The french fries look hand cut, and when we bite into them, they’re crisp and stunning. “These are homemade!’’ exclaims someone at our table. In a glorified sub shop, you’re not expecting this. The burger ($12) is powerfully savory, as if this ground beef is the very definition of umami. Smoked miso on the bun enhances moist, sausage-y meat. Fries also accompany plump mussels ($9 and $13), presented in a tall footed Polynesian bowl decorated with dancing ladies. These mollusks are covered with a salted-crab sauce mixed with chilies, lime, and cilantro. The sauce that falls to the bottom of the bowl bathes the fries in the most wonderful, juicy seafood tastes. Even wings ($8) are exceptional, a sauce made from reduced Moxie turning them succulent. And charred baby octopus ($10), its curvy tentacles offered in a tomato-wasabi sauce, is tender and unusual.
The chef running the much talked-about dinner menu at Strip-T’s in Watertown is Tim Maslow, son of owner Paul Maslow. Tim Maslow, 27, trained at the French Culinary Institute and worked for almost six years for star New York chef David Chang, first at Momofuku, then at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Father and son wondered whether to collaborate, since business at Strip-T’s was sagging. As Tim puts it, he told his father, “We can try to make your business busier, or I can go find another restaurant.’’ Last summer, Tim joined the staff.
Strip-T’s, named for a sirloin strip and Caesar salad sandwich, was established in 1986 as a lunch place by Paul Maslow and a childhood friend. A corny logo shows a strip of sirloin dancing inside a bun. Over the years, the place has enjoyed a steady stream of Arsenal office employees (Strip-T’s is walking distance), who come for dependably good roll-ups, hot and cold sandwiches, soups, and salads. The shop also does lunchtime catering; Maslow offered an early dinner.
After he started brining turkey breast for lunch, ordered Iggy’s breads for all the sandwiches, brought in local beers from small breweries, and made a brief wine list with his girlfriend, Jee-Eun Burke, Tim Maslow settled in to concentrate on dinner.
In the 29-seat room beside the take-out at the entrance, painted black benches have no cushions and brushed aluminum chairs aren’t comfortable enough to sit on for too long. The happy, no-nonsense waitress doesn’t always pick up first course plates before she sets down the second.
On today’s menu, the fish stew cioppino ($16) includes salmon and haddock in a lightly spicy tomato-based broth that’s as good a fish dish as you’ll find in this area. Fish ’n’ chips ($16) is mahogany colored, a thick piece of haddock in a beer batter, a wild look to an ordinary dish, with a very crisp coating and tender haddock inside. Grilled salmon ($16) falls into thick pink flakes with the touch of a fork. Cauliflower in a light green curry sauce and baby bok choy garnish the plate.
Grilled skirt steak ($16) comes on micro greens, the pleasingly chewy beef marinated and served with a beautiful green chimichurri sauce. Cape bluefish ($9 and $13) is perfectly cooked, but it virtually sinks into a pool of buttery grits.
Thick flavorful cookies ($1.50 each) look a little anemic, but taste deliciously of their ingredients: chocolate chips, oatmeal and raisins, and peanut butter. A chocolate cake with white frosting ($3.50) is very sweet, with an Oreo-cookie quality.
As he plans new dishes, Tim Maslow realizes that the clientele is changing too. “Almost every single dish was not well received,’’ he says. Customers wanted the old menu back. “A week ago I started bringing in oysters,’’ says the chef. “I was afraid to buy them.’’ The first night, he sold three dozen. That might not seem like a lot, but in this little spot, it’s a great sign.
“It’s harder to change a restaurant than to open one,’’ says Maslow. He has the talent to do the hard part. And you never know: Former customers may return to discover they like fish and chips this way, and skirt steak is just as good as steak tips (of course, skirt is much, much better).
Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.