This retro thing may be reaching its outer limit. When Lydia Shire, the ultra-modernist of the soon-to-close Biba, took over the fading Locke-Ober (founded 1875), the premise was that it would be extremely hip to be extremely square. Shire cleaned the place up and set out to re-create the menus as she (and everyone else) remembered them. Some dishes are a little better; some are exactly as they were. Since Locke-Ober was already a relic of the Gay ’90s at the beginning of the last century, it is now a veritable museum, commanding new-millennium prices for a taste of what the dead white males ate when they were living large. Maybe John F. Kennedy sat where you’re sitting and ate what you’re eating now; maybe his grandfather, Mayor John Fitzgerald, did too. Shire has done everything possible to maintain the illusion that JFK or Honey Fitz could walk in at any moment. Moreover, all can now sit in the formerly all-male sanctum, the first-floor " Oyster Bar, " with its famous nude painting of Madame Yvonne.
Seated there on a recent weeknight, I took in the bare-filament bulbs, the elaborately carved mahogany, the polished-silver domes of the chafing dishes, the dark painted ceiling (still in need of some restoration), the leather chairs, the heavy flatware, the crested plates. I thought about how the Boston Yankees (then no contradiction) tried to preserve a world of Franco-German frippery that ended in most of the upper-class United States with World War I. They did it so well that aspiring ethnics and special-occasion parties still believed in it into the 1980s, and Lydia Shire must believe hardest of all. Her belief is so strong that it keeps Locke-Ober alive, although the evening crowd looks like they would have eaten there 40 years ago; they must be the children and grandchildren of those people.
Certainly the breadbasket has enjoyed a significant upgrade, with four kinds of hot breads: an Iggy-style fruit-nut loaf, sourdough rolls, French-bread rolls, and slices of country white. You don’t want to fill up on bread, but it’s actually less dangerous than some of the sauces.
Among the appetizers, oysters Gino ($14) show one way to upgrade — by improving the bacon and cutting back on the sauce. The four large oysters (used to be six and smaller) are still baked on salt with a Creole stuffing of crabmeat and leeks (but less of it) and a slice of bacon on top (but thicker and smokier). The grand shellfish platter ($40 for two) is superb stuff: two each of tiny raw oysters, very littleneck clams, wonderful pieces of cooked lobster, and very large shrimp, all surrounding a martini glass of crabmeat salad. But my favorite appetizer is something new in the old style, " seared diver scallop tournedos, sauce Choron " ($16). This amounts to full-flavored sea scallops, heaped on just-wilted pea tendrils, with a mild version of a difficult tomato-béarnaise sauce.
A separate salad course is a good idea, given that main dishes are not heavily garnished with vegetables. Anchovies Winter Place ($9) are the same dozen anchovies arrayed on a new-school salad of field greens with a lot of arugula. Mesclun salad with goat cheese ($10) might have made Louis Ober giggle at the foibles of the rich, eating weeds and peasant cheese. But the now-familiar dish is done very well with a rich, smooth cheese, walnuts, and greens perfectly dressed. Caesar salad ($9) used to be made tableside; now it arrives dressed with a faithfully eggy dressing full of anchovies and light on the garlic. The " Parmesan croutons, " however, are very mildly flavored.
There is almost no innovation in the main dishes, and no one is clamoring for it. The lobster Savannah ($48) is almost exactly as I remember it from the 1970s: a two-pound lobster, the meat removed from the shell, sautéed, and returned to the shell. It's nearly overpowered with sherry, although the Creole sauce used to be creamier and more plentiful. The version " en cocotte, " which added a piping of mashed potatoes instead of serving the dish in the original lobster shell, has mercifully disappeared. The two-pound grilled lobster ($48) is gently grilled, but otherwise like the baked lobster of old, stuffed with lobster meat and tomalley.
Sweetbreads Eugénie under glass ($30) benefit from wild mushrooms and prosciutto (from thick-sliced ham), but are otherwise exactly as Enrico Caruso enjoyed them — or, as in one story, went into the kitchen and made for himself. The generous pieces of sweetbread are breaded and sautéed and served with a cream sauce (but just a wisp of it). If you’re new to sweetbreads, they are the most mild and delicate of organ meats, and this isn’t a bad dish with which to try them. Calf’s liver ($25) with bacon and onions is the kind of dish Lydia Shire wanted to own Locke-Ober in order to make. She’s updated the recipe by undercooking the liver for tenderness, but she should have come up with an alternative to the Delmonico potatoes, which don’t stand up to liver at all.
Vegetables as side dishes serve about two people. The best we had was broccoli rabe with hot pepper ($6), now served chopped, following a local review that said it was hard to cut. Asparagus with hollandaise ($6) is only seven spears of giant, partly peeled asparagus, but the hollandaise sauce is excellent with grilled lobster. Pommes dauphine ($6) are fried mashed potatoes, some people’s idea of the exponentially perfect food.
The wine list is French and American and expensive, even by the glass. Wine fanciers will dote on the many vintages and single-vineyard bottles of Guigal Côte-Rôtie. A glass of Long Island cabernet franc ($15) is very well made, balancing oak and dusty fruit; I regret missing the vineyard name. Franciscan 1999 Merlot ($12) is one of the best California merlots. A relatively inexpensive pinot bianco ($8.50) is nothing special. Sparkling Saratoga water ($6) helps settle the rich food. Tea ($2.25) is correctly made in china pots, and coffee ($2.50) is very good.
Desserts, again in keeping with Locke-Ober tradition, are surprisingly plain compared to those at Biba. The Indian pudding ($7) is much lighter than I remember it, with vanilla ice cream and perhaps a hint of ginger. The Locke-Ober baked Alaska ($10) is now flamed away from the table, but in sight, and arrives as good ice cream insulated with dull cake and plain browned meringue. The dish of macaroons ($5) is a sleeper dessert, six small but serious almond cookies. A seasonal delight in the 19th-century-sandwich style, strawberry shortcake ($8) comes with whipped cream and raspberry ice cream to amplify the strawberries.
Service at the old Locke-Ober was oriented toward regulars, and required bribes for good tables and off-menu specialties. Service is now regularized and a little slow, but effective. The tables seem more crowded, but then, perhaps I am larger.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com