Chef Jasper White has been in my consciousness since long before I ever spent my own money at a restaurant that wasn't fast food or Chinese. The allure began with the radio ads that practically guaranteed you'd get laid if you took your date to Jasper's (Boston MA, long closed). Well, I never got a chance to test that promise, and probably would have failed had I did, but I put a lot of stock into the name when the first Jasper White's Summer Shack opened in Cambridge MA. This time he swung the pendulum away from fine dining and more toward family fare, with an emphasis on seafood. The motto: "Food is love."
After a handful of visits I concluded that Summer Shack was the restaurant equivalent of what is known in the NBA as a 'tweener: nominally enjoyable without breaking the bank, but you'd get a lot more enjoyment spending $20 more per person at a better restaurant or $20 less at an ethnic joint. That said, I viewed Summer Shack as a doable compromise when meeting other couples or gathering large groups: there's just enough finesse, approachability and variety in the menu to keep everybody from complaining.
Several years after my last visit to a Summer Shack, I learned that they added "barbecue" to the menu at the Dedham outpost only. I was immediately interested, if only for the curiosity factor. It turns out that the barbecue menu includes ribs that are legitimately smoked—you can see the smoker right out front—and that's it. No brisket, which probably makes sense. No pulled pork, which is more surprising, since it's not only a staple on comfort food menus nowadays but a high profit item to boot. Interestingly—and wisely—both the ribs and fried chicken are available as platters ($15 for a half rack of ribs and $14 for chicken) and by the piece ($2.50 for ribs and $3.00 for chicken). It's a good way to add them on but without commiting to them, thereby allowing more cap space and belly space to the seafood that's their alleged specialty. Good for the restaurant, good for the customer, at least in theory. That's the strategy I chose: got 'em both as appetizers and then settled in for a fish entree.
Dinner rolls and cornbread: A basket with both appears gratis, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, the rolls were standard supermarket issue and the slippery-spongy cornbread was either from an uninspired mix or a less inspired improvement attempt. Both were served cold. Food is love? Not much love (or effort) here.
Rib: These are St Louis cut pork spare ribs of medium size. The presentation is startling: single rib placed into a small pile of cole slaw. While the cole slaw was a nice bonus, the mayo making more than incidental contact with the rib was not. I liked the rib crust, which was thick and accomplished more through through slow smoking than rub, which was still noticerably bumpy. That rub didn't translate into as much flavor as expected, but smoke compensated, providing nuance without bitterness.
Texture was the most interesting. At a place like this, where the barbecue is a peripheral item, I'd expect the ribs to be oversauced and fall-off-the-bone, but neither was the case. On the contrary, this rib was a little stiff. My rib-eating buddy concluded not enough smoking time (and he likes a lot of bite left in his ribs) while I surmised that it was a not-quite-thorough reheat. Saucing was just enough to keep it moist on the surface; the interior was neither moist nor dry. I'd call the Summer Shack rib a decent effort for a non-barbecue joint but not anything I'd need to revisit anytime soon.
Fried chicken: My a la carte thigh piece was exceptionally meaty for a thigh—sometimes the concavity of the bone on the underside can make appearances deceptive—with well over an inch of meat at the thickest part. The gently crunchy batter might have been able to cook a little more, but I liked the borderline doneness and faintly greasy coating. Seasoning was very pronounced. Inside, the chicken was fully cooked and fully juicy, though the liquid was oddly watery instead of chickeny juicy. Again, not bad but not worth another trip.
Cole slaw: Rib contamination notwithstanding, this cole slaw was a pleasant surprise, presenting a homestyle version that combined creamy, spicy and crunchy.
Fish and chips: There are many more ambitious offerings on the menu, most of them healthier than another battered and fried item, but I wanted to keep it simple in keeping with the overall theme. The platter arrived with two healthy looking pieces of fish large enough to nearly cover the plate, and thick enough to make me wonder whether I could finish them. An impressive portion for a place I always considered pricey for what you got. This turned out to be a mirage—at least as far as fish was concerned. It was 80% batter surrounding the thinnest, driest, most brittle pieces possible. Instead of a pleasantly crunchy vessel, the batter provided more of a mushy (read: greasy) (and more than faintly greasy this time) foil with waffle-like texture. I liked that it was heavily seasoned, but not the seasoning. Flavor is subjective, so I'll give them a pass on that. But not the grease and batter-to-fish ratio.
Could I have sent it back? Sure. Would a replacement have been less greasy? Probably. Would it be more fish and less batter? Probably not. Would I even want to attempt eating it? Definitely not. Should I stop asking and answering my own questions? OK, I'll move on.
The "chips" part of the fish and chips were ordinary—nothing noteworthy up or down.
Considering the lack of both substance and edibility, this $19 platter had no business being any higher than $12. If food is love, I must have received the wrong order, because this tasted a lot more like hate.
The Bottom Line
No harm in giving the ribs a try, but tread lightly, order even more lightly and whatever you do, stay away from the seafood. Better yet, get a rib to go, then go somewhere else.
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