One minute ago none of this was here. The metal and glass geometry, the luxury condos, the restaurant upon restaurant. The speed with which the Seaport rose up makes it hard to ignore how quickly it — us, civilization, everything that seems comfortable and enduring — might come down. One can imagine our successors, millennia from now, deciphering our primitive tongue and extracting meaning from what we found important enough to fashion into signs: Ocean Prime, Blue Mercury. These people longed for something elemental and deep, and instead beside the water they built shiny surfaces of neon and steel.
I miss the days when this neighborhood was desolate and you could pull right into a parking spot and go buy a lobster from a guy. When the ICA arrived and we started talking “Innovation District,” it seemed for a minute we might make something really interesting: a 21st-century souk, an extension of the artists’ community in Fort Point, a textured mixed-use haven for outside-the-lines thought and the kind of commerce that caters to and encourages it. Well, there are different kinds of vision, different kinds of gain, and different timelines and definitions for success. There are also only so many opportunities a city has to remake a neighborhood, never mind one right on the water. The Seaport we have is the Seaport we deserve, for better and worse.
It is an oasis of safety, familiarity, gloss — an outdoor arena that lets visitors from elsewhere feel both at home and like they are in the (big, exciting) city. There are trees festooned with twinkling white lights, parking lots, upscale chain restaurants. There is so little here that’s purely practical, the CVS seems like a miracle. Maybe all good cities go this way. Maybe I’m naive. (I miss pre-Giuliani Times Square. I’m not saying I’m right.) People come to the Seaport and have a great time. I don’t want to rain on that parade. But if the neighborhood has plenty for those who don’t live in Boston, what does it offer those who do?
Perhaps it is precisely that feeling of being anywhere and nowhere, an anonymous moment in a small city where who you know and where you come from eternally define you. Roving the Seaport offers the same drifting feeling you can get alone in an airport on a layover. Here you are a tourist in your own town. You’re free, for a few hours, to be whoever you want.
No corner better exemplifies this than Fan Pier Boulevard and Liberty Drive. The building is occupied by two restaurants — LoLa 42 and Mastro’s Ocean Club — that no one who lives here seems aware of, but that are always full. Both opened late last spring.
At LoLa 42, you are often the uninvited guest at someone’s bachelorette or birthday party, or the oddball among post-J.Crew professionals waiting for Figawi to roll back around. This is an offshoot of Nantucket mainstay LoLa 41, and it replicates that restaurant’s so-random-it-works combination of American comfort food and sushi. LoLa serves food found along the 42nd parallel north of the equator, but don’t come expecting Uzbekistan. The menu homes in on the US and Japan, with touches of Italy, China, and Korea.
That’s not the disaster it could be. This is not a place for sushi snobs, but LoLa 42 does a good job with the kind of rolls that tend to include “tempura crunchies” (even if said crunchies sometimes seem more like tooth-breakies). The Anata roll features rice and seaweed wrapped up with spicy tuna, cucumber, scallion, tempura flakes, and shiso, topped with tuna and wasabi aioli, spiked with spicy sriracha and togarashi. Shiso — the herb is called perilla in English — has the most wonderful taste, like anise, mint, basil, and apple all in one leaf. Its flavor stands out and lifts the roll above generic territory. The Green Light roll features spicy toro, shiso, and green apple; it’s topped with kiwi, ponzu, and lime zest. It sounds like a crazy medley, but it reads on the palate as fresh.
The rest of the menu ranges from goopy crab rangoon to macaroni and cheese to a falling-apart pan-roasted cod fillet with parsnip-potato puree, Swiss chard, and roasted sweet potato. It’s an incoherent assortment, but it has pleasant surprises, namely in the form of gussied-up takeaway. A coconut-based curry with scallops, shrimp, and vegetables over rice is a fancy version of what’s served at your neighborhood Thai place; lobster fried rice escapes from the white carton to the white china plate. Both are satisfying, but if you’re going to come here, let it be for sushi and burgers: That’s the power move at LoLa 42. The LoLa burger, with cheddar, onion compote, and foie gras sauce, is served on an English muffin, a high-low enjoyment with a side of fries (also available with truffle oil or foie gras gravy). A tuna burger with wasabi mayo and soy-ginger sauce is also worth a nod.
Dessert? Nobody will mention it if you don’t ask. So don’t ask.
What LoLa 42 really (really) needs is strong, well-made cocktails. Instead, it has fruity, unbalanced, weak ones. Service is luck of the draw — one evening an attentive sweetheart, another an awkward fellow who needs constant prompting. Photos of naked women on display skew more toward soft porn than art. When you’re seated beneath a striking image of a (clothed) geisha in a subway station, and someone in your party asks for tea and gets a blank stare in return, you know what kind of sushi restaurant you’re in.
The main difference between LoLa 42 and 41 is that here you’re at the water’s edge, not on an island. When you note that the lobster fried rice is $39, the burger $22, and the rolls in the low $20s each, you might remember other neighborhoods are just an Uber ride away.
If you really want to splash out, though, round the corner to Mastro’s Ocean Club. The name is perfect for the place, evoking a swank steakhouse in another decade. Is it the ’50s? The ’80s? It depends on the night. There’s always live music. A guy who could be a Sinatra impersonator is drinking at the bar beside a guy who could be a Flavor Flav impersonator. The tables are filled with dressed-up celebrants and expense-account wielders. A recent Globe Spotlight series on racism called out the Seaport for being one of the city’s whitest neighborhoods; it’s worth noting Mastro’s has one of the most diverse clientele I’ve ever seen in this town.
Mastro’s is part of a steakhouse chain that got its start in Scottsdale, Ariz., and has branches in eight states plus D.C. Shrimp cocktail with excellently intense horseradish arrives in a cloud of smoke from dry ice. Tuna is a star — both in ahi tuna tostadas, crisp chips topped with raw fish, avocado, sesame, and a soy drizzle, and a main course of bigeye tuna. It’s served sashimi-style, in thin slices just seared at the edges, on a bed of julienned vegetables: fish for the steak lover.
The steaks themselves are less impressive. A 6-ounce petite filet ($45) is tender but not flavorful, about what I’d expect from the cut. But an 18-ounce bone-in Kansas City strip ($62) is much more bland than beefy. One could always order the Japanese A5 wagyu, which starts at $150. Otherwise, for the price, you can get a better-seasoned, better-tasting steak at plenty of places around town.
What you can’t get so easily is better service. This is where Mastro’s excels, from the bartender who treats you like a regular the first time you visit to the ace Charlestown-bred server who knows the menu forward and back but can’t stop marveling at the “good-size portions” you’ll find. When’s the last time you had tableside martini service? A server promises to return to pour the rest of your drink soon, using the soothing tone of a massage therapist at the end of a session.
Plus, the sides are decadent, from lobster-laden mashed potatoes to excellent crab and black truffle gnocchi. (You can order a half-side, which will be ample. Good-size portions!) Cocktails are the opposite of those at LoLa 42: swiftly inebriating, composed largely of booze. (They should be. They routinely cost $22, and the wine list has plenty of high-end bottles to match.) You can see the water out the window, and there’s a bonfire burning against the night sky. It’s easy to forget the lackluster crab cakes, limp chopped salad, and oddly artificial-tasting butter cake for dessert.
In this accelerated neighborhood, restaurants sometimes escape scrutiny. They arrive so rapidly, in such numbers. There’s a certain sameness: that familiarity, that gloss. We still need to pay attention. What will happen to these spaces when, inevitably, some of these businesses fail? In Boston, where history is a main character, the upstart Seaport can feel like a goofy plot device. Yet it’s one that is moving the city’s story forward.
22 Liberty Drive, Seaport District, Boston, 617-951-4002, www.lola42.com. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $7-$21. Entrees $22-$42. Sushi rolls $18-$24. Desserts $11.
Hours Daily 11:30-2 a.m.
Noise level Conversation possible over occasionally loud music.
What to order Anata roll, Green Light roll, LoLa burger, scallop and shrimp with coconut curry, lobster fried rice.
MASTRO’S OCEAN CLUB
25 Fan Pier Boulevard, Seaport District, Boston, 617-530-1925, www.mastrosrestaurants.com. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $12-$35. Entrees $36-$200. Sides $13-$38. Desserts $11-$16.
Hours Sun 5-10 p.m., Mon-Sat 5-11 p.m. (Lounge daily 4 p.m. to close.)
Noise level Conversation easy unless seated beside particularly enthusiastic lounge act.
What to order Shrimp cocktail, ahi tuna tostada, bigeye tuna sashimi style, crab and truffle gnocchi.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★ Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.