter-pounders come two to a plate with a pile of excellent fries that are salty and crisp and dusted with herbs. The plate is $11, and an evening spent at the bar sharing an order with a friend would be easy on the budget and the taste buds both.
For a similar but slightly more refined experience, there’s the grilled hanger steak, a chewy, nearly tangy piece of meat served with balsamic-red wine reduction, grilled asparagus, and more of those fries. It’s perfectly cooked, as is a sirloin special with mustard sauce, intensely buttery mashed potatoes, and more grilled asparagus. Shrimp scampi is a simple pleasure: lots of garlic, lots of lemon, shrimp and pasta both cooked exactly right.
Not everything is so spot-on. Herb-roasted chicken is juicy but far too heavy on the salt one night; the texture of a piece of swordfish is slightly mushy, and it’s an odd pairing with mashed sweet potatoes, never mind in the middle of August. But most dishes taste fresh and bright, reinvigorating old tropes. Even those dessert standbys cheesecake and chocolate cake are winning. The former is light, creamy, and wonderful; the latter has six layers held together by raspberry filling and chocolate frosting. It tastes like cake should, fudgy and not too dense.
The staff is as refreshingly honest as the food. “The tiramisu isn’t very good,’’ our waitress confides one night. “If you’re getting ice cream, try the cinnamon. The chocolate and vanilla are from Sysco or somewhere.’’ (We never do get to try the tiramisu; it’s not available on other visits.) Another night, the bartender stops making drinks to come take our order. “I’ll be your waitress, too,’’ she says cheerfully.
The Blue Ox is not just trying to be helpful to its customers. It’s here to do something for its neighborhood. It’s owned by the Lynn Restaurant Group, formed by local residents who want to bring business - and vitality - to the city’s downtown. The weeknight crowds suggest the strategy is working. On several levels, Lynn was hungry for its own neighborhood gem. Now it has one.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.