Someday, we will all get to visit Boston’s Parker House Hotel, where Hawthorne and Emerson and Dickens argued literature, where Kennedy gave his first speech, where Ho Chi Minh once worked as a baker and Malcolm X a busboy. Until then, we’ll have to make do with its sublime, eponymous creation: the Parker House roll, a yeasty, pillowy masterpiece, and one of the can’t-miss creations at Holley’s, the Midtown seafood restaurant and oyster bar that opened last July.
There are other draws, and thankfully so, as the Holley’s kitchen tends to run out of said rolls rather early in the evening (and “when we’re out, we’re out,” as the menu poetically puts it). But chef/owner Mark Holley, formerly of the late, great Pesce, has a way with the classics, most with roots not in New England but New Orleans. We’re thinking of the gumbo, yes, a commixture of shrimp and duck dotted with a few crispy fried oysters, but also the redfish lovingly reinforced with bourbon and corn succotash.
Still, Holley’s is nothing if not a study in contrasts. The busy oyster bar with its clinking, shucking clamor and requisite big-screen TVs (must every restaurant meal be a TV dinner these days?) stands in stark opposition to the sedate, no-frills dining room, where the felted chairs are turquoise and the conversations muted. There is a bravado to both rooms—how many other places would have the nerve to tune a TV to the Food Network?—but also a studied uncertainty, right down to the cookbooks that line a shelf in the kitchen.
There are dishes of clear influence, and dishes that seem to have sprung fully formed from the mind of Holley himself—potato cakes topped with gorgeous, buttery rosettes of salmon, Thai curry mussels bathed in a creamy broth of sake and papaya, the latter so delicious it should be offered as a soup. A lively chipotle barbecue shrimp appetizer sits not far on the menu from an oddly bland and unseasoned duck and green papaya salad. And while a New Orleans barbecue shrimp po-boy does not in any way elicit joy on the level of Magazine St. and Hagan Ave., the coconut cake with salted caramel sauce is not only better than any of its kind, it’s as good as any cake we’ve tasted in a restaurant, period.
It’s as if Holley, having suffered through his share of dry textures and margarine cream frostings, was determined to make the restaurant safe for cake again. And he has. Both his coconut cake and Parker House rolls are by themselves worth a trip to Holley’s, a place with its feet planted in multiple cuisines, moods, and cultures, an extravagant experiment that largely succeeds.