The award for strangest and most strangely compelling lobster dish of the year goes to Nix’s Mate, a new restaurant in the Financial District Hilton hotel, for its fried Maine lobster caramel. I am so confident about this I’m bestowing the honors in June.
Lobster isn’t often battered and fried, but here it is. Golden nuggets of tail and claw meat swim in a caramel sauce, augmented with cheddar cheese, green onions, and chilies. There is no way this dish should work. Yet, somehow, the flavors swirl into a cosmic weirdness that seems inspired equally by Vietnam, New England, and the kingdom of Bong-landia. It’s rich and sweet and spicy, and then it’s lobster — it’s hard to stop eating.
The dish makes it clear that Nix’s Mate is more than just a hotel restaurant catering to weary conference drones. The operators installed a serious chef, David Nevins, who has shown his talent previously at Neptune Oyster, Olives and other Todd English restaurants, and his own Osetra in Connecticut. Nix’s Mate, named for one of the Harbor Islands, is also unusually pretty for a hotel restaurant, which is to say it does not feel like one. Reclaimed wood makes it feel both warm and airy, and the space is attractively lit, with Mason jar light fixtures and a twinkling Capiz shell chandelier visible through the doors of a private dining room.
Weary conference drones and tourists are welcome, of course, and the menu makes that clear. An out-of-town guest could order Wellfleet oysters on the half shell, a very satisfying version of New England clam chowder, and beer-battered cod with chips and take care of a few items on his “must eat while in Boston” checklist. The lunch menu also includes fried clam and lobster rolls on toasted buttery brioche. And crowd pleasers such as fried calamari, Buffalo wings, roast chicken, steak, and burgers are here, too.
But many of the dishes are ones you won’t see at any other hotel restaurant anywhere. That lunch menu also offers a creation called the tuna tartare eggy: spicy raw tuna, fried eggs, cheddar, caper mayonnaise, and cucumber salad on multigrain bread. At dinner, one appetizer is a modern salute to good old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod. It features golden cakes of salt cod, that staple of colonists and the area’s Portuguese community, alongside baked beans smoky with pieces of pork rib.
Seared loup de mer brings the diner to New Orleans. The generous sea bass fillet offers crisp skin and moist flesh, served over rice flavored with crab, with grilled frisee and crab aioli. A tart relish of yellow tomatoes brings the dish together, a piquant note to set off the savory.
Nevins specializes in this kind of beautiful contrast. Roast duck breast with sweet potato puree would be all warm comfort if not lightened by honey yogurt and green apples. At Neptune Oyster, a vitello tonnato sandwich features roast veal and tuna tartare. Nix’s Mate presents another riff on the traditional Italian dish of chilled veal and creamy tuna sauce: lamb tonnato. Nevins grills a thick loin chop, complementing the smoky, charred meat with mild, creamy, lightly briny tuna sauce. He serves the chop over shaved asparagus that gets coated in its juices, with roasted potatoes and red grapes.
Surf and turf come together in other intriguing ways. Small meatballs are piled high with clams in red sauce, a dish that would be wonderful if the meatballs weren’t raw inside. (Meat tends to be cooked on the rare side here in general.)
And diverse flavors do not always play well together. The Harbor Island flatbread is topped with pepperoni, salami, mozzarella, leeks, and spicy fried rock shrimp. It’s meant to have tomato gravy, as well, but that is applied so lightly one can’t taste it over the pungent meats and fried seafood. Rather than adding up to some kind of odd stoned genius, this dish merely seems like two pizzas merged into one, a flatbread version of Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.”
Bucatini all’Amatriciana tastes good enough, but the pasta is overcooked and the flavors of tomato sauce, chili flakes, garlicky sausage, and bitter broccoli rabe don’t pop as much as they might. Nicely cooked salmon with pistachio pesto comes over hard, crunchy navy beans. The accompanying octopus, braised in red wine and grilled, has no flavor and an unpleasantly soft texture. The beans that accompany the salt cod fritters one night are undercooked, as well. And as multifaceted as the flavors in many dishes are, visually they can be monochromatic: brown on brown.
The dessert menu also breaks the hotel restaurant mold. Christina’s ice cream is sandwiched irresistibly between cookies, drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauce. Olive oil and sea salt make a chocolate hazelnut torte sophisticated, even if thick chunks of chestnut brittle threaten to take out your teeth. And strawberry shortcake pairs the fruit with a soft, light buttermilk biscuit and buttermilk panna cotta marred by too much gelatin.
Our server one evening talks up the bananas Foster bread pudding with toasted marshmallows, which we find too sweet and one-note. Yet her enthusiasm and friendliness are charming, and echoed by other servers on subsequent visits.
Wine and beer lists aren’t as inventive as the menus, tending toward the likes of Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Blue Moon. More thought has been put into cocktails, which aren’t always well mixed: A potion of bourbon, mint, lemon, and simple syrup one evening tastes simply like a big glass of bourbon.
Nix’s Mate isn’t perfect, but it is refreshing. It’s a hotel restaurant offering something few hotel restaurants do: bursts of wild creativity.