Boathouse On the Bay: Deja Ocean View
"I feel like I've been here before," I said to my date even though I knew I hadn't. This was Boathouse On the Bay, which used to be McKenna's On the Bay, and I'd never eaten at McKenna's before one of its owners passed away earlier this year, and the restaurant closed abruptly after more than a decade at Long Beach's Alamitos Bay Landing. What I meant was it felt like so many other notable American seafood restaurants I'd been to in the past decade. There was that Legal Seafoods I tried in Boston. And at Seattle's waterfront, Elliot's Oyster House and Ivar's.
Boathouse On the Bay could've been a dead ringer for them. Besides being located dockside, next to a lapping ocean and anchored boats swaying in the current, it's as though Boathouse followed the same floor plan and interior-design scheme as the others. Along the back wall of the restaurant, there's a trench-like kitchen gilded in brass that stretches on for a mile. Parallel to this is a sparsely lit dining room composed almost entirely of dark wood, with all of the booths lined up so that no matter where you sit, you get the same view of the water as the person across the table.
Like my visits to those other restaurants, I came knowing I'd be starting with a thick-as-sludge clam chowder, then slurping some cold oysters while deciding if I wanted to go broke by ordering the lobster—it's as overpriced here as it was in Boston and Seattle. But there were other predictable constants, too. A half-loaf dome of sourdough bread came out fuming—so hot the butter I slathered on turned instantly to foam. There's also the dutiful cylinder of Hawaiian tuna poke with avocado and cucumber that's supposed to be scooped up with fried wonton chips, as it always is.
What I didn't expect was the sushi. Unlike its doppelgangers, Boathouse On the Bay offered a separate list of sushi rolls with names such as "Hot Mama" and "Heart Attack." A soy paper-wrapped "Ceviche Roll" with seared tuna, yellowtail, crab and salmon kind of resembled a burrito even before it was garnished with spoonfuls of pico de gallo. I saw nothing like it in Seattle's nor Boston's seafood restaurants. But Boathouse does sushi because its predecessor also did sushi. It's one of the things the new owners kept around from McKenna's in a don't-fix-what-ain't-broke reincarnation. I heard it even rehired the same staff. One night, I saw a local painting class take over a whole banquet room, something it had been doing since the place was McKenna's.
Comparing Boathouse's menu with the cached Internet copies of McKenna's, I also noticed it kept the crudo. I can't be sure if the old place did it exactly as Boathouse does today. If it did, it wouldn't be crudo by definition. The yellowtail wasn't sliced paper-thin, but rather into thick, beveled cuts that suggested they're the same slices used for the nigiri. On the plate, each piece leaned on the next, the row of flesh-colored morsels doused in a jalapeño-ponzu sauce—a spicy-tart, chunky dressing that burned as though a diluted Indonesian sambal.
A smoked-fish plate was another holdover from the old menu, and what looked like the same roster of steaks and chops was also still around. But a pan-roasted crab cake we ordered seemed updated. Instead of McKenna's grapefruit sauce, Boathouse's version featured a red paste of romesco smeared beneath the crisp-crusted crab hockey pucks and a roasted corn salsa to nibble between bites.
And for a main course, Boathouse still cooked barramundi and Chilean sea bass. The latter was miso-glazed, as it was before, the fish cooked precisely, with caramelized edges and a flesh exhibiting the concentrated sweetness of a thousand crabs. The fish was so moist it melded with the creamy texture of the mashed potatoes below; I couldn't tell where the sea bass ended and the starch began. As it did at McKenna's, a moat of crab-tomato broth surrounded the mound. This time, though, the dish included a mixed-bean succotash featuring the squeaky-crunch of Chinese long beans, a personal favorite that I wish more restaurants dared to use.
A black spaghetti McKenna's previously offered was now upgraded to a full-on squid-ink pappardelle, a go-for-broke dish with tape-wide belts of jet blackness that's actually the best way to eat lobster here. It was covered in a ragout that featured generous bits of the costly shellfish, the mountain crowned with a dollop of salmon roe. The whole thing ate like a bizarre, delicious noodle dish from another planet. The loyal customers of McKenna's may have never seen anything like it, even if they know they've been here before.
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