All the Bobos Love Hobo's

Fish out your wallet, Daddy — this is gonna get pricey.

It's unfortunate, then, that the prices define this experience. If your final bill were 20 or 25 percent cheaper, you'd probably fold up your napkin at the end of your meal feeling ever so fine. But at these rates, one's inclined to pick at nits. And there are, in fact, one or two to be picked.

Why, for example, is it my job to decide what sauce best pairs with what fish? All fillets are not created equal. Some are strongly flavored, some buttery, some dry, some oily, some ever-so-delicate, some robustly muscular, some dense as filet mignon. Presumably not all will taste equally good with balsamic, anchovies, peppercorns, béarnaise sauce, mango salsa, or Japanese crumbs. And there are dozens and dozens of potential variations. It's as if a sommelier advised me to pick any wine randomly from his book, because a burgundy, an Alsatian gerwürztraminer, or a Spanish mourvèdre will all taste OK with my Asian-spiced lamb chop. Whatever floats yer boat, man.

The tacked-on prices for sauces really irk me too. An extra $5 for a Livornese sauce, when the fish itself is already priced at $29 or $31? Five bucks for honey-mustard glaze, or the Hobo sauce of cherry tomatoes and basil, or "au poivre"? This is culinary robbery. Frankly, no sauce on Hobo's menu is either imaginative enough or distinctive enough or unexpected enough to remotely justify the extra dollars you're asked to spend on them.

Of course, most people love Hobo's and its mix-and-match game; I'm in a bitter, stingy minority. We certainly ate up all our food happily enough. We shared bada-bing sea scallops, a special appetizer ($18, whew!) in an amusing but rather cloying sauce of fresh ranier cherries — much too sweet, by my standards, although I'm happy to see they're using seasonal produce — and a delicious big serving of Asian-style fried oysters, plump and panko-coated, with sweet/sour mango chutney ($12.95). The oysters were a plate big enough to feed our table of four. Fresh green salads are included in the price of dinner. We liked the Roquefort dressing, but again, the balsamic was supersweet (no wonder our national diabetes rate is skyrocketing).

Entrées: A bathtub of bouillabaisse ($31) studded with clams, mussels, spiny lobster tail, scallops, mahi fillets, and medium shrimp in saffron-laced broth was lovely, perfectly cooked, although the broth itself didn't have great depth or complexity of flavor. It was studded with carrots and topped with a giant piece of garlic bread. Halibut fillet was pale and creamy under its festive costume of Hobo sauce ($31 plus $5) — pretty red and yellow cherry tomatoes, slivered garlic, fresh basil, and a "secret" ingredient, perhaps a wine or liquor, which wasn't aggressive enough to register a sense memory. Fillet of swordfish with Livornese sauce ($29 plus $5) was a piscatorial beauty in rich, salty tomato, olive, caper, and anchovy sauce. These were all excellent. We also had a competently grilled and tender filet mignon ($29.95) with unctuous mashed potatoes. All entrées save the bouillabaisse came with extra-thin, crunchy sautéed green beans, glistening in their coat of oil.

Our desserts were not worth bothering with (a common problem in local restaurants, I've noticed). Both key lime and mud pie ($8) were gloppy of texture and had that air of being long refrigerated and probably ordered in from elsewhere.

When it comes down to it, at Hobo's, you end up having too many choices and, simultaneously, not enough variety. It's like having gastronomic ADHD. The appetizers are so expensive that nobody but Daddy Warbucks could afford a three-course meal. Forget about planning a little bite of something pleasant and interesting before your big fat entrée — you can't afford it, and you could never eat half of these gargantuan portions. The Hobo's concept strikes me as quintessentially American — we have exponential choices, we have an unlimited, gluttonous supply, but are we really happy? Is our quality of life improved? There's something infantile about the whole effect, as if diners are not sophisticated enough either to plan three courses on their own or accept the intelligent directives of a chef with a unique sensibility, one who knows exactly what he's doing and who wants to wow us while doing it. I wish the talented and irascible LaBiner had the courage of his culinary convictions. He needs to focus, and thereby focus us.

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