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Lobster Shop restaurants: Three decades of waterfront dining

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on July 13, 2012 at 12:01 am | No Comments »
July 12, 2012 12:04 pm
Lobster Shop owner Denny Driscoll, left, and executive chef Tom Small at the outdoor dining area of the Lobster Shop at Commencement Bay. Photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Lobster, steak, martinis, career servers and this-is-why-we-live-here views.

For three decades, the Lobster Shop restaurants have delivered a formula of what diners want at a waterfront restaurant: a blend of swank, straightforward Northwest fare and a dependable wine-and-dine experience.

Lobster Shop owner Denny Driscoll entered a new era last week with Boathouse 19, his latest eatery in an unexpected waterfront location. The come-as-you-are restaurant opened July 2 at the Narrows Marina, in a sleepy neighborhood near Day Island not known as a restaurant destination. Read the first-bite review here.

While his Lobster Shop restaurants flirt with formality, Boathouse 19 is the fun little brother, the one who throws deck parties with beer on ice and pitchers of sangria.

With the opening of a new concept restaurant, it was time to revisit Driscoll’s waterfront ventures. Seven visits in four months found both Lobster Shops consistently on point.

If you haven’t been to the Lobster Shop in a year or more, it’s time for a return visit. You’ll find new menus at both locations.

When I spoke with Driscoll earlier this year, he said he had become worried his long-established Lobster Shop restaurants – Dash Point opened in June 1977, Commencement Bay in June 1981 – might have become relegated to “coconut prawn” status. That’s restaurant code for “predictable.”

Enter Tom Small. Driscoll hired Small last summer as executive chef of all his restaurants (including Tanglewood Grill in Gig Harbor) to “create a contemporary menu,” as Driscoll described it. Small is a veteran of fine dining in California, moving here in 2008 to open the Nordstrom Cafe at the Tacoma Mall.

Small’s culinary edict nods to Northwest ingredients and flavors, but diners will find regional spins and American accents with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Consistent at both locations is an elegant atmosphere with little fussiness. The Dash Point Lobster Shop stays intimate and quiet, with low lighting and tiered seating downstairs and a handsome wood-paneled dining room upstairs. The Commencement Bay Lobster Shop on the Ruston waterfront feels less homey with its tiered dining room that’s expansive and bustling, outfitted with a warm Northwest motif. The deck is a majestic way to spend a summer evening. Both offer waterway views – Commencement Bay a mix of scenic and industrial Tacoma, and Dash Point a view of the state park and Vashon Island beyond. Service is the same at both: Servers carry the effortless verve that only career restaurant workers have.

The menu at Dash Point takes more culinary risks and changes occasionally, which is why some of the menu items listed here no longer are offered. A playful $3 first bites menu in early spring turned to the carnival for inspiration, with a scallop corndog with a jalapeño cocktail sauce and stone-ground mustard. A glass filled with shrimp, jalapeños and tomatoes revamped the notion of a shrimp cocktail. The first-bites menu are just that – bites.

Appetizers proved solid: clams ($13) swam in a dunk-worthy wine broth, meaty New England cod cakes ($10) paired well with a puckery caper aioli.

Salmon comes three different ways at the Lobster Shop, which has a menu of Northwest favorites.

Entrees are where regional spins were evident. Seared sea scallops ($30) sang like a Southern church choir, whipped sweet potatoes in perfect key with a cidery bacon-onion relish and snappy green beans. A jumbo prawn etouffee ($24) distracted with off-key notes from a burned roux at the base of a creole tomato sauce, punctuated with andouille and tamed with grits. We returned to the Northwest with a slippery ling cod ($19) as perfect as I’ve ever tasted – rosemary-scented, topped with a sharp kalamata tapenade, with cubed butternut squash over a tangle of wilted arugula and Israeli couscous. A seafood pastina risotto ($22) was silky textured with a light bite – a basil puree adding depth; the clams, calamari, cod and rock shrimp tasting pristinely oceanic.

Dessert shined. Rich brown sugar ice cream – made in-house – showed up in a rustic apple crisp ($7), and a flourless chocolate cake ($7) with a sinful caramel sauce.

Skip down the coastline to the Lobster Shop at Commencement Bay and the entree list relies more on the classics, less on playful infusion, but also with a menu that changes.

Steak Oscar with lobster ($40) was the classic surf-and-turf with red potato mashers and still-crisp asparagus – I took delight in saturating the sirloin and Maine lobster pieces with Bernaise poured from a boat.

Maine Lobster tail (market price) was buttery soft with Yukon potato puree and more snappy asparagus. A seared mahi mahi ($23) shimmered in a pool of marsala cream. Hawaiian ahi tuna ($30) arrived as beautiful ruby cubes of lightly seared fish, but the bok choy tasted bland, even with the ginger ponzu sauce.

Flash forward to a sunset dinner and we delved into snappy-sweet garlic prawns with a couscous salad and grilled bluenose bass fish tacos with a smoky tomatillo sauce flanked with a corn-cilantro salad – two gems on an early dinner menu of two-course meals for $17.

Crispy calamari on the appetizer menu at the Lobster Shop Commencement Bay.

Two standouts from the appetizer list: Mussels ($11) were a nifty interpretation of moules frites, gussied up with a Thai-style cream curry broth with sweet potato fries for dipping. Crunchy calamari ($10) got double duty dunking with a yin of sweet, soft honey aioli and a yang of a smoky edged romesco sauce.

Lobster Shop Restaurants
Commencement Bay:
4015 Ruston Way, Tacoma; 253-759-2165, wp.lobstershop.com
Dash Point: 6912 Soundview Drive N.E., Tacoma; 253-927-1513, dash.lobstershop.com
Serving: Sunday brunch and daily dinner at Dash Point. Serving Sunday brunch, lunch Monday-Saturday and daily dinner at Commencement Bay.
Spirits Dash Point: Specialty cocktails, modest beer list. The one-page wine list with a dozen wines by the glass and about 50 wines by the bottle – split almost evenly between Washington and California wines with a sprinkling of French and Italian bottles. Few bottles above $50, many priced $30 or below.
Spirits Commencement Bay: A full cocktail menu, modest beer list. The four-page wine list offered 21 wines by the glass, about 140 by the bottle, with almost equal footing between Washington and California wines and a handful of French, Australian, Spanish and Argentinian bottles. Wine prices go steep here, up to $235, but with a heavy showing of $20-$30 whites. One of the most diverse wine lists in town.

Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.

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