TRADE SECRETS The short rib — served with Jerusalem artichokes and peeled sections of orange — falls off the bone, and the fried oysters (background) are flawless.
What works at Trade is the hard part: transforming a difficult industrial space on a street without foot traffic or parking into a lively dining room that lightly alludes to the mercantile past of Boston's Waterfront area, and invites the chatter of the marketplace. What is still a work in progress is something I expected a Jody Adams partnership to handle more easily: the food. The menu seems to be chasing around notions of being a neighborhood spot, presenting big culinary ideas, seeming business-casual, and appealing to the deliberate tourist, without quite catching any one of them.
On one hand, you have a small plate of pomegranate-glazed eggplant ($8), like a perfect purple truncated cone with sharpened flavor and the crunch of pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. But then you have an entrée of "local grilled lobster with pickled-artichoke aioli" ($31) — I am not exaggerating a word — which doesn't taste grilled, doesn't taste like artichoke, and doesn't even taste much like lobster because it has so much mayonnaise glopped on it.
They don't charge for bread — that's something. But they don't put out bread, either, and that's something else. My favorite appetizer was a side dish, Brussels sprouts with Aleppo pepper and nuts ($7), in part because both the pepper and the nuts were worked into an excellent romesco sauce. If my eye is still good, a whole iron pot of the dish has five or six large, fresh sprouts, each cut into two or three pieces.
A special on razor clams ($12) was pretty special: superb winter shellfish with a lively sauce/topping, but with just three clams. Fried oysters ($12)? There are maybe six of those, and flawless, on a cute section of buckwheat waffle. Grilled calamari ($10) wasn't so grilled. It was more like a bean salad with borlotti beans— some thoroughly cooked, some al dente (the dread indigestible "gringo beans") — with fried squid as decoration on top. Another great appetizer disguised as side dish, "sautéed local greens with chili flakes and garlic" ($6), might be chard, might be charred greens with a hint of chili, might be escarole.
Clam chowder ($11) has clams, slightly underdone slices of fingerling potato, and little bits of crisp pancetta. It has cream to make you weep. What it doesn't seem to have is a broth that tastes like seafood.
A perfect illustration of Trade's menu issues would be the braised short rib ($27). It is a rib, slow-cooked to fall off the bone, served with Jerusalem artichokes and peeled sections of orange. Home cooked, this would be really great. Chef-designed, the beef is great but the artichokes and oranges have been cooked separately, and there isn't enough gravy, and thus no stew effect.
A large plate that does work is "seared half chicken with burnt orange, dates, pistachios, and quinoa" ($24). Quinoa is almost as a good as rice, and this chicken has herbs and seasonings worked in under the skin. It's wonderfully crisped, maybe with the brick thing, and it's good. A soup that works is mushroom with tofu and bean sprouts ($10), which defies hippy-dippy connotations and goes all comfort food on you.