CHOICE TABLES; In Massachusetts, Name Chefs Devote Themselves to Seafood, by Nina Simonds, Sept. 9, 2001

“NEW ENGLAND is famous for its seafood, but rather than dressing up and dining in formal, upscale fish restaurants, most New Englanders prefer to roll up their sleeves and dine ‘in the rough.’

This year, in addition to the older, established favorites — like the Clam Box, in Ipswich, Mass.; Woodman’s, in Essex; or Moby Dick, just outside Wellfleet on Cape Cod — a new crop of Massachusetts seafood restaurants has appeared. Many are owned by well-established chefs. And while each is unique, they share a similar ambience — casual, lively and fun.

Jasper White’s Summer Shack

A year ago last spring, word got out that Jasper White, considered the dean of American fish cookery by many, was taking over the Aku Aku, a huge Polynesian restaurant in Cambridge. His idea was to transform it into a family-style seafood restaurant that could serve hundreds, and everyone wondered if he could pull it off.

After all, Mr. White had established his reputation as a formidable chef at Jasper’s, his four-star restaurant in Boston, where he wowed customers with seafood delicacies for 12 years. But as a visit to the Summer Shack will prove, he has definitely achieved his goal: to provide fresh, simple seafood dishes, as well as homey favorites like meatloaf, corn dogs, and franks and beans.

Customers to the Summer Shack are greeted by the old Aku Aku’s 16-foot Tiki man, now repainted and transformed into a sailor decked out in foul-weather gear. The main dining room — with wooden picnic tables, ample turquoise 60’s-style banquettes and strings of twinkling lights — has a party atmosphere, but the enormous 1,500-gallon lobster tank and two huge steam kettles underline Mr. White’s mission.

On a repeat visit in July, I could easily have made a meal of a selection of starters and snacks. The grilled littleneck clams with garlic sauce alone were fabulous. Steamed fresh shrimp seasoned with beer and spices were bursting with briny freshness.

One of the most impressive starters was the Canadian snow crab, an ample weekend special filled with nuggets of sweet crabmeat.

Specials, written on a large blackboard, change daily. The menu offers the usual ‘in the rough’ items, such as fried clams, shrimp, scallops and fries, along with several grilled fish and lobsters of various sizes.

We tried two specials: tuna, grilled beautifully and served with a delicious tomato caper vinaigrette, and flaky halibut, topped with a delicate corn relish. Bouillabaisse, a regular entree, was dense with seafood. The delicate broth was redolent of fennel and so flavorful that my companions, two sisters from Lyon who know their food, agreed that it didn’t even need the accompanying pistou sauce. My son, Jesse, on the other hand, happily feasted on macaroni and cheese, while his friend downed a big hamburger. Three nights a week, the Summer Shack offers crab parties, serving cooked crab Maryland style, with hammers on news paper.

The wine list is selective and reasonably priced. We drank a lovely local Sakonnet Vineyards white vidal blanc.

For desserts, our favorites were the immense syrup- and whipped-cream-covered sundaes and the maple crème caramel, but the soft-serve ice cream and fresh-fruit snow cones, with flavoring made by the restaurant, were also popular with the kids.

The Back Eddy

Chris Schlesinger, another celebrated Boston chef, has earned a national reputation as the grill king. His ‘Thrill of the Grill’ books are best sellers and the East Coast Grill in Cambridge is one of Boston’s favorite restaurants. For the last eight years, on weekends and whenever he gets a chance, he and his wife, Marcy, have retreated to Westport, Mass., along the southern coast near the Rhode Island border.

Two years ago, he took over a restaurant right on the water in Westport and christened it the Back Eddy.

The location alone is worth a visit since you can sit outside at tables on a seemingly endless dock, sampling raw seafood or ordering from the limited menu while watching magnificent sunsets. Inside, the restaurant is simple and airy, with high ceilings and solid wooden tables and chairs. The handsome, wood-paneled bar has a nautical theme and serves some great cocktails.

The Back Eddy’s menu emphasizes locally caught seafood (Mr. Schlesinger contends that sea scallops here are even sweeter than Nantucket’s celebrated bay scallops). Vegetables are grown regionally, and beer, wine, cheese and pickles are locally produced.

My guest Lisa and I started with a bowl of creamy Westport River clam and roasted corn chowder, slightly smoky and generously filled with chunks of clams, sweet corn and potatoes. Pan-seared cod cakes, which were served with a delicious red pepper jam, were crisp and firm, just the way I like them, and we all could easily have eaten more of the accompanying corn prepared by Dan George, who supplies the pickled foods. Mr. Schlesinger had obviously shared his grilling tips with the cooks: the West Indies-style shrimp with mango-red onion salsa and the seared tuna with sun-dried-tomato and green-onion relish were both perfectly cooked. The raw oysters and littleneck clams tasted superbly fresh.

Hesitating over the list of about 15 entrees, we decided we had to try the cob bacon-wrapped giant scallop tournedos. We were not disappointed; the scallops were succulent and sweet as promised, and nicely complemented the smoky bacon.

The local cod, topped with artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives, was served with impeccably roasted asparagus and potatoes. My husband, Don, who can never resist a pulled pork sandwich, was happy with the version here — ample, on the mandatory white roll with creamy coleslaw. There was an expansive selection of wines and beers. I drank a Red Stripe from Jamaica for $3.50.

Servings were so generous that dessert required an effort. Silky Key lime pie with its buttery graham cracker crust was sublime and chocolate torte was also delicious. Homemade crème brûlée is available as well.

Kingfish Hall

Todd English seems to be everywhere. This talented chef has spawned a mini-empire of Italian restaurants in Las Vegas, Washington, Aspen and New York, all of them inspired by the original Olives restaurant in Charlestown, next to Boston. How could he maintain his high standards when there was talk of his opening yet another place, this one with a seafood theme at Faneuil Hall, the touristy mall in the heart of Boston?

I confess I was as skeptical as everyone else, but Kingfish Hall, which opened in July 2000, is a pretty smashing place.

For one thing, the décor is arrestingly flashy. Hanging in the center of the vast two-story dining room is an iridescent mobile of glass, metal, coral and paper fish, with shimmering disks that reflect light. Open kitchens on both floors allow diners to watch their food being prepared. The serpentine first-floor bar ends beside an ingenious vertical rotisserie with circulating spokes, allowing pieces of fish to be cooked the way Native Americans prepared them in the past.

The food, as appealing as the décor, is produced by a talented kitchen headed by David Kinkead, a younger brother of the acclaimed Washington chef Bob Kinkead. An eclectic menu includes assorted sushi, raw and grilled seafood, chowders, and a host of other seafood entrees.

As is often the case these days, a selection of appetizers or ‘quick bites’ can easily make a meal. Calamari rings were crisp yet tender; skewered tuna sticks with cucumber slaw and wasabi were delicious, as were classic steamers with fragrant herb butter. Grilled scallops served on browned bread with Boston baked beans were succulent, a banal-sounding but successful pairing of briny sweetness with the smoky richness of the beans. Clam chowder was just one of a number of sumptuous soups — lobster and corn chowder, seafood gumbo, carrot-and-clam bisque. The choices change seasonally.

Mr. English’s restaurants have always been generous with their portions and Kingfish Hall is no different. Spit-roasted swordfish was beautifully cooked and served with a crabmeat vinaigrette atop creamy mashed potatoes. At lunch one day, Don feasted on an innovative salmon B.L.T. with homemade potato chips, while I savored the luscious flavors of baked salmon in flaky phyllo layers.

Since the restaurant relies heavily on the local catch, a sure winner is the ‘dancing’ roasted fish of the day, such as tuna or halibut. It’s grilled on the rotisserie, designed by Mr. English.

Kingfish Hall has a notable, well organized list of American and international wines. We tried a 1998 Greco di Tufo from Feudi di San Gregorio for $28.


Salem, on the north shore of Massachusetts, has long needed a good seafood restaurant (since I was a long-time resident, I knew this from personal experience). When Finz opened its doors last spring, everyone held their breath. The owners had transformed a depressing and tired-looking restaurant into a bright airy space with a generous brick fireplace bar and handsome clean wooden interior. A wall of windows looks out onto Salem Harbor. They completed their renovation hiring Brian Kilroy, a talented chef who had established a dedicated following at the beloved Love Noodle restaurant in Salem, to design and launch the menu. What could be better?

Unfortunately, Mr. Kilroy has left, and the food has not been the same since. However, the kitchen can deliver a good piece of fish.

On our last visit for lunch, in late July, a number of the dishes we ordered were memorable. The New England clam chowder was creamy and smoky, with nice chunks of clams and grilled corn. Another starter, tuna carpaccio, was quite tasty, especially with its Asian vegetable salad, drizzled with a miso-soy dressing and redolent of toasted sesame oil. Crab cakes were nicely fried with crisp edges, but on the soft side — and I’m from the school that prefers them firm.

For entrees, a number of dishes stood out: Caribbean-seared salmon was flaky and spicy, a nice counterpoint to the mango-cilantro chutney. The blackened mahi-mahi wrap could have used a little more seasoning. Regrettably the lobster roll was disappointing, as the lobster could have been fresher.

Desserts are satisfying, but not remarkable: the crème brûlée has a lovely vanilla flavor, but the texture is more like pudding; the airless chocolate soufflé was very dense, but rich and satisfying.

Bill of fare

Prices are approximate and based on a typical dinner for two with wine. Tips are not included. Each restaurant takes reservations only for larger parties, accepts major credit cards, and is open daily for lunch and dinner unless otherwise indicated.

Jasper White’s Summer Shack, 149 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge; (617) 520-9500. Dinner is $50 to $60; open for dinner daily and for lunch Monday through Friday. Even though the Summer Shack can accommodate hundreds, lines tend to form on weekends; you may want to arrive early.

The Back Eddy, 1 Bridge Road, Westport; (508) 636-6500. Dinner, $75 to $80. Open seasonally, from April through October. Dinner Wednesday to Sunday through Columbus Day, Thursday to Sunday from then to Oct. 28; and lunch on Saturday and Sunday.

Kingfish Hall, 188 South Market Building, Faneuil Hall, Boston; (617) 523-8862. Dinner, $80 to $90.

Finz, Pickering Wharf, Salem; (978) 744-8485. Dinner, $75 to $80.

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “CHOICE TABLES; In Massachusetts, Name Chefs Devote Themselves to Seafood,” by Nina Simonds, Sept. 9, 2001

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