Review: First Printer

Southern success via strong statements
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  April 23, 2012
2.0 2.0 Stars

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First Printer is located on the site of the former home of Stephen Daye — reportedly the first printer in British North America — and commemorates the craft with a wall of old type cases and some framed historic newspapers. It is now a surprisingly capacious and comfortable gastropub, pitched to a younger audience with modest food prices and vast portions, financed by a mark-up on wines, draft and bottled beer, and cocktails. Indeed, with the lunch menu available all day, one could dine on single-digit dogs, burgers, and sandwiches, or spend up to $24 for rib-eye steak or seafood gumbo. The slant here is Southern comfort, with an accent on the Cajun, featuring such conversation starters as fried alligator, a buffalo burger, and wild-boar carbonara.

Although there was no vegetarian dinner entrée on the initial menu, the most voracious vegan would be satisfied with the black-bean hummus platter ($7; vegans can hold the cilantro-lime sour cream) served in a bread bowl, with grilled tofu, deep-fried flatbread "chips," and a few sticks of carrot and celery to dip into the spicy hummus. It would really be cool if black-bean hummus were jet black (as edamame hummus is green), but it comes out grayish brown.

Calamari ($9) is a big portion, and it got to the table fresh, hot, and crisp, both seafood and a lot of red and green pickled hot pepper chips. The "caperberry sabi" is a wasabi mayonnaise, with so much heat I couldn't pick up much of the pickled caperberries. PEI Mussels ($10) are done with a lot of garlic in the wine sauce, and nicely staled slices of French bread to dip. Inevitably this kind of sauce is too salty to have much of, but it's a competent bowl. Roasted Harvard beet salad ($8) is actually batons of roasted beets, some golden, some a Harvard crimson color ("Harvard beets," as a traditional recipe, are boiled in vinegar and sugar), with a bunch of greens, bits of goat cheese, and very good (in context) strips of parsnip and turnip.

A special on striped bass in April ($22) is almost always going to be the freshwater farmed hybrid breed of the fish, and not my favorite, but the kitchen here got maximum value out of a modest chunk of filet with a highly seasoned Cajun crust, a lovely mix of sautéed chard and broccoli rabe, and a heap of ordinary smashed potatoes. Another special, on seafood fra diavolo ($22), was a genuine mediocrity: overdone pasta with a tomato sauce that had not had any time to assimilate the chunks of lobster, shrimp, artichokes, or anything but red pepper. This is the low end of cheffery — you get neither the fresh delights of perfect seafood and al dente pasta, nor the slow-cooked richness of classic Italian tomato sauces. It doesn't make me optimistic about the regular-menu seafood gumbo ($24).

The wild-boar carbonara ($21), however, was a brilliant success. Here, the fresh pasta was excellent, and the creamy sauce of pepper, bits of pork belly, and smoked cheese was the stuff of dreams. The wild-boar sausage (and likely game-farm "wild," at that) had some flavor, and the crisp bacon garnish was ideal.

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