Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blue Ox in Lynn: Excellent Neighborhood Spot

I don't have a valid excuse. I should have done it years ago but, for no specific reason, it didn't happen until recently. Friends advised me to do it, and I read very positive comments in the press, but it just didn't motivate me sufficiently. However, after doing it once, I know that I must do it again, and then again. And I am here to urge others to do the same.

What did I finally do? I dined at The Blue Ox in Lynn, which describes itself as "an upscale casual neighborhood restaurant" that "offers an approachable American menu."

The Blue Ox, which opened in 2009, is owned by Chef Matt O'Neil, a Swampscott native, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He has previously worked at such restaurants as Prezza and No. 9 Park, and eventually decided to strike out on his own and open his own restaurant. The Blue Ox has received lots of positive press, and I know a number of people who have dined there and raved about their experiences. Most recently, Chef O'Neil and the team at the Blue Ox were the 2014 Champions of Boston Magazine's Battle of the Burger, and had also been the 2013 Champions. When I dined there a couple weeks ago, I realized what I have been missing for the past five years.

On a Thursday evening, at almost 7pm, the restaurant was quite busy, and somewhat noisy. The restaurant is divided into two sections, the main room with a dining section and bar, and a second dining room. We sat in the main room, at a table next to the front window, which gave us a bit more privacy than some of the other tables. Though loud, the noise level wasn't oppressive and we were still able to have a normal conversation. It is more just a lot of energy, especially in the bar area. It definitely has a nice, neighborhood feel, a place to stop after work, for a night out with friends, or just for a good dinner.

The Beverage Director, Charles Gaeta, has created an interesting drinks list, including wine, beer, and craft cocktails. The wine list has about 16 wines by the glass ($8-$13), and the bottle list has plenty of diversity and many bottles under $50. There are some lower mark-ups on wines over $50 and wine lovers should appreciate the variety of wines that are available. There are plenty of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon choices, but you will also find wines made from Peccorino, Assyrtiko, Muller-Thurgau, Zweigelt, and Kadarka. If you need a recommendation, Charles will help you select a wine to accompany your dinner. There are about 30 beers available ($3.50-$15), 6 on draft, with plenty of local choices

Their cocktail list is intriguing and definitely a compelling reason to check out the restaurant. They have about 16 House Cocktails (reasonably priced at $11 each), broken down into four groups. First, there are Locally Distilled which are all cocktails using spirits distilled in Massachusetts. A great way to support some worthy local companies. Second, there are the Wonders of the Agave Plant, cocktails using Tequila or Mezcal. Third, there are a couple Classic cocktails, onto which the restaurant has put their own spin. Finally, they have a couple Barrel-Aged cocktails. With all of these choices, I knew I needed to check out several of the cocktails.

I began with a Barrel-Aged Manhattan, which was aged in oak for about two months, and you can notice the large, square ice cube in the glass which means the drink won't get diluted as quickly as it would with regular ice cubes. The Manhattan was smooth and complex, with an added depth to it which is probably attributable to its aging. I would have been satisfied to sit at the bar and sip these all evening.

The Tonight's Today cocktail is made with Ethereal gin, Manzanilla sherry, grapefruit liqueur, lemon oil, rosemary, and a touch of sparkling rose in a Muscat “showered” glass. Though I am not usually a gin guy, this was a tasty cocktail with lots of herbal notes but also hints of brininess from the sherry. Definitely a nice summer drink.

The North Country Old Fashioned is created from house infused bacon bourbon, VT maple syrup, and Ox maple bitters. It was nicely balanced, with mild flavors of bacon and maple, neither overwhelming the other, or the drink. The Sibling Rivalry has Bully Boy vodka, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, St-Germain, lemon, and rhubarb bitters. It has a clean, smooth flavor with hints of sweetness and a kick of ginger. The Dark n' Stormy is made with house-spiced Old Monk 7 Year rum, Fever Tree ginger beer, and lime. It has a strong ginger flavor, enhanced by intriguing spice notes.

The restaurant is open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday. Their Dinner Menu is relatively small, but with plenty which should interest any customer. I like the fact they have not tried to create a monstrosity of a menu, with dozens upon dozens of choices. You will find Appetizers (8 choices, $6-$16), Soup & Salad (4 choices, $10-$11, with extras), Burgers (3 choices, $13-$16); Pasta (3 choices, $22-$24), Entrees (5 choices, $22-$25), and Sides (6 choices, $6-$7). They also have a Gluten Free menu. On the evening I dined, there were a few different Specials too.

Of the Appetizers, I had to check out the Fried Maitland Mountain Farm Pickles ($9), with grilled lemon & thyme aioli and aged balsamic. When fried pickles are done well, they can be delicious, but far too often they end up as limp and soggy. So, it would be a good test of the kitchen to see whether these fried pickles were worthy or not, and they passed with flying colors. Maitland Mountain Farm is an organic, urban farm in Salem, MA, well known for their pickles. The fried pickles had a tasty, clean and crunchy coating over a crisp and flavorful pickle. A nice way to begin our dinner.

One of the Special Appetizers was Chicken Wings, which had initially been rubbed with Cajun seasoning and then cold smoked in whiskey barrels. Afterwards, they were battered, fried and tossed in a house made honey hot sauce. Finally, they were covered with a Great Hill Blue Cheese & tarragon dressing, sliced scallion, and black sesame seeds. Fortunately they give you wet naps as these are messy, and you'll be sure to devour them. The smoky spice of these wings was excellent, and it was a crunchy bite to the tender, moist meat inside. The sesame seeds added an extra crunch and the dressing helped to cut the spice. If they are a Special again, be sure to order some.

The Spicy Tuna Tartare ($16) is probably their signature Appetizer, and they mix the tuna with cucumber, cilantro, scallion, lemon juice, EVOO and their homemade chili sauce. They then place chive cream atop their house made aged potato chips, and place the tartare atop it. It had a very nice taste to it, well balanced though personally I would have liked a bit more spicy heat to it. The potato chip added a salty crunch and I thought that was a nice addition to this dish.

The Classic Caesar Salad ($10), with crisp romaine hearts, garlicky croutons, Ox Caesar dressing, & Parmigiano and the Pear Salad ($10), with roasted hazelnuts, goat cheese, and maple vinaigrette, both used very fresh ingredients. The cheese were stars in both salads.

Another Special was this Duck Breast dish. The duck was cured for a week in a coriander, fennel, brown sugar cure and then cold smoked for an hour. I love duck and this was a compelling dish, with slices of perfectly cooked duck with some interesting herbal notes and hints of sweetness.

Charles, the Beverage Director, recommended a California Zinfandel with the duck. Though a number of people recommend this same pairing, I have often found Zinfandel to be too big and tannic for duck but I was willing to take Charles' recommendation. The 2009 Canard Vineyard Zinfandel ($75/bottle) was excellent, and worked very well with the duck. It was smooth, with restrained tannins, nice black fruit flavors and spicy accents. It isn't your typical Zinfandel and Charles was dead on in his pairing suggestion. And as the Canard generally retails for $45, the wine has a low markup as well, making it a good value too.

As for Entrees, one of the Specials was a Grilled Swordfish, which was topped by a Napa cabbage slaw and served with a crispy Kurobuta pork and Maitland Mountain Farm red onion & parmesan risotto cake. The Swordfish was tender and meaty, enhanced by a cucumber and Champagne vinaigrette sauce. A delicious piece of seafood, and the risottto cake was also tasty, with a nice exterior crunch and a flavorful interior.

The Blue Ox Burgers ($16) comes with two ¼ lb. burgers stuffed with gorgonzola dolce and topped with applewood smoked bacon, tomato, lettuce, grilled lemon & thyme aioli. The burgers come with herb French fries though I asked them to substitute their hand cut potato chips. All of their burgers are made from Prime beef and are hand packed each day, which also means there is limited availability. The burgers were juicy, with a strong gorgonzola taste, which also oozed out once you bit into the burger. For blue cheese lovers, this is an impressive burger. The brioche buns are fresh and work well with these burgers, actually helping to add a little sweetness to balance the tang of the cheese. And the potato chips were crisp and addictive. An excellent dish of comfort food.

For dessert, the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($10), with toffee caramel sauce, whipped cream, and caramel sea salt ice cream is a good choice. The moist pudding "cake" went well with the sauce and ice cream, and it wasn't too heavy. It was perfect for two of us to share after everything else we had already eaten.

Our server, Matthew, did an excellent job and I have spoken to others who have been served by Matthew and also raved about his performance. The food and drinks are excellent, and I like the neighborhood vibe of the restaurant. I know understand why so many people have recommended this place to me, and I will be sure to return soon. I have absolutely no excuse now. I give The Blue Ox my hearty recommendation.

Have you dined at The Blue Ox? What are your thoughts?

(Disclaimer: I received a media comp for this dinner. Please be advised I was under no obligation to actually review this restaurant and if I chose to review it, I was under no obligation to say anything specific, whether positive or negative, about my experience. All of this content was solely at my discretion. I will be returning to the restaurant soon, on my own dime, and will definitely report back on any differences I encounter.)

The Blue Ox on Urbanspoon

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