It is trendy in the restaurant world to talk about blending tradition and innovation, finding fresh, local ingredients and making the most of them. Sometimes that is just talk and sometimes, like at Lockbox, the restaurant in Lexington’s own 21C Museum Hotel, it’s the real thing.
I didn’t think the three meals I had there were perfect. The ambiance was a little unsettling, and the service was uneven. But Jonathan Searle, the head chef, has made good on his promise to bring fresh approaches to some classics and try new things with some neglected local products.
Searle seems to have a special touch with fish. The current menu includes a Kentucky carp fried in a cornmeal crust, served with tomatoes, field peas cooked in buttermilk, and corn ($27). The fish was perfectly cooked: flaky, not at all greasy (they know how to pan fry there) and flavorful. A bass on the spring menu, served with local asparagus, was equally impressive.
It was national oyster day when we went for the most recent dinner, so we tried the roasted oysters ($14 for six), which were equally impressive. Served on the half shell, they were cooked with butter and chili, and served with lemon. The chili was just right, enough to add a kick but not so much as to overwhelm the bivalves, which were cooked to a lovely point that preserved their flavor and texture. A catfish brandade at an earlier dinner was less interesting and could have used more spice.
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Also impressive was the spicy shrimp appetizer ($17) with new potatoes, corn and the house-made Toulouse sausage, a serving large enough for three people to share or, in my opinion, to make dinner for one. (A note here: Lockbox is not alone among modern eateries in having a too-cute menu. The shrimp is under a category called “to share,” but there is also “to start.” Perhaps I’m just a grumpy word person, but I don’t get the point.) The shrimp, actually prawns, were large, flavorful and, again, cooked perfectly.
We contemplated getting a separate order of the sausage, which is offered separately under “to start,” but our waiter assured us it was the same — excellent — on the shrimp dish, and there was more than enough for three people to get a good taste of it. Unless you are sausage-averse you should try it, because it’s unusual to get such a subtle, tasty example.
I’m a vegetable nut, so I ordered the chickpea panisse ($21), served with a wonderful, roasted, smoky combination of baby eggplant, carrots and mushrooms with a red onion sauce. The panisse itself grew on us, but at first blush seemed a little too custardy, losing the wonderful, distinct flavor of the chickpeas. But, combined with the inspired vegetables, it was a more than creditable vegetarian entree.
We tried two desserts, the blueberry skillet cake with basil and sweet corn ice cream ($8) and the peanut butter ice box pie ($9). I recommend both, but the skillet cake was fantastic, a warm, fruity delight.
I also hit Lockbox for a Sunday brunch, where I had the Cobb salad ($14) a nice combination of what’s called Gem lettuce, pickled shrimp, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese and bacon with red onion, and an interesting dressing that I couldn’t identify. The best item I sampled at brunch was the egg sandwich ($10), offered on a tasty biscuit, clearly made from scratch, with breakfast sausage (they are good with sausage here), a scrambled egg, some cheddar cheese (but not overwhelming) and a spicy aioli.
Brunch brought up some of the service issues that puzzled me. We walked into a dining room with a lot of empty tables, many of them still piled with dishes and used napkins, but had to wait about 10 minutes to be seated as the hostess bussed the tables. This offered a bit too much time to see the dining room in the glare of daylight. I appreciate the effort to preserve the tile floor, but the years have added too many flaws that, frankly, make it look dirty.
Despite all the empty tables, the service at brunch was slow and not attentive. At the recent dinner, we had a better experience, with a waiter whose knowledge, professionalism and good humor enhanced the evening.
I’ve visited the dining rooms in four of the 21C hotels and understand that they want an edgy, urban feel and look. I think they’ve succeeded in the others, but to my eye and ear, Lockbox comes off cold and noisy, at least during the day. The excellent lighting design creates a more pleasant atmosphere after dark.
I think Searle’s excellent food deserves a better setting and more consistently attentive service.
Where: 21C Museum Hotel, 167 W. Main St.
Breakfast: 7-10 a.m. Mon.-Fri.; 7-9:30 a.m. Sat.-Sun.
Brunch: 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 5:30-9 p.m. Sun.
Notes: All major credit cards; handicap accessible, vegetarian options.