Archive for category Outdoor Dining
A. The kind of person who wants a seat at the fabulous new restaurant at the Sandwich Marina.
Gina and the Big Dog planned a lunch visit to Fishermen’s View, only to find that this beautiful new spot at the Cape Cod Bay end of the Cape Cod Canal didn’t open until 3 p.m. We enlisted reinforcements for another day and concluded that a mid-afternoon visit would be the best approach, given the many somewhat agitated comments online about long waits for dinner.
The four of us were seated on the deck overlooking the marina. We saw no land mass on the horizon there but knew the next stop was Orleans on the Cape, and after that, somewhere in Portugal. The view of boat traffic on an early fall afternoon was entertaining and relaxing.
The restaurant is family owned and operated, and co-exists in its sleek new space with a fish market. We felt like we learned everything we needed to know about the business during our first visit, when we sat at the crowded bar, marveled at the view, ordered a glass of wine and insisted that’s all we wanted, and we were still treated to a basket of the restaurant’s outstanding herby cornbread with sweet butter.
During our more recent visit with friends, the cornbread was back, and once again set the tone for what was to come. We all loved it.
After the bread, we started with a half dozen Wellfleet oysters ($2.50 each) for the gentlemen and a buffalo cauliflower appetizer ($8) for the table. The former were perfectly shucked and served with a trio of sauces. The latter was a linear arrangement of cauliflower florets that were deep fried and tossed in the familiar chicken wing sauce, then garnished with a Great Hill Blue cheese dressing and carrot ribbons. It’s a tasty, classy, somewhat healthy twist on the traditional bar snack, and a pretty hearty serving for the price.
The Big Dog ordered a burger ($11) with guacamole ($2) and chose potato salad from the extensive list of sides. It was good, but with its two angus patties, onion, “yellow cheese,” and puffy bun, it was just too tall to be easily eaten.
Gina can’t pass up a beet salad, so ordered this one ($11) with a Jonah crab “cocktail” topper ($9). She later likened it to a Twinkie, with a delicious muddled kale in lieu of creamy filling, and crunchy quinoa in lieu of yellow cake. And smokey roasted corn, and crisp pepitas, swirls of pickled onions, and sweet chunks of red beets, all topped with cotija cheese. The crabmeat came naked in a mound on the side. Don’t order this expecting a light meal — it was hearty and filling.
Our friends made their choice from the short but varied list of entrees: the pan-roasted halibut ($28) (shown), whose pancetta and red pepper sauce added a smokey flavor; and the skirt steak ($22), arriving as rare as hoped for, atop a fig risotto.
Gina and the Big Dog opted for a bottle of Josh cabernet ($34), while our friends enjoyed a pinot noir and a sidecar, whose amber color warmed our table.
Our server, who was personable but not to the point of introducing herself, was professional and capable. The food was very good to excellent, the venue comfortable yet sleek, the view was unparalleled, and for all that, the prices were surprisingly reasonable. We look forward to returning in the off-season, when we might be able to enjoy dinner at dinnertime.
20 Freezer Road, Sandwich
There was nothing typical about our recent first visit to Cabby Shack on the bustling Plymouth waterfront. A light drizzle kept the crowds away, and we were treated to some really good fare.
We opted for seats at the third-floor outdoor bar, whose tiki top offered sufficient protection from the mist and whose railing offered a bird’s eye view of the harbor’s construction projects and boating activity. From our vantage point, we were able to watch cranes attending to a pier reconstruction and boat ramp project. Bartender Earl poured the Big Dog a 16-ounce Mayflower IPA ($5.75) and Gina a Quara Malbec ($7.50) in plastic cups, and we were content to sit and watch.
The Cabby Shack menu is full of the New England staples that a tourist from America’s Heartland would expect to find in America’s Hometown — let them go back west thinking that a basket of fries doused with chowda ($8.99) is a thing — but there were plenty of options for locals or visitors whose clam-o-meter has been tipped.
We started with chicken wings in a garlic parmesan sauce ($9.99). It was a simple dish, but one tasty enough to make us look forward to the rest of our lunch.
We love short ribs, and the Heartland visitors who skipped the Pratt-Rib Pannini ($13.99) because they can get that at home did themselves a huge disservice. The Big Dog’s giant triple-decker sandwich came with a layer of portobello and goat cheese on sourdough, all tricked out with some arrugula and carmelized onions. If you like thin, crispy fries, you will enjoy the ones that come with Cabby Shack sandwiches.
Gina chose a special, dubbed Salmon Homard ($22.99), a hunk of salmon topped with one of the restaurant’s signature lobster cakes. The salmon was grilled to crispy-juicy perfection. The lobster cake had a similar texture and color, with some visible chunks of lobster meat. Alongside was a dollop of delicious mashed potatoes, some asparagus, and a nondescript vegetable medley.
Overall, the food was very good and the view was entertaining: a rare combination.
30 Town Wharf, Plymouth
We recently had our first meal, and possibly our last, at Stomping Grounds. The food was excellent and inventive, and the outside seating atmosphere was as expected when along Main Street in Buzzards Bay, but the service was so flawed that under ordinary circumstances we would not provide a review, especially without a second visit.
However, we concluded that there are so few optimal days, weather-wise, for a restaurant with outdoor seating in our region, so when those optimal days occur, we have every reason to expect the restaurant staff to be on its “A” game. We visited Stomping Grounds on what had to be one of the nicest Saturday afternoons this summer, and we didn’t expect the 150-minute ordeal it became.
First, the good news: the Stomping Greens salad ($12) is hands-down one of the better salads we’ve had this year. It included generous additions of sliced green grapes, toasted pine nuts, chick peas, and roasted brussels sprouts. We marveled at how much prep time that dish must have taken, and wondered why no one else had come up with this delicious combination. It’s tossed with a light lemony parmesan dressing that makes all the ingredients sing. Twelve dollars for a salad? When your licked-clean plate is taken away from you, we promise, you will be thinking you got a great deal.
We also ordered an appetizer called “Spuds MacKenzie” ($8), described as “our twist on a classic favorite and a must try.” We did try, and while we have no clue what “classic favorite” this was twisting and found the presentation kind of weird, we liked it. Thin wedges of roasted red bliss potatoes were served with a a little bowl of dipping sauce that included gorgonzola blended with ground walnuts and bacon. Gina initially objected, saying it was too rich, but in no time was slathering it on the end of her salad.
We also enjoyed the Mediterranean Fish Stew ($16), another unexpected bargain. Served in an oversized bowl — too big, really, and it was difficult to get the spoon at the right scooping angle as a result — the soup had a rich tomato broth in which we found giant shrimp, scallops, tuna, mussels, carrots, celery, and potatoes. It came with grilled pita bread with a subtle curry topping, excellent to dip into the soup. This was Gina’s entree, and she took half home after sharing much with the Big Dog.
The Dog’s lunch was a Buzzards Bay Reuben ($10), which seemed like a regular Reuben. There’s a choice of corned beef or turkey, and it comes with Cape Cod brand potato chips and some crisp, fresh, slaw made of red and green cabbage.
We ordered a bottle of Josh Cellars cabernet ($34), as it’s one of our favorites, and this proved to be a wise move, because we were able to pour ourselves a second glass while we were waiting for our food to arrive.
It took a bit for our waitress to make her way to our table, and she apologized excessively for the delay, and then for the fact that she had not brought menus. When that finally happened, we selected the Josh from the short but carefully considered list of beer and wine options, plus artisanal spirits. Soon, the wine was delivered, opened, and ceremoniously poured by a young man in a grubby tee-shirt who we assumed to be a bus boy but who we later learned was the chef-owner. Note to chefs everywhere: Call us old fashioned, but we’ve chosen to spend a special occasion with you, and we think you should be dressed as if it’s a special occasion for you too. We want to believe you’re working magic in the kitchen, and if you feel more comfortable wearing a stained hoodie or a flour handprint on your pants, please don’t dash our illusions — stay in the kitchen.
(Rant over. You know we believe that chefs and other restaurant staff are the hardest-working humans and we hate to criticize them.)
Our appetizers were delivered with another round of apologies, and this time, the Big Dog stepped in and asked the waitress to stop doing that. We were enjoying a relaxing afternoon on a beautiful patio with a nice glass of wine, and the waitress’ implication that something was going terribly wrong was detracting dramatically from our enjoyment. The young couple sitting near us snickered audibly, clearly having thought the same thing.
Twenty minutes later, with the sun beating down mercilessly, the wine bottle nearly empty, and our entrees yet to arrive, we regretted saying anything. The waitress returned again empty handed, said she really needed to apologize now, and blamed someone else for losing our order.
Entrees arrived, we thought they were excellent, packed half for home, and that was that.
We realized, driving away, why this scene seemed not just unpleasant but inappropriate: because in the universal language of restaurants, the second “I’m so sorry” is followed immediately by, “… Save room for one of our outstanding desserts, on the house!” or “… We’ve taken that weird potato thing off your bill.” None of that here.
Will we return? Too soon to tell. The food was excellent, but the fact remained that we spent $99, with beverage, tax, and tip (yes, 16.5 percent despite the flaws, mostly because Gina is not good at math) on a lunch that consisted of soup and salad, a sandwich, and an appetizer. We thought the food was a great value, but we did not get anything close to hundred-dollar service.
We’re on a quest to find the best lobster roll in the region, and before we even started the quest, a friend told us the best lobster rolls are at the Seafood Shanty, located on the Bourne Scenic Highway opposite the Herring Run on the Cape Cod Canal.
Despite our focus on food, our view of local restaurants is often affected by ambiance, service, and the quality of the beer and wine list. None of those come into play here — the Seafood Shanty is a walk-up window; grab your tray and soft drink, and do your best finding a suitable picnic table.
To be honest, that setup barely qualifies as a dining experience for us. If we went to the salad bar at the Stop n Shop, we would not trouble you with our commentary about it, and a take-out window on a busy four-lane highway isn’t much better than a grocery lunch.
But the Shanty is a popular spot, and we can imagine that patrons flock there for someone’s proclaimed best lobster salad rolls ($20.50), the best scallop roll ($14.95), the best fish sandwich ($8.95), or any of the other standards they have to offer.
We’re certain all of those items are quite good. But we’re equally certain that the flocking is caused not by the main course, but by the french fries.
We each ordered lobster rolls, and like many of the sandwiches, they came with fries. Now, we’re the kind of people who see fries as high-calorie superfluousness, and we’ll often ask for a substitute on principle.
At the Seafood Shanty, we were glad we didn’t. Each fry was the crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside ideal, and they were liberally crusted with salt. You can buy them on their own, at $4.95 for a large side, and we could easily imagine doing that. They were outstanding. We can think of none better in the Southcoast region.
Our thoughts on the lobster rolls were more mixed. They tasted good, with big chunks of lobster tossed with mayonnaise, laid atop some crisp green leaf lettuce and a saucy dollop of mayo inside a buttery bun.
Our issue was with the structure, and this is one time we’re hoping that the ownership will read and heed: We would have been happier with the same generous serving of lobster, or maybe even a little less, spread over two buns. We would cheerfully have paid $14.95 for half the lobster in one bun.
Here’s the thing: It’s not a sandwich if you can’t pick it up to eat it. And we couldn’t with these overstuffed fellas, until we had forked out a healthy serving of overflowing lobster. Many, if not most, of our fellow diners may subscribe to the 16-inch plate of pasta theory of dining value, but we just don’t. A great lobster roll is not one that has lobster on the plate next to it: it’s one that contains bite after bit of bread, sauce, and filling, all working together. The restaurant has been around since the early 1990s and is clearly quite successful, but we’re thinking a slightly different approach might work even better for them.
803 Scenic Highway (Route 6)
Generally speaking, it’s our kind of place Stretched along scenic Shore Road is first a wholesale fish market, then a retail market, then a room for takeout, then a delightfully rustic dining room, then a pub area with a handful of hightop tables on one side and a copper-surfaced bar on the other, then an outdoor patio, then the brackish Back River, which flows forcefully to and from Buzzards Bay with each tide.
Some come for the lively bar scene with periodic live music, some for the off-the-boat fresh fish in the market, some for the reasonably priced yet inventive meals in a dining room that’s as comfortable for toddlers as for Gramma.
We come for the water fowl, and we’re never disappointed.
Sure, the fish tacos featuring corn and black bean salsa ($12) are excellent. We love the beet napolean salad ($9) a composed structure of beets with blue cheese and not much else. The seafood stew ($8 for a 12-ounce cup) is rich and creamy, and the lobster roll ($21, but often available as part of a lunch special) makes you glad you live in New England even when it snows every day for two months. We like our Cabernet Sauvignon, and they have two good ones by the glass: Josh ($9) and Five Rows ($7).
But if you have any interest in wildlife, you’ll want to visit the Lobster Trap for lunch or an early dinner during the summer, and the food will take a back seat to the scene playing out before you at the bar.
The Back River is a tidal estuary which flows into a protected area known as Phinney’s Harbor. During our visits, we’ve watched heron, egrets, osprey, swans, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, black ducks, and more. Most recently, we watched two flocks of Canada geese converge upon one another as if they were playing out a scene from “West Side Story.” The undertow is vicious, and the birds take full advantage, propelled inland under Shore Road, then bobbing back under the railroad bridge.
Others, we’re sure, come for the unusually pleasant staff. This being a seasonal community — one we tend to avoid in the season — many patrons are greeted with a cheerful, “When did you get back!?”
During our most recent lunchtime visit, we experienced a rare misstep: the oversized “house-made brioche croutons” accompanying the caesar salad were like bricks. The Big Dog’s topping of very good steak tips saved his salad, and Gina thought the classic dressing on her side version offset the crouton debacle. And the slightest expression of dismay on our part drew effusive apologies from our server, and complimentary wines for each of us. Things go wrong even at the best establishments, and the front-line staff’s handling of a complaint makes the difference between a customer who won’t return, and one who enthusiastically recommends the place. As we recommend The Lobster Trap.
The Lobster Trap
290 Shore Road, Bourne
We arrived at 42 Degrees North, on Route 3A in Plymouth, on a warm summer evening to find the snazzy outdoor bar packed with patrons. We spotted a couple of seats but found them marked with cell phones, the new universal symbol for “I’m still here.” So we trudged indoors to the empty bar and nearly empty restaurant, and were glad we did. There, we got the full attention of our affable bartender, Brooke, and learned lots of things.
For example, 42 Degrees North is part of a family of restaurants that include two more located further up the South Shore area than we typically venture. They have a fishmonger who delivers a catch of the day and the kitchen is never sure what it’s going to be. They change their menu seasonally, and what we had before us was pretty new.
And very impressive.
The Big Dog spotted oysters on the menu and Brooke sped off to learn that they were, in fact, the product of our friends at Big Rock Oysters in Harwich. He ordered four ($2.50 apiece) and liked them a lot — they were meaty and characteristically briny, and were served with cocktail sauce and an interesting citrusy mignonette.
The wedge salad ($8.95) caught our eye and we split it. A hunk of iceberg came draped with two slabs of bacon in an odd presentation that tasted better than it looked. It came with a quartered tomato and more bleu cheese dressing than any two people should ever eat at one sitting.
Gina ordered the paella ($21.95), which is an excellent choice for people having trouble making a decision. A big bowl of rice, yellow with saffron and rich with little chunks of tasso ham, was loaded with steamed clams and mussels, just-cooked scallops, peas, peppers, and perfect little shrimp without the annoying tail shells that restaurants so often leave on. It was a hearty and tasty dish.
The Big Dog ordered the grilled lamb sirloin (also $21.95, which is about the average for the 18 very diverse entrees). The lamb was cut into pieces and served with a demiglace and a rosemary branch. He ordered it medium well and concluded that medium would have worked for this preparation, but enjoyed it.
The lamb was served with a side of quinoa laced with goat cheese that was good enough to try replicating in The Dog House some day. The crunchy little quinoas were bathed in a goat cheese sauce, with some asparagus and portabello mushrooms tucked inside.
To our dismay, we found ourselves faced with a very appealing dessert menu and were forced to endure the bread pudding ($6.95). Brooke told us that dollop of ice cream was house-made cinnamon, and that alone would be enough to bring us back to 42 Degrees North. We rarely order dessert (yes, you’ve heard that before) and this enormous, delicious, and creative dish will be difficult to top. No perfunctory BJ’s cheesecake here — the desserts are definitely given plenty of attention in the kitchen.
Throughout the evening, Gina sipped a Clayhouse cabernet sauvignon, and the Big Dog chose a Josh cab (each $9 per glass). When there’s a good selection of wines, we typically try each other’s and often make a trade, but not so this time — we each preferred the wine we had ordered.
This dinner was more expensive than our norm (about $70 plus wine and tip), and despite the large volume of food we brought home no leftovers. But the high quality food, excellent service, and attractive surroundings made it feel like a great value, and we highly recommend 42 Degrees North.
42 Degrees North
690 State Road, Manomet
We had the good fortune of returning with friends to the Pilot House, and it was the kind of dinner where time flies by and next thing you know, it’s time to go home. Joining us was a crew of four people we like a lot. You know the drill: one minute you’re seated in a fairly crowded restaurant, and the next minute the waitstaff is scowling at you from a huddle in the corner, calling their boyfriends to say they’ll be late because a party of six just won’t leave.
It wasn’t that bad, but it was well on its way, on this Saturday night before the summer season makes it so difficult to find a seat at a really good restaurant on the Cape.
And the Pilot House is a really good restaurant. We had one service misstep and one dish described only as “good,” but our dining experience was otherwise excellent.
The Pilot House overlooks the Sandwich Marina near the eastern end of the Cape Cod Canal. One of many window seats at what may have been a wrap-around deck would have offered a great view of the waterfront, but we were seated by the fireplace, unlit during this first warm evening of the year. It’s probably a nice spot there on a winter evening, but due to the restaurant’s spare and airy decor, colorful in a classic way, it was a nice spot in the spring too. The restaurant’s design makes great use of varying levels, with the bar at the entrance at the highest point, and dining levels stepping down towards the sea.
The menu includes a varied selection of wines by the glass. We’ll spare you Gina’s anguish at the news that a new list is being introduced and the Albarino is being phased out (who phases out an Albarino in May!?) — but she was placated with a floral Chateau Ste. Michelle sauvignon blanc ($6). The Big Dog spotted a Josh cabernet ($9) and jumped right in. Jim ordered a Harpoon IPA ($5), which we all know is the perfect antidote to a day of yard work, and Mary the fruity Pilots Punch ($9). Dark and Stormy each ordered their namesake beverage ($9).
As an appetizer, Gina ordered the green salad ($3.95) with balsamic vinaigrette served on the side without asking. The salad consisted of mixed green leaves, with a couple of slices of English cucumber and a couple of grape tomatoes. Sounds boring, perhaps, but the combination of a snappy dressing and fresh, clean, spicy greens was spectacular. A flawless green salad portends a meal characterized by obsessive attention to detail.
Jim ordered a cup of the Portuguese kale soup, the day’s soup ($4.95). Anyone dining regularly in the Southcoast region of Massachusetts knows that kale soup tells you as much about a kitchen as a green salad does, and this didn’t disappoint: Jim said it was hot, both in temperature and spice.
Mary ordered a half dozen raw Duxbury oysters ($13.50) while the rest of us looked on in horror, having recently enjoyed endless oyster dishes during the Wareham Oyster Festival. The Duxburys were on the specials menu, as were Barnstable oysters provided by our friends at Big Rock Oyster.
The Big Dog ordered a caesar salad with anchovies ($6.95), and this is where the unfortunate service misstep occurred. As his entree, he ordered a monstrosity called the Seafood Pot ($17.95) off the appetizer menu, and it was hauled out as his appetizer. So while the rest of the table sat with its tiny soup cups and delicate salads and wee shellfish appetizers, the Dog confronted a giant trough containing lobster, shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels, all in a delicious sauce with bread for dipping. Good, but it threw off the cadence of the dinner in a way that the staff should have anticipated.
As an entree, Dark and Stormy each ordered the seafood special: lobster ravioli generously adorned with lobster, scallops, shrimp, tomatoes, and asparagus ($26.99) in a white wine sauce. We all tried some and agreed that lobster ravioli is so often marred by a heavy sauce, but this was not.
Mary is a connoisseur of fish tacos and was pleased but not particularly impressed by the Pilot House version ($19.95), which included black beans and was made with mahi mahi.
Jim’s dish of mussels marinara ($19.95), were pronounced very tasty. They arrived as an enormous mound of relatively small shells concealing a plate of pasta in a sauce worth sopping up with the bread that came alongside.
Gina was pleasantly surprised by her baked scallops ($21,95), a dish that many restaurants badly mangle. A small plate of a dozen or so large day boat scallops, with crunchy crumb topping, were nestled into a delicious sherry butter sauce, and came with rice and crunchy green beans. The scallops were perfectly done, moist inside but cooked through.
We were kidding, in the beginning, about the waitstaff calling their boyfriends. The team at the Pilot House is professional and pleasant, and at one point a passing staffer alerted us that the Bruins were winning in a playoff game that we could not see from our vantage point.
Gina and the Big Dog enjoyed this spot in a different way when stopping in recently for an afternoon snack and beverage at the bar. It was evident during that stop that the Pilot House is the sort of dependable yet adventuresome restaurant where you go with people who are important to you. We did that, and we were not disappointed.
The Pilot House Restaurant and Lounge
14 Gallo Road, Sandwich
At the Pilot House Restaurant, you can see the east end of the Cape Cod Canal from pretty much every seat. A step down here, a couple of steps up there, and you get a multi-level extravaganza of entertaining views.
Of course, Gina and the Big Dog sat at the bar, where you get peeks of sparkly water but not much else in terms of view. We did get to see an excellent golf tournament on TV, and we had a great view of the Pilot House’s excellent selection of unusual wines.
We don’t usually dwell on the alcohol, but let us do that for a moment. We ordered two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon in order to compare them: one Justin, which we had only ever seen by the bottle at The Rye Tavern in Plymouth, and a Josh Cellars, which the Big Dog gets at The Lobster Trap in nearby Pocasset (and which we just realized we’ve never mentioned). Lucky Gina got the $12 Justin, and the Big Dog got the $8 Josh. Both were rich, lush Cabs, full of fruit but not jammy, but when it came time to order a second glass we decided that the distinction wasn’t worth $4, and we ordered another pair of Joshes.
We note that a Chardonnay drinker beside us was delighted to see a La Crema on the wine list, but balked at the $11 pricetag. Lucky for her, apparently, her blustery male companions insisted ordered the La Crema over her objections.
We’re sure that you could order soup, salad, and entrees at the Pilot House, and maybe a dessert, and enjoy them all. But do what we did, and you’ll be just as happy.
To start, we ordered the cold seafood sampler ($15.95). It came with a lobster claw, two oysters, two littlenecks, and four peel-and-eat shrimp. We don’t share the same taste in seafood, and this was a perfect arrangement, with us each getting plenty of the stuff we like. The platter came with plastic cups of horseradish, cocktail sauce, and a vinegar concoction that Patricia the bartender explained was “minuet sauce — some people like it with their oysters.” The oysters were from Barnstable, we learned, and everything was clean and crisp and fresh.
We then ordered a haddock chowder special ($5.95) and blackened swordfish with lemon caper butter special ($12.95). We informed Patricia that we intended to split both, and she facilitated that with extra spoons and plates.
The chowder was outstanding. We don’t mean it was good. We mean that if we do a chowder contest: sorry, kids, but we’re picking the Pilot House. We mean that if we’re marooned on a desert island, the one food we want with us is Pilot House chowder. We mean that if we’re elected president, this soup will be served in the White House. We mean… well, you get the picture. We all have our pet peeves about chowder: too thick, too thin, potatoes too big, insufficient protein, etc., but we dare you to find something wrong with this creamy, bacony, thyme-y bowl of bliss.
The salad was a very fresh lettuce mix with some added oomph — maybe brussels sprouts leaves? — with grape tomatoes, a few European cucumber slices, some red onion, and the best house-made Italian dressing we have ever tasted. No need to tart up this basic oil and vinegar emulsion with herbs or cheese.
The swordfish was good. The butternut squash served alongside was also good. The mashed potatoes were fluffy, smooth, and delicious.
The Pilot House isn’t new. The building has clearly been there for a long time, although the interior has a fresh updated feel, and the operators tout some significant experience in the area. It was new to us, though, and we look forward to returning for outdoor dining as the weather warms.
The Pilot House Restaurant and Lounge
14 Gallo Road, Sandwich
Gina and the Big Dog are notoriously particular. People know that if they recommend to us that we try the chicken wings at some remote location in rural Rochester, those chicken wings had better be outstanding.
In this case, our friend Timmy the plumber was not an entirely trustworthy reference, so we did some additional research before making the journey. And honestly, the awful reviews for this place made us intrigued. “Totally forgettable”? “Portions were a little small”? “Service was terrible”? “Food is meh”???
Having had a week of horrific restaurant experiences, starting with a Saturday night debacle with our friends Mary and Jim at the East Bay Grille in Plymouth that was inexcusably awful, we were kind of psyched up for another train wreck. You, our loyal Chow readers, hear about our good experiences, but to avoid libel and profanity issues, the bad experience stories are related verbally to a small group of insiders. And those are fun too.
We found Matt’s Blackboard in the antique strip mall that constitutes Rochester’s sole commercial activity around 3 p.m. on a sunny Friday. At that hour, we were surprised to find groups of diners already seated, and others arriving shortly after we did. We took seats at the bar, whose elevated height obscures its essential diner vibe, with an expansive view of the kitchen.
They’re not kidding about the blackboard thing. The restaurant has a serviceable menu of pedestrian offerings, but the blackboard offers an intriguing window on a culinary imagination that made us want to sit and sample all afternoon.
We started by sharing a house salad. We believe, as you know, that the quality of the house salad is almost invariably an indication of the quality of the food overall. This salad was extraordinarily good. It consisted of crisp, mild mesculun greens, slices of English cucumbers, sliced red onion, and sliced small cherry tomatoes, with what we guessed were chunks of delicious house-made bread turned into croutons. The salad was good, but the dressings were outstanding. Our server brought out little containers of both the balsamic vinaigrette and the roasted garlic parmesan dressing, to avoid any fisticuffs among us; Gina tucked away her leftover parmesan to bring home, and the Big Dog slid his balsamic across the bar, to make sure it went home too.
We both ordered blackboard specials for lunch.
Gina chose the lobster roll and clam chowder ($15.99). The chowder was good, but the lobster roll was the most delicious non-Connecticut (hot and buttered) version she’d ever had. A light hand with the mayonnaise, a strong knife on the celery, and a good fistful of fresh parsley, tossed with delicious fresh lobster chopped to a manageable size, made a salad stuffed into a buttered and grilled hot dog bun. Textbook — cookbook — perfect. Add your lettuce or capers or tarragon if you want, but this pristine version of the classic can’t be beat.
The Big Dog selected a fried clam plate ($16.99). He said the whole-belly clams were chewy, but interestingly, they all disappeared pretty quickly, and Gina thought they were delicious, especially with the silky house-made tartar sauce. The Big Dog said the cole slaw was too liquidy, but interestingly, Gina didn’t get even a bite. The french fries were okay and there were lots left over.
Seats in the small dining area are likely nice. The half dozen bar seats, as we witnessed, may provide a bit too intimate view of the kitchen.
We thought the food was great, the service was very good, and the atmosphere was very pleasant on a Friday afternoon., We will definitely return to Matt’s Blackboard.
And it’s an important lesson for all of us. Cranky diners are the ones who tend to comment on the internet, and they aren’t always to be believed.
565 Rounsville Road, Rochester, MA
The structure was built in 1797 and presumably at that time it was on a busy thoroughfare. Today, one dirt entrance takes you past the golf course community known as The Pinehills, and the other brings you in through bucolic horse farms. These are neighbors who think nothing of shelling out 45 bucks for a bottle of Cabernet, as the folks next to us at the bar did. That’s pretty pricey for us canines, but not inconsistent for the menu.
That said, our total before tip, for two appetizers, two entrees, and a bottle of La Fiera Montepulciano ($25), came to just $91. Not bad for an excellent, ample dinner of fresh ingredients, as local as the bitter March winds would allow, prepared at the direction of an expert chef. We happened to be on duty for the first night of a new menu, and we had difficulty making choices.
Our mild red wine arrived alongside a bread basket that the Big Dog thought was the highlight of the dinner — a sweet, cakelike cinnamon bread and an oatmeal bread that probably contained something like pumpkin.
But surely the actual highlight was the carrot and ginger soup ($7) that the Dog ordered as an appetizer. Topped with a dollop of brie and sprinkled with chopped chives, the puree was thick enough to eat with a fork. The sweet carrots were edged out by the spicy ginger in a concoction that transcended the traditional combination.
But no! The real highlight was Gina’s crispy brussels sprout appetizer ($6). Braised sprout leaves fluttered around a puddle of lemon aioli, anchored by meaty sprout halves and sprinkled with teeny candied sunflower seeds. Kathleen, our able bartender, said a previous seasonal menu had omitted the sprouts appetizer, and regulars were very unhappy.
If our entree selections were any indication, Chef Joanna Farrar’s M.O. is to mix the vegetables and starch together, plate it over a ladle of sauce, position the protein on top, and garnish the dish with something interesting. For people who use a divided dish into adulthood, this is a disconcerting approach, but some of us like it. The Big Dog is on the fence about it, and this affected his view of dinner.
He ordered scallops ($23). Five large scallops were seared to a mahogany color while maintaining their juicy interior. The ladle was a rich balsamic glaze. The veggie/starch mix was quinoa, tomatoes, and olives. The garnish was arrugula in a lemony dressing. Despite the Dog’s reservations about quinoa, apparently an acquired taste or texture, there was nothing left to bring home.
Gina’s dish ($25) was a mix of couscous, mushrooms, and peas, topped by two generous and juicy slabs of swordfish, garnished with a bright salsa verde and a scoop of house-made ricotta. She ultimately agreed with the Dog that the combination of everything was overwhelming, but the Divided Dish gene she inherited, along with the ability to separate ingredients with a fork or knife, revealed the individual elements as delicious.
Now, to offset our whining about the bumpy, bear-lined roads, we should mention one feature that will bring us back, and two others that are really cool. We will definitely find our way back to the Tavern to sit outside on the heated patio around a gas fire. The country setting and charming landscape would make this a great spot for outdoor dining or just a gruner veltliner on a summer night. A secondary feature is what they describe as a 2,100 square foot vegetable garden. And finally, imagine wending your way through a two-century-old tavern, complete with what appear to be original features, into a nicely appointed restrooms complete with wooden sinks. No kidding! They’re new, and they’re beautiful.
Plymouth is full of odd antiquities, and here is one that is well off the beaten path — and well worth visiting. We envy the folks for whom this is a neighborhood tavern.
517 Old Sandwich Road, Plymouth