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On a Roll

A contemporary fish shack drops anchor in Over-the-Rhine.

The answer was firm: “Twenty-seven dollars. It’s awesome. And award-winning.” A moment of silence was followed by the server shifting her weight from one foot to the other and furtively glancing away from the table. Was it impatience or uncertainty? Surely both—an acknowledgement that $27 is quite a lot for a sandwich, but you either want it or you don’t. Our question had been motivated by the “market price” listing on the menu: How much is the lobster roll? We ordered it.

Derek Dos Anjos mentioned it twice in a phone conversation as well—the lobster roll on his menu is award-winning. Clarification: Not this particular lobster roll. His four-month-old restaurant, The Anchor, hasn’t been open long enough to start racking up awards. But his is a lobster roll with a bloodline that can be traced back to Pearl Oyster Bar in New York City’s West Village.

That’s where Dos Anjos showed up in 1997, hoping to be hired. Rebecca Charles and Mary Redding, the co-owners, brought him on board. The two are roundly given credit for introducing the famous seaside sandwich to Manhattanites. Inasmuch as New York City is less than a few hours’ drive from dozens, if not hundreds, of New England fish shacks, it’s a curious endorsement. But a Manhattan fish shack was indeed a pioneering concept at the time, and Pearl Oyster Bar’s lobster roll received a slew of accolades from the food writers of major publications such as Gourmet and New York.

Three years later, a bona fide lobster roll rivalry was launched when Redding left Pearl Oyster Bar over an ownership dispute and—in an infamously defiant move—opened Mary’s Fish Camp, with a nearly identical menu, mere blocks from Pearl’s. Dos Anjos decamped with Redding. Claw-fights ensued about whose was the best. Mary’s mayo is more seasoned; Pearl’s uses less. Pearl’s bun has the right toast; Mary’s has more butter. And so it went.

In 2005, Dos Anjos partnered with Redding to take fish shack fare across the river to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, spawning Brooklyn Fish Camp. With the same menu—and the sanctified sandwich to lead the parade—Brooklyn Fish Camp landed Best New Brooklyn Restaurant from Time Out New York and is still riding the wave. In 2011, Dos Anjos returned to Ohio (he’s from Wilmington and worked the Cincinnati restaurant circuit in the early ’90s) and began laying the plans for his own fish camp.

 

Initially, Dos Anjos had his eye on Northside until he and his wife Jocelyn dined at A Tavola in Over-the-Rhine. The energy of the neighborhood reminded them of Brooklyn; the two-hour wait convinced them it was the right location.

The Anchor’s 2,100 square feet has a warm neighborhood ambience, and like most of the businesses being developed in Over-the-Rhine, gives prominence to both the historic significance of the building and the urban setting. That means lots of exposed brick, hardwood, and tile, and a minimal use of textiles. 

The side effect of The Anchor’s rustic urban minimalism is the painfully loud decibel level—particularly in the small dining room to the right of the bar. The dining room on the left consists of a center row of booths that seat eight (which, like much of the restaurant’s seating arrangements, are often sat communally) and seems to weather the volume produced by a full capacity room better. The best seats in the house are on the seasonal outdoor porch that runs the length of the building on the 14th Street side. While it’s not quite the picnic table and boat-mooring ambience of the New England shack style I’m familiar with, a dozen of The Anchor’s oysters should taste just as sweet there.

The oysters are an example of what The Anchor does best: serve thoughtfully prepared, unfussy food, from a streamlined menu. That doesn’t mean it all hits the palate memorably. With the menu DNA derived from both Brooklyn and Mary’s Fish Camp, my reaction to The Anchor’s food is similar to my reaction to its tiny West Village mother: I love the uncomplicated style, but I’m not on board with the foodiacs who throw superlatives at the entire menu.

The exception is the oysters. Icy and pristine, sweet and briny, great oysters owe most of their flavor to their microclimate. Dos Anjos offers the best of a rotating selection hand-cultivated from both the East and West Coasts: buttery Island Creek (Massachusetts and Rhode Island), salty Wellfleet (Massachusetts), Chef’s Creek (Puget Sound), the cucumbery finish of Denman Island (British Columbia), and the sweet and fruity Kumamoto (Puget Sound) are just a few of the varieties he procures. He serves them (upwards of 350 on a weekend night) with lemon wedges, freshly grated horseradish, and mignonette and cocktail sauces. Save the latter for poorer quality mollusks—great oysters need but a squeeze of lemon and a thread of horseradish before they slide over the tongue.

Dos Anjos is sourcing his fish from Bluefin Seafoods in Louisville, which means fish from mostly sustainable sources—skate, bronzini, dorade, golden tile—are shipped and received daily. Whole fish of the day is offered grilled, fried, or Thai style (topped with a refreshing salad of mango, red onions, cashews, Thai chiles, basil, mint, and cilantro) and expertly deboned tableside. I also recommend the fried smelts, crunchy salt shrimp with celery root slaw, New Zealand cockles with garlicky white beans, and a lovely, palate-cleansing chopped raw kale salad.

And then there are those dishes that simply do not float my boat. The bouillabaisse brims with pretty shellfish, but the saffron broth lacked depth and was woefully underseasoned. Same holds true for the clam chowder, silky with real cream and studded with potato—but I couldn’t find one clam. We also missed the crunch and smoke of bacon on the trout BLT, understanding that the “B” stood for bacon mayonnaise (it was nearly undetectable), and the lobster pot pie was thick, pasty, and light on the lobster.

But let’s get back to the $27 lobster roll. I confess to being in the camp that considers only one true lobster roll: the Connecticut style, a combination of room temperature tail, claw, and knuckle meat buttered and heaped into a buttered and toasted bun, served with a thatch of crisp fries. I realize it sounds like a Paula Deen orgy, but if you know it, you too have been delivered from darkness. One of these—typically with a pound or more of lobster—costs about $15 in shacks up and down the coast. The mayonnaise style, as served at The Anchor (and the award-winning roll from the Fish Camp family in NYC), is what we refer to as lobster salad on a bun. It can be darn good as well.

But fish is not as forgiving as meat. It needs to be cooked properly, and seasoned properly. Claw and knuckle meat should be present, and only enough mayo to hold the meat together. No clutter. I simply did not find any of those qualities on The Anchor roll. The bun (Pepperidge Farm, a good choice) was barely toasted and buttered; the meat consisted only of the chewier tail and was swaddled in too much mayonnaise, hiding the distinctive lobster quality. It’s $3 less than its New York City sibling, with less flavor. And yes, it’s compelling, but not as it rolls. At $27, I don’t see it winning any awards from Cincinnatians.

The Anchor, 1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-8111

Originally published in the January 2013 issue.