Scampo, a new addition to the Liberty Hotel on Cambridge St. adjacent to MGH, is the much-hyped venture of chef Lydia Shire of Locke Ober, touted for “pushing the envelope and creating an unrivaled culinary experience”. I think I’d agree with that, though most likely not for the same reasons as the public relations staff at the Liberty.
Our meal started off on a troublesome note. A flat, stable surface is something I take for granted when eating out. The ability to place a limb or digit on a table as I please, unencumbered by the thought of possibly dumping wine on Liz’s or my own lap, is a luxury I have come to expect. A wobbly table hinders this ability. We brought it to the waiter’s attention and he kindly tried to fix it, failed, and then departed.
Moving on. The aesthetic. Tasteful decor, no doubt, but the atmosphere is quite bizarre. Being the primary restaurant in a large hotel, Scampo gets the foot traffic from the Liberty’s guests, but the vibe is trendy and chic. This resulted in several babies in high chairs alongside a flock of late twenties to early thirties singles and aspiring couples. The presence of those in possession of, and those in desperate search for, a happy family was an amusing contrast for me, possibly an uncomfortable situation for those involved, and no doubt a contributing factor to what seems to be an identity crisis at Scampo.
The menu. A tad difficult to navigate visually. Breads line the top (all of which you have to pay for) and we were told by our waiter that “the elephant’s ear” bread was the most popular selection – who are we to fight the voice of the people. Our order was delivered in a timely fashion and with a dilligence and courtesy that defined the waitstaff throughout the night. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how to define the “elephant’s ear bread”. “What the fuck is that” I whispered to Liz as I saw a hulking monstrosity approach us from the distance – not yet knowing that I would soon be challenged with the task of eating it. A thin crispy bell curve of seasoned bread topped with a generous amount of tomato sauce and cheese standing at approximately 8 inches in height was placed between us. Liz maintains that my clumsy hands account for my inability to rip off (and you must rip off) a piece of the structure without spraying tomato sauce across the table and myself, but I can’t help wondering that it might have something to do with the fact that my bread is in a friggin’ crispy bell curve. I’m sorry, but once conceptual creativity intrudes so flagrantly on functionality then it starts to lose its appeal for me. Particularly with bread where elegance often comes from simplicity.
Onto the food. The homemade mozzarella was very good indeed, making a simple caprese the hands down highlight of the night. The rest of the dishes, however, were a mixed bag, again primarily suffering from conceptual rather than technical flaws. The lamb pizza sounded great, looked great, but tasted like a middle school taco. It wasn’t a problem of execution (the crust was nice, the lamb was well-cooked), but rather the seasoning that screamed for a dollop of sour cream and a developing case of acne. The hazelnut risotto with crispy sweetbreads showcased that the cook knew how to handle all the ingredients (risotto and sweetbreads were cooked very well), but something got lost in their translation to the final dish. Hazelnut risotto just isn’t that good. And putting sweetbreads on top of it makes me happy because I like sweetbreads but it doesn’t create an interesting or unique combination of flavors. The quail exemplified this point. I will give short shrift to the fact that Liz had her first experience sending something back to the kitchen as our first order was raw since I can totally forgive mistakes like that. What I can’t forgive is thinking hard about and then following through on something like: “You know what would really be good with this quail? A sultana zabaglione”. No. The sultana zabaglione was really really tasty, but not with a bbq quail where it just totally overpowers everything. The quail alone (or with the pan juices that it was served on top of) was excellent! A nice charred flavor on a delicate and naturally sweet meat. Add a touch of the golden raisin zabaglione and you have golden raisin zabaglione on something that may as well be a baked family pack of purdue chicken thighs. Again, there’s talent in the kitchen, it’s just not being put to great use. Finally, the reason we went to Scampo was for the suckling pig special on Friday nights. I would climb slippery mountains for suckling pig. Scampo’s version was good, but I can’t be trusted to judge. As far as I’m concerned you could hold a bic flame under a baby pig for a couple hours and I would eat it up like candy.
All in all, Scampo was overpriced for what it was. BUT that’s not to say that it can’t evolve. As I said, the execution on all the dishes was strong, it’s just a matter of tweaking their concepts a bit to get the right flavors on the plate. If they change up their menu then I would try it again. If you go, get something with mozzarella, the suckling pig on Fridays, and avoid the elephant’s ear at all costs.