By Land or by Sea
Driveworthy: Mass Street Fish House & Raw Bar brings seaside eating to Lawrence.
There's this prevalent misconception about seafood in the Midwest: You might find it, but it won’t be good.
I get it: We're landlocked. Yes, of course, Olympia oysters will taste better if you order them from a seaside restaurant in Puget Sound. Just like croissants will taste better in Paris, Neapolitan pizza will taste better in Naples — and no one, nowhere will do barbecue better than Kansas City. But let's not disdain the miracle of modern shipping, which has made seafood in the Midwest a real — and very delicious — dinner option.
This increasingly popular trend is one the owners of Mass Street Fish House and Raw Bar in Lawrence, Kansas, are willing to stake their reputations on. They seem to be up for it: proprietor Ayrick Madeira, front-of-house manager Ryan Gaines and bar manager Laura Klein met and worked together in the Lawrence food scene. Along with executive chef Kealan O’Boyle, they understand they might encounter a few skeptics.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” admits O’Boyle, “but it’s also crazy what transportation is like these days. One of the oyster farms we go through in Seattle, for example — they overnight us two different types of oysters multiple times a week. They can harvest in the early hours of the morning, and less than 24 hours later, I’m holding them in my hands — straight from the beaches on the Washington coast.”
It’s an impressive transaction — and it translates into a lot of shipments. Mass Street Fish House goes through a minimum of 2,000 oysters a week, O’Boyle says. They receive fish five times a week from Northeast Seafood, a Denver-based distributor which is also the main provider for Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar in Kansas City. On any given night, the raw bar is offering at least half a dozen types of oysters. On a busy Saturday night when I stopped in, there were four East Coast and seven West Coast to choose from.
The offerings will likely look much different on Sunday, the only day deliveries don’t come in. Mass Street Fish House keeps an intentionally low inventory thanks to its shipment schedule, so without being restocked, Sunday night diners run the risk of encountering a menu where several dishes are unavailable.
Whatever night you end up at Mass Street Fish House, try to squeeze in at the raw bar — there is no better seat in the house than the one where you can watch the shucker in action. The restaurant has three levels, including a second-floor space overlooking the restaurant and a cozy, romantic basement dugout, but if you can snag a stool in front of Zyle and the few square feet he calls home during his shucking shift, you’ll have a clear view of his hands deftly working over your order.
Oysters are like wine vintages: They’re affected as much by the ocean and the weather as a vineyard is affected by the dirt and the climate. Heavy rains mean a less brine-y oyster; light rains mean the oyster will be packed with salt. Frequent guests at the 3-month-old Mass Street Fish House know that, because they can tell the shifting flavor profiles of the oysters. What they can also always count on are immaculately cleaned oysters; the owners seem to know that a surefire way to ruin the one-slurp bite is to have it interrupted with shell and sand, and at Mass Street, the shells are buffed.
Prices on the oysters range from $2 to $5 each, but the pros will go for the raw bar platter: For $28, you’ll get two East and two West Coast oysters, plus a half pound of chilled snow crab and a half pound of peel-and-eat shrimp thoroughly coated in Old Bay seasoning and sea salt. It’s a glorious, eye-filling platter that will absolutely win over any raw bar skeptics — and, as Mass Street Fish House has proven, it will win over regulars, too.
If you can manage to move past the raw bar menu — and, to be fair, it might require a second visit for you to do so — you’ll find that the menu at Mass Street Fish House has something to offer just about everyone at just about any price point. O’Boyle, a Lenexa native, is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and has lived and worked in restaurants in Chicago, Austin and Massachusetts; he pulls inspiration for his dishes broadly from his experience, but in particular, from his time in New England. If you are stunned by indecision when facing your options, anything designated from that area is a safe bet.
To that point, the jumbo lump Maryland crab cakes ($18) are a must-have. There are no bread crumbs or Panko in these plump, palm-sized rounds — just a bit of cornstarch to help keep the mass of crab together with finely chopped onions and celery. Two crab cakes are plated with a thick slab of avocado, a pickled vegetable remoulade — which I wouldn’t have minded a little more of — and tomato confit. Everyone loves a good crab cake, but not everyone has the luxury of enjoying really good crab cakes — and these are truly delightful. There is no chance of feeling jilted by them, either: The ratio must be 90 percent crab, 10 percent other stuff.
The shareable grilled baby octopus ($15) was a table favorite. Thank goodness for the slow braise of orange juice and thyme, which infused these bite-sized pieces with plenty of flavor before they met their fate on the grill. Mass Street Fish House has been fitted into the former Bigg’s BBQ space, and O’Boyle pays homage to this in a few sly ways throughout his menu — most notably in his utilization of a smoker. For the octopus appetizer, that means there’s the added benefit of a smoked tomato sofrito.
Another highlight: the lobster bisque ($7). O’Boyle is generous with his lobster, and the sweet meat was the star of this viscous, creamy soup. I didn’t mind the hit of sherry, either, which played nicely with the hearty chunks of lobster, nor the creme fraiche brightening up each bite.
“We get live lobsters in three times a week,” O’Boyle says. “Before we opened, we tried a recipe of frozen claw meat and tails, but it just wasn’t the same — so we eliminated the middle man. It lets us control the product more. We can humanely kill the lobsters and extract all the lobster flavor from the claws and tail — and the lobster roe that comes with it.”
Entrees are varied, but all — save for a roasted cast-iron chicken ($20) — are of the seafood persuasion. There are the usual greatest hits lined up: Wild Isle salmon with asparagus and beets ($24), pan-seared Ahi tuna steak ($34) and baked lobster mac and cheese ($18). For the first iteration of Mass Street Fish House’s menu, it seems O’Boyle has played it a little safe — but there’s a good deal to like about the classics.
The pork and scallops ($29) are one of the more inventive options: three beautiful, plump Hokkaido scallops are seared and arranged with fat cubes of pork belly and lightly sauteed oyster mushrooms. A mushroom jus and butternut squash puree are artfully dripped around the plate. All these flavors are married beautifully, the particular sweet and buttery profile of the scallop a perfect match for the earthy nuttiness of the mushrooms. This dish made me sit up a little straighter: because the flavors can shift with every bite, they demand your full attention.
We also opted for the more traditional surf-and-turf entree: a grilled 8-ounce filet mignon with a 12-ounce lobster tail ($59). There’s something to be said for tried-and-true combinations, and this dish proves that some things never go out of style. I ignored the bundle of grilled asparagus that was served with this meal — a new version of this dish features mashed potatoes instead. The steak was grilled the old-fashioned way, with just the right amount of salt and for just as long as it needed to be, and it was covered in a bearnaise sauce that tasted like bearnaise should. The lobster tail — a neon-bright, proud thing — was served in all its glory on another plate, with a full bowl of hot butter beside it. This dish will take you to a safe place. (It should be noted that the menu suggested — perhaps because of the high price — that this dish could be shared between two people. To that I say: Sharing is not always caring.)
Mass Street Fish House’s fish and chips have gotten a fair amount of attention, and with good reason: for $14, you’ll receive an entree worthy of any seaside English pub. Six-ounce fillets of fresh Atlantic cod are coated in a batter made with Free State Copperhead Pale Ale, which imbued a pleasantly smoky flavor. Not everyone at the table was a fan of the smashed and fried potato florets that substituted for the traditional french fries — at least not at first. After we had recovered from the lack of “true” chips, we relished the heftiness of the florets and the weight they added to the entree. Mass Street Fish House is quite proud of its tartar sauce — everyone on staff is eager to mention how the recipe incorporates smoked capers, another homage to the space’s barbecue legacy — and it has every right to be. That sauce needs to be bottled and sold yesterday.
Purists will be pleased to know that Mass Street Fish House makes the bread for its Maine lobster roll ($26) in-house, and they do quite an impressive job with it. O’Boyle stays true to the New England style: Big, knuckle-sized chunks of lobster are lightly coated with aioli — tarragon, lemon juice and celery salt — and the creamy mixture overflows out of the buttery brioche roll, proud and true.
My group was split on dessert. The options at Mass Street Fish House are not plentiful — although a pastry chef was hired at the end of March, so that may change. When we dined in, we opted for the beignets ($8) and the chocolate torte ($7). The beignets were exactly as they should be: Piping-hot pockets of fried dough, covered in a dusting of powdered sugar and served with an excellent lemon-thyme sauce. The torte was less impressive: The bake was dry, and the weak spiral of strawberry puree and dollop of whipped cream seemed dated. This was the only item of the evening that didn’t merit revisiting, though — I would happily reorder the exact same items all over again.
Klein has done a nice job with the cocktail list, which mostly features twists on classic recipes (for a good time, try the Folk Medicine — ginger- and orange-infused tequila mixed with house-made sarsaparilla). The wine list is a pleasant surprise, too — mostly because Klein has chosen an aggressive pricing method for her bottle program. The assortment isn’t deep, but it is well-curated — and you’ll be pleased with yourself if you opt for the very affordable (and very oyster-worthy) Chassenay D’Arce brut Champagne ($45).
Despite its landlocked locale, Mass Street Fish House and Raw Bar has not taken long to prove itself a seafood church. In the span of one evening, I dined on a perfectly poached lobster tail. I slurped the most charming oysters, scraped the bottom of a bowl of what had been lobster bisque and tore into the balls of crustacean fluff that are O’Boyle’s crab cakes. No, none of these things were enjoyed from a seaside bistro where I might casually have felt the gentle spray of an ocean breeze upon my face — but that didn’t stop me one bit from seriously enjoying some of the most delicious seafood I’ve had in recent memory.
719 Massachusetts St., Lawrence, Kan., (785) 856-1081, massfishhouse.com. Open 3-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 12 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch and 3-10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.