[ review ]
If you listen close, you can hear the sirens of the summer. Like Swiss trains, these harbingers of heat materialize right on time every year, spinning a hypnotic, melodic web of desire. It's starts with a whisper, so soft you don't even know it's there. Then, a seed catalog arrives in the mail, or you catch a whiff of someone barbecuing on an unseasonably warm winter night and soon, it's stuck in your head worse than "We Found Love." Summer is all you can think about.
This year, it happened for me at Stephen Starr's spiffy new seafood house, Route 6, after a server set down a metal tray of oysters on my table. Not that oysters are a particularly summery food — if you believe the quaint wisdom that modern aquaculture's rendered useless, you should only eat them in months ending in R — and not that this was the first time I've had oysters this winter. It was the whole moment that surrounded this platter of half-shells.
Me, tipping my head back to slurp down an East Beach Blonde. The bulbous Edison bulbs of the branchy chandelier above, blurring my vision as if I'd just tried to stare at the sun. The space's petrified coral and nautical doodads, fuzzy in their whitewashed curio cases. The bivalve's briny bite, crashing over me like a foamy green wave during hurricane season. Then: vinegar, shallot, lemon — acidic spark plugs on the tongue — and a bracingly clean finish. Was that ultraviolet warmth I felt on the back of my neck or just the flush of a gin-and-Lillet highball laced with grapefruit cordial?
This is what Starr does best: makes moments, as carefully calibrated as the humidity in an orchid house. This one didn't last more than a few seconds, and before I could motion to my imaginary yacht steward to fetch another cocktail, it evaporated, leaving only a deep longing for summer in its wake, the song winding through my ear canals like a florid subtropical vine.
Summer, I want you bad. But a fresh seafood dinner at Route 6 will tide me over for now. The sprawling restaurant, named for the highway that runs through Cape Cod, pulls inspiration from all up and down the Eastern seaboard. "Maine to Maryland," as Chicago-born chef Anthony DiRienzo, a vet of Michael Mina's restaurants, puts it. But my biased eyes saw only good old Jersey, a raw bar as lively as the one tucked in the back of Steve & Cookie's in Margate, shuckers with the studied precision of the crones at Dock's in Atlantic City, chowders like Smitty's in Somers Point. Massive loft windows lining the outer dining room look out on Broad Street, not the ocean, but the interiors are so exquisitely boho-by-the-sea (wide-plank floors, subway tile, lobster traps) it's hard to even notice.
DiRienzo holds up his end of the bargain with joyful interpretations of "classic dishes of the East Coast fish house." After those oysters — the tray also held Kusshis and Beau Soleils, which I ordered by marking the table's raw-bar card with a mini-golf pencil — came chilled Gulf shrimp, poached in grapefruit and chili and served with fruity Meyer lemon cocktail sauce. Easy-spreadin' butter double-doctored with whiskey (a slug of Booker's and a swirl of BLiS brand maple syrup, aged in bourbon barrels) took the soufflé-like johnnycakes to another level of addictiveness. The house-baked oyster crackers had a cheddar-y way about them and were lighter on the teeth than the jawbreakers we're used to seeing.
Lobster comes chilled, steamed, wood-grilled, in a bake with mussels, clams, sausage and veg, or my favorite way — chicken-fried. This starter features tails only, three two-ounce strips marinated in hot sauce and buttermilk, dredged in flour and flash-fried till crisp and tan. They look like chicken fingers but certainly didn't taste like them.
At $20, the tails are pricey. Actually, just about everything at Route 6 is, with the exception of the $35 three-course lobster dinner DiRienzo ran during Restaurant Week, which I almost ordered instead of cold-smoked cod. Glad I stuck with the latter; finished in the wood-burning oven, the applewood-scented specimen arrived in a cast-iron pan, brown around the edges and moist in the middle, attended by plump mussels and a vivid tomato-and-shellfish broth spiked with pickled chilies. Seared scallops and squid in a tangy Meyer lemon clam broth made solid, if somewhat unimaginative, backups.
Overall, I don't have any real complaints about the food at Route 6. The prices could come down, but let's face it, that's not happening, so at least the cooking mostly supports what's being charged. My biggest gripe is a service-oriented one, and it's got nothing to do with my waiter, a friendly, enthusiastic guy as sharp as horseradish.
About halfway through dinner, I was made as a critic by management, resulting in an oil spill of unwelcome attention. Out of nowhere, extra bodies began appearing at the table. Water-bearers stalked. Managers talked. And talked. I don't care if Renee Chenault-Fattah likes the chicken-fried lobster tails, too. Scram, dude.
My dinner date could see staff behind us, huddled in a corner of the dining room. "They're definitely talking about us," she observed between sips of Route 6's house beer, a taut rye ESB from White Birch Brewing. In a recent interview, Starr said his restaurants have a very specific way of handling critics when they're recognized. I hope to God this isn't it, a display that culminated with a grandiose farewell, as if we were first-class passengers disembarking the RMS Carpathia.
I'd sooner depart with the memory of Starr pastry queen Vita Shanley's desserts, a toasty coconut custard pie and glorious bread pudding, made with brioche from Parc, studded with chocolate chunks and topped with banana ice cream. The flavor combination brought to mind fudge-banana-fudge pops from the Jersey fai's ageless, tireless ice cream men. I can't wait to see them, though I have a feeling I'll be seeing Route 6 again first. I'll just have to figure out a way to not come as myself.
Route 6 | 600 N. Broad St., 215-391-4600, route6restaurant.com. Dinner served Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Raw bar, $2-$75; appetizers, $7-$20; entrées, $14-$27; dessert, $7.