This ain't no joint, but it is a joint venture, one begun six years ago by husband/executive chef Steven LaBiner and wife/general manager/sommelier Janet Ribera-LaBiner. Back then it had just 11 tables; it expanded in 1997 to seat 183. Steven is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and it shows. No cooking school can teach someone to be a great chef, but during a CIA student's two-year grind, he is reminded daily of what it takes to make a restaurant tick. Sure, the food is important, but so is having a gracious hostess who keeps checking back with people while they're waiting to be seated; hiring an amiable, professional wait staff that doesn't have to ask "Who gets what?" when setting down plates; stocking your wine list with more than a hundred smart and affordable vintages and making 16 of them (and three champagnes) available by the glass; serving hot items on hot plates, cold on cold; and -- well, no one will deny it takes an awful lot to make a restaurant run smoothly. The LaBiners have what it takes.
Most of the appetizers are straightforward seafood classics, like mussels marinara, shrimp cocktail, and fried calamari, the tentacles and rings lightly floured and cleanly cooked in oil that gets changed daily. Clams casino were greasy, but that's more the fault of the recipe than the chef. You'll find this dish interpreted various ways, but LaBiner goes with the original preparation, created circa 1917 at the Casino at Narragansett Pier in New York City, wherein the clams are baked with pimiento butter and a slice of bacon. So yes, they sort of have to be oily. A few of the clams were rather puny, too, the shells containing more bacon than bivalve, but portions here are generous, and the dozen clams gave us plenty to chew on. They were also undeniably tasty. So were the "famous" crabcakes, two scoops of minimally adulterated lump crabmeat on a plate of field greens, served with a potent mustard sauce very similar to the one found at Joe's Stone Crab. The rough-hewn exterior of fried crab made the cakes resemble large macaroons; the soft, sumptuous interior succumbed to the bite like butter.
A trio of quesadillas -- shrimp, seafood, and chicken -- seemed out of place on the list of starters, but the rationale behind their inclusion became apparent when two young teens at our table, not fish fans, chose the chicken version as their main course. The dish was large enough to sate their appetites but not good enough to earn their raves. After a bit of prodding, one of them, a self-described "quesadilla expert," agreed to rate it on a scale of one to ten. She gave it a three, "too dry" being her main critique. I had to concur on the dryness; both of us prefer our flour tortillas sautéed rather than greaselessly griddled as these were. The chicken inside was moist, though, with a pleasantly smoky flavor, and came on a bed of greens with sides of salsa and sour cream. Young diners can be harsh. I gave it a seven, even if a chicken quesadilla may not be the savviest thing to order at a seafood house.
The main-course menu makes you mull over quite a few options. First you make a choice from seven kinds of fish (among them tuna, salmon, mahi-mahi, and yellowtail snapper) and two kinds of seafood (shrimp and scallops). Then you pair your selection with one of eight cooking styles (grilled, blackened, piccata, or with a sauce, like Dijon), or for an extra charge, you can pick from eight more preparations, like coated with Japanese bread crumbs, stuffed with crabmeat, or glazed with honey mustard and balsamic vinegar. Thus, you could order the same fish on 16 consecutive visits to Hobo's and have it cooked differently each time. You could also dine there on 144 occasions without repeating the same fish/sauce combination, then return half a dozen more times and choose from "other specialties" like Black Angus New York strip steak, crispy duck with fruit sauce, or a "whole chicken breast," which turned out to be two double breasts, thick and nicely grilled. On your 151st trip to Hobo's, I'm afraid, you'll be forced to order something you've already had.
The decisions don't end with the fish -- you still have to dictate which dressing will go with the robust salad of field greens that comes with each entrée, and then settle on your starch: mashed potatoes, fried or baked sweet potatoes, rice, linguine, or orzo. The latter, a "special" side dish one evening, was overcooked and overgarlicked, but all the rest were excellent. You also get a hefty helping of three beautifully prepared vegetables, all the more impressive considering how many restaurants are hard-pressed to come up with even one. The vegetables change according to what's seasonal, but (for a change) the kitchen decides upon these. We were served bright, crisp green beans; yellow patty pan squash; and tenderly sautéed grape tomatoes.
The concentration it took us to put together our order was well rewarded when dinner arrived. The most dramatic presentation came with the "jumpin'"-style fish, which sizzled through the dining room, smoke billowing from the hot metal serving tray as the waitress smoothly slid what in this case was grouper from platter to plate. The chunks of white fleshy fish were topped with red, yellow, and green peppers and a sweet and piquant Thai sauce that contained absolute knockout flavors. Six "jumbo" shrimp, which we ordered Livornaise, were large, luscious, and well complemented with fresh tomatoes, capers, onions, garlic, black and green olives, oregano, and dry vermouth, which LaBiner utilizes in place of white wine in many of his recipes. I wouldn't call the crustaceans "jumbo," though, because then I'd have to describe the single , much larger shrimp that comes hooked on the side of Hobo's Bloody Mary as "extra-jumbo" or "colossal," which makes them all sound like ripe olives. "Big" would do -- that's how the menu accurately describes the ocean scallops, which we sampled "scampi-style." Lightly topped with breading and baked in vermouth, lemon juice, and garlic, these too were succulent and satisfying.
Dinners this bountiful don't leave much room for dessert. For you die-hards, though, there are creamy renditions of crème brûlée, key lime pie, and New York cheesecake. Hobo's Fish Joint offers quantity and quality, as well as an all-around pleasant dining experience. You can be certain no hobo ever had it so good.