This week, I am on the Massachusetts North Shore, an especially picturesque stretch of historic New England Atlantic coast, where a sure sign of spring is the seasonal reopening of its many fresh-off-the-boat seafood eateries. From simple roadside clams-and-fries shacks to noted restaurants with impressive views of the ocean and menus to match, they are gradually emerging from hibernation to ready themselves for the swarms of visitors that will soon descend upon the area.
New England Seafood History
It is my good fortune that my arrival happens to coincide with the annual reopening of The Rudder, a Gloucester foodie landmark since 1957. Tucked in a building dating back to the age of sails, the Rocky Neck harbor-front place is already bursting at the seams when we arrive at 6:30 P.M. for an early dinner. The bar is standing room-only, three deep with locals who clearly enjoy having the Rudder to themselves before the tourist invasion begins.
We edge our way toward the glassed-in dining deck packed cheek by jowl with small square blue Formica tables of an other age. Thanks to my son’s foresight (he made reservations a couple of days ahead) we score a window-side table with a view the harbor bathed in golden sunset light. The décor is resolutely kitsch, the ceiling covered with faded plastic garlands interwoven with pin lights. But there is nothing kitsch about the menu, just delicious, unpretentiously prepared bounty fresh out of the sea.
We share a couple of appetizers. The crab cakes, three generous patties of pure lump-crab meat gently sautéed to a golden brown arrive on a bed of arugula drizzled with spicy aioli. As for the eggplant Napoleon, I doubt it’s named after the erstwhile Emperor of the French. But whoever the eponymous gentleman is, he gets my gratitude for the succulent plate of crisp eggplant fritters garnished with sundried tomato pesto and topped with a mound of tangy whipped ricotta. I could easily call it a satisfying meal right there.
However, the sweet local scallops I’ve been yearning for since I started planning this trip are yet to come. A generous baking dish of them arrives, prepared the traditional way, broiled under a light topping of buttery breadcrumbs, with a dash of white wine and garlic sauce. The other notable main dishes at our table are a creamy seafood risotto disappearing under a medley of just steamed shrimps, scallops, mussels and clams, and stuffed sole. The latter consists of two delicate filets of sole wrapped around mounds of lump-crab meat and glazed with beurre blanc. A taste of each convinces me that a return visit is in order.
The Rudder offers a full array of bar beverages. The wine list features a good choice of California wines as well as a few offerings from international wine-growing areas. Most are available by the glass as well as full bottles. The service is efficient and friendly.
An Epic Lobster Roll
On a first visit, the simple storefront of The Muffin Shop could easily be overlooked. Just walk in, grab a soft drink in the glass-fronted cooler as you go by, and order at the counter. Then find a seat at one of the dozen or so wooden tables, wait for your name to be called and come to claim your prize: on a white disposable plate, outlined by a kosher dill pickle, a long sweet bread roll, toasted on the grill and overflowing with heaps of thick lobster chunks. A few thin slices of tomatoes and a couple of lettuce leaves may be added on demand, but otherwise, that’s it, just mounds of succulent fresh lobster meat, barely seasoned with a dab of mayonnaise dressing. Well worth a detour whenever I am in the area. Be prepared to stand in line during the summer months.
Good to Know
- The Rudder, 73 Rocky Neck Avenue, Gloucester, Massachusetts, rudderrestaurant.com, is open 5:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., Thursday through Sunday from its mid-April seasonal opening to mid-May, and daily from late May to of October. Call for exact dates as they may vary slightly from year to year. Dinner reservation recommended. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. +1 978-283-7967.
- For the unfortunate souls with seafood dietary restrictions, the menu also offers a small selection of Italian meat dishes. And yes, there are also a few interesting dessert choices, alas beyond the capabilities of my appetite for this visit.
- Located on a small peninsula within Gloucester’s working harbor, Rocky Neck is home to one of the oldest continuously operating art colonies in the United States. Today, it is home to dozens of galleries where working artists, painters, photographers, potters, textile designers and jewelry makers display their work during the summer months.
- The Muffin Shop, 126 Washington St, Marblehead, Massachusetts, is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 6:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. , and Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Contact: Tel. (781) 631-8223.