Shh. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of laughter. It's the ghosts of prisoners past, chortling in disbelief at the Beacon Hill residents and wannabes lined up outside what used to be the Charles Street Jail. They are waiting to get in. And is that a white stretch Hummer idling out front? That's rich.
The stone fortress is now the Liberty Hotel, and it requires bouncers on the weekends. Inside is the restaurant Clink (ha), which opened in September, and even good behavior won't land you a table if you're late for your reservation on a Friday. However, you are welcome to eat in the first-floor bar, Alibi (ha ha), or the second-floor lobby outside the restaurant, where packs of 20- and 30-something singles roam. It's an urban safari - watch the tipsy woman in very high heels stalk the metrosexual, while the metrosexual stalks the brunette in the black top with window-shaped cutouts.
The Liberty Hotel is a scene unlike anywhere else in the city right now, the place you're most likely to spot Tom Brady wingman Will McDonough and get hit on by an off-duty cop in the space of an hour. The lobby decor is a jumble of patterns - carpet with a chocolate square-and-diamond motif; tall images of trees on the walls; a jail-themed mosaic between two escalators, the sort of colorful tile assemblage that might have graced an elementary school in the '70s. Prison accents run rampant. The guards' catwalks remain, as do iron bars set into the walls (some backlighted in changing colors); Clink waiters sport prison numbers on their shirts.
All the stimuli can make it hard for a guest to concentrate on food. Some nights it seems hard for a chef, too. The cooking can be very good - deep-fried balls of creamy macaroni and cheese served atop super-salty shoestring fries are the perfect comfort food appetizer; the presentation is playful, and the rounds are light where you'd expect them to sit in your stomach like lead shot. But then you order something as enticing as chicken liver mousse with brandied prunes and crostini, and the huge portion is nearly tasteless. The gelatinous layer on top and the brandied prunes aren't any more flavorful.
A beet salad is beautifully composed, the thinnest round slivers of red and yellow beets arrayed on a plate, then sprinkled with goat cheese and cress. But a crab and citrus salad is the damnedest looking thing - a clump of crab salad with a strange, Miracle Whip-esque flavor, flattened and topped with slivers of unsheathed grapefruit. They form a wedge-shaped, pink-topped island that sits on a long plate decorated with orange dots (pomelo "caviar," according to the waiter); beside each dot is a sprig of cress. The effect is very Laura Ashley wallpaper.
Lobster risotto is prepared perfectly, the grains of rice with just the right bite at the center and generous pieces of lobster strewn throughout. Scallops so large they're nearly steaks are seared into seafood bliss, their custardy centers just past raw. They're served with a sweetish slaw that gets depth from smoked ham hocks, and the combination is excellent. But roasted monkfish with tapioca pearls and chorizo baffles. The "pearls" are more like grains of sand - they look like couscous. They go well with the flecks of chorizo, but the supposedly roasted fish is stark white and glistening with oil. A pool of what tastes like kumquat coulis is drizzled around everything, a surprise not mentioned on the menu. It might be good with duck, but it's wrong with the monkfish and chorizo.
The inconsistency is disappointing, because the executive chef at Clink is Joseph Margate, who was formerly sous chef at the much-praised Eleven Madison Park in New York. He replaces both executive chef Michael Goodman and chef de cuisine Isadora Sarto, who weren't here for long. Margate's been at Clink for a month and a half; perhaps he's still getting settled and making the menu of small plates and a few entrees his own.
(Or, I should say, the menu of "snacks," "cheese," "charcuterie," "to share," and "mains." Wine comes in a "taste," "more than a glass," "2/3 bottle," and "bottle." Clink is one of the many restaurants currently blazing its own trail in food nomenclature. I'm all for whimsy, but when the waiter says, "Just ignore the fact that it says 'to share' - it's confusing," you know it's gone too far.)
There is clearly potential at Clink. General manager Jonah Selaya-Mendez says he's seen the staff start to pull together more since Margate's arrival, a good sign. Casting a glance back at Eleven Madison Park might help bring things along. That restaurant is part of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, where service is a priority. At Clink, we don't feel particularly cared for. It's hard to get our hands on a glass of wine. On one visit, our pour takes forever to arrive; on another, we can't even place an order because the waiter never returns after delivering the wine list we asked for (hey, buddy, it's your tip). When we inquire about tea, we're told vaguely, "Oh, we have a bunch of kinds floating around back there." We see a waitress drop a half-full glass of chicken liver mousse, some of which splatters on the back of a diner's coat. "Do you want some soda water?" she asks its owner, whose face says plainly: No, I want you to offer to clean my coat. The waitress doesn't understand that expression.
On a night we blow our 7:30 reservation; we're told we can be seated at 9:30. Fair enough - we're 30 minutes late. So we leave a cellphone number and sandwich ourselves into Alibi to wait. After a while, we send an emissary to check on our progress, and we're told not to bother - they'll call us, they promise. "It's a good thing you didn't have reservations," the hostess says. "You'd be really mad."
Time goes by. We drink some wine. We look at Alibi's giant framed mug shots of Frank Sinatra and Lindsay Lohan. It's 9:45 . . . it's 10 . . . it's almost 11. Starting to fear a Donner party reenactment, we finally cave and order pizza. (Alibi imports its food from the nearby Harvard Gardens; both are run by the Lyons Group. Another Lyons Group restaurant, Lydia Shire's Scampo, will reportedly open in mid-March and eventually supply Alibi's food.) The call from Clink never comes. Around midnight, we check back in. The look on the hostess's face says plainly: We forgot all about you.
As we leave the Liberty, the lobby's still hopping, the hopefuls are still queuing. At prisons and luxury hotel restaurants alike, overcrowding leads to trouble.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.