Best of New England 2006 Dining & Drinking

By Christie Matheson, editor | |

Best Seafood

CONNECTICUT
Ocean Drive

The atmosphere at Ocean Drive reminds us of a South Beach breeze, especially when the restaurant’s entrance, a garage door, is opened to the summertime air. Since seafood is the appropriate cuisine for this Miami-inspired eatery, executive chef Marc Lippman, who took over the kitchen nearly three years ago, lines up a selection of ocean-fresh dishes like mahogany sea bass in miso glaze. Downing a plate of oysters at the 40-foot raw bar makes us happy as clams. 128 Washington St., South Norwalk, CT, 203-855-1665; www.oceandrivesono.com.

MAINE
Street and Company

Leave it to a Portland restaurant to pull off Maine’s choicest seafood. Street and Company serves seasonally harvested fish and shellfish prepared simply (grilled, blackened or over pasta) with a handful of seasonings and little else. They use homegrown produce and local cheeses whenever possible. The cozy oyster bar and rustic dining room make for high-end dining without attitude. 33 Wharf St., Portland, ME, 207-775-0887.

BEST IN NEW ENGLAND
MASSACHUSETTS
Catch

In a region celebrated for its ocean bounty, we were caught off-guard to find the most standout seafood joint in a landlocked town. But Winchester’s Catch hits the mark with every dish. Chef-owner Chris Parsons introduces local seafood to subtly exotic flavors. Mussels are paired with chorizo; salmon comes in a saffron-citrus bath. The stripped-down dining room, where the only flair is in the form of black-and-white paintings, is an ideal setting for experiencing fresh, fabulous food. 34 Church St., Winchester, MA, 781-729-1040; www.catchrestaurant.com.

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Surf

Located in the heart of Nashua, Surf dishes up creative fish specialties. And owners Michael and Sarah Buckley have raised the (raw) bar for seafood for all of New Hampshire. The scallop ceviche is vibrant and mouthwatering; a Portuguese seafood stew brims with delicate chunks of cod, clams and shrimp in white wine broth and comes with a hunk of French bread. 207 Main St., Nashua, NH, 603-595-9293; www.surfseafood.com.

RHODE ISLAND
The Black Pearl

Set against the bobbing sailboats of Newport Harbor, the Black Pearl offers a quintessential waterfront patio that, come summer, is generally filled with patrons indulging in the restaurant’s signature chowder. Clams and cream aside, this more than 30-year-old institution, whose Commodore’s Room gives diners dreamy water views, specializes in dressed-up classic New England seafood like shrimp, scallops, lobster, a wide selection of fish from the grill and, in the Tavern, a spicy baked cod. Bannister’s Wharf, Newport, RI, 401-846-5264; www.blackpearlnewport.com.

VERMONT
Jackson House Inn & Restaurant

True, the Jackson House Inn & Restaurant serves much more than seafood. But executive chef Jason Merrill’s skill with fish dishes is impossible to ignore. Organic Scottish cod is roasted to perfection and served with a wild mussel, clam and leek ragout; pan-seared scallops are tender and succulent. Finding fresh-caught seafood in Vermont can be a challenge, but Merrill makes the quest worthwhile. 114-3 Senior Lane, Woodstock, VT, 800-448-1890; www.jacksonhouse.com.

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Other Dining & Drinking Awards

ATMOSPHERE
The White Barn Inn

A warm, candlelit glow flickers in the White Barn Inn’s dark-wood dining room, which is housed in two Civil War–era barns. Hand-designed Bouvier sculptures of barnyard creatures add country charm to the otherwise formal space. Floor-to-ceiling windows, along with original beams, line the room; live piano music floats over diners’ heads. 37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk, ME, 207-967-2321; www.whitebarninn.com.

CHICEST WAY TO EAT ON VACATION
Nantucket Concierge, Nantucket Private Chef Services, Tina Miller, Jill Amado

If you can rent a vacation home, you can hire a private chef. The realtors and concierges who find you the perfect coastal view on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard also have the most talented cooks’ phone numbers. Private chefs can make dinner (or a dinner party) casual or fancy. And they can commit to you for the entire summer, a weekend or just a night. Though some chefs charge a flat rate per person, most charge a per-hour rate for prep, plus the cost of groceries. On the Vineyard, rates run between $40 and $70 per hour. On Nantucket, the going rate is $50 per hour. For more information on Nantucket, call Nantucket Concierge (508-228-8400) or Nantucket Private Chef Services (508-241-3427). On Martha’s Vineyard, try chef Tina Miller (508-696-8062) or chef Jill Amado (508-696-8972).

CLAMSHACK
The Clam Shack

Be careful or you may accidentally drive past the Clam Shack, a humble pull-up spot on the Mousam River in the heart of Kennebunk. Two fry cooks man the grill, pumping out crispy fried clams, shrimp and mammoth lobster rolls to passing pedestrians and cars en route to the beach. 2 Western Ave., Kennebunk, ME, 207-967-3321.

COCKTAILS
Excelsior

Excelsior’s sexy, low-lit bar boasts an innovative list of libations. One sip of the hand-muddled bajito (a mojito with fresh basil) or the ginger cosmo (with candied ginger) and you’ll be hooked. The bartenders are quick on the order, long on the liquor and short on the ice—the ultimate cocktail combination. 272 Boylston St., Boston, MA, 617-426-7878; www.excelsiorrestaurant.com.

COMFORT FOOD
Atria

Atria’s main dining room in Edgartown may not scream comfort (though it’s downright homey once the candles are lit), but if you head downstairs to the brick-cellar bar, an unquestionably soul-warming evening awaits. The fireplace and brass accents add a glow to the friendly room, where regulars lounge at a copper-topped bar sipping potent cocktails. Cracklin’ pork shank served with spicy collard greens and macaroni and cheese loaded with lobster chunks are popular twists on comforting classics. 137 Main St., Edgartown, MA, 508-627-5850; www.atriamv.com.

COOLEST ICED COFFEE
Marylou’s Coffee, the Village Cup

Drinking ice-cold beverages in subzero temperatures is something of an anomaly, but New Englanders love iced coffee year-round, and the region’s mom-and-pop shops brew it just right. Marylou’s Coffee (www.marylous.com), with stores throughout Massachusetts, including Braintree, Plymouth and Sandwich, has an iced coffee menu that reads more like the board at an ice cream shop. Snick-a-doodle-doo, white chocolate chip and Milky Way are just a few of the flavor-packed concoctions served over ice. In Vermont, the Village Cup (30 Vermont Rt. 15, Jericho, VT, 802-899-1730) brews some of the best ice-cold coffee around. They even do caffeinated frappes, and they do it all without ever charring the grinds.

DESSERT
Wheatleigh

Wheatleigh is a good place to fall in love, even if it is just with the desserts. The 19th-century Italianate mansion in the heart of the Berkshires serves the perfect passion fruit soufflé. We’re also crazy about the rich praline tart with white-chocolate sorbet…and the Manjari dark-chocolate soufflé…and the caramelized apple tarte Tatin. Hawthorne Road, Lenox, MA, 413-637-0610; www.wheatleigh.com.

HOMEGROWN PRODUCE
Arrows

To say the chef-owners of Arrows are obsessed with their garden-fresh vege-tables is hardly an overstatement. In fact, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier wrote a book about it (The Arrows Cookbook: Cooking and Gardening from Maine’s Most Beautiful Farmhouse Restaurant, Scribner, 2003). Their dedication results in fresh-plucked seasonal ingredients, such as spring peas, lavender, rosemary, summer tomatoes, sweet corn and delicate microgreens, that come right from the restaurant’s on-site gardens. Go early to explore before the bounty ends up on your plate. Berwick Road, Ogunquit, ME, 207-361-1100; www.arrows restaurant.com.

LOBSTER
Mike’s Clam Shack

Well-known for its red roof and New-England-shanty decor, Mike’s Clam Shack is unmatched when it comes to lobster. Served in the rough, the red-shelled beauties are meaty and steamed to tenderness. We don’t know how they keep their prices so low, but you’ll always have extra dough for a steaming cup of chowder on the side. 1150 Post Road, Rt. 1, Wells, ME, 207-646-5999; www.mikesclamshack.com.

LOBSTER ROLL
B&G Oysters

We know people who are very picky about their lobster rolls, and these people swear by the version at B&G Oysters. The pink chunks of lobster meat, flecked with tarragon and adorned with a hint of creamy lemon aioli, are served on a hot dog bun with a side of piping-hot fries. This pricey classic is worth every penny. 550 Tremont St., Boston, MA, 617-423-0550; www.bandgoysters.com.

OYSTERS
Neptune Oyster

Our version of heaven is an intimate, bustling oyster joint where we can saddle up at the marble counter, choose our favorite salty little gems and wash them down with a crisp white or sparkling wine. Nestled close to the North End’s red-sauce institutions, Neptune Oyster is nirvana realized, and it's worth the wait every time. 63 Salem St., Boston, MA, 617-742-3474; www.neptuneoyster.com.

RESTAURANT, ASIAN
Blue Ginger

Eight years after opening this East-meets-West eatery, celebrity chef Ming Tsai continues to turn out original cuisine. Fans are devoted to his now-classic garlic-and-black-pepper lobster with lemongrass rice, sake-miso-marinated Alaskan butter-fish and Asian-lacquered poussin with mandarin chicken orzo fried rice. Count on attentive service and an excellent wine list. 583 Washington St., Wellesley, MA, 781-283-5790; www.ming.com.

RESTAURANT, CITY
No. 9 Park

It’s no wonder New Englanders love No. 9 Park. The first taste of executive chef Barbara Lynch’s famous prune-stuffed gnocchi or perfectly caramelized Nantucket Bay scallops is as delicious as the last bite of dessert. May we suggest the black-pepper cheesecake with golden pineapple? This serene respite is an ideal escape from sometimes overwhelming city life. 9 Park St., Boston, MA, 617-742-9991; www.no9park.com.

RESTAURANT, CITY OTHER THAN BOSTON
Fore Street

It’s not sleek. It’s not mod. We don't care. We adore Fore Street because it serves consistently outstanding food in an environment that beautifully matches the personality of Portland. Locals flock here nightly for Sam Hayward’s daily-changing menu, the renovated warehouse dining room with an open kitchen and the spot-on service. Other New Englanders drive for hours to experience it, even if only for a one-night stand. 288 Fore St., Portland, ME, 207-775-2717; www.forestreet.biz.

RESTAURANT, KIDS’
Full Moon

Given how sophisticated the kids’ market is these days (have you seen the Louis Vuitton diaper bags?), it’s amazing there aren’t more restaurants as savvy as Full Moon. Owned by two moms, this eatery goes far beyond just offering coloring mats. Parents will find specials like “green eggs and ham” as well as a play space brimming with trains, puzzles and stuffed animals. While kids play, grown-ups can sup on dishes such as smoky tomato-saffron mussels. They may call it a kids’ restaurant, but we like to think of Full Moon as a parent’s dream come true. 344 Huron Ave., Cambridge, MA, 617-354-6699; www.fullmoonrestaurant.com.

RESTAURANT, FRENCH
Craigie Street Bistrot

Too often, fine French restaurants forget what makes French cuisine so fine in the first place. But at the unpretentious Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, chef Tony Maws serves homey versions of haute classics that effortlessly outshine their showier cousins. Farm-fresh eggs en cocotte complement rock shrimp and wild mushrooms, while olive oil-poached cod balances clams and a salty cod-oyster broth. 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, MA, 617-497-5511; www.craigiestreetbistrot.com.

RESTAURANT, ITALIAN
Al Forno

When Al Forno opened in 1980, New England’s gourmet pizza cred was cemented. No longer were we playing second fiddle to New York. Years later, Al Forno’s thin-crust, wood-fired grilled pizzas still attract discerning foodies from around the country. Roasted clams with spicy sausage and endive; steak served vintner-style with roasted grapes, onions and aged balsamic vinegar; and tempting homemade pasta are also major draws. 577 S. Main St., Providence, RI, 401-273-9760; www.alforno.com.

RESTAURANT, MOST NEW ENGLAND
Carpenter & Main, Locke-Ober

Creating an exemplary New England restaurant requires more than the right geography. First, there's the food to consider. Chef-owner Peter Ireland puts sustainability on the table at Carpenter & Main (326 Main St., Norwich, VT, 802-649-2922; www.carpenterandmain.com) by using as many locally sourced ingredients (such as Vermont grass-fed beef) as he can. The Norwich native and Williams College grad trained at some of the best restaurants in France and New York before returning home to execute his version of New England cuisine. Then there’s the ambience, which Boston’s 130-plus-year-old Locke-Ober (3 Winterplace, Boston, 617-542-1340; www.lockeober.com) has in spades. Rich, dramatic and decidedly old-school, this classic eatery, recently revamped by architect Adam Tihany, provides gracious service and offers a menu of traditional favorites, including the lobster stew that JFK used to order regularly.

RESTAURANT, NEW AMERICAN
Simon Pearce

Glassblower and potter Simon Pearce is beloved for his airy interpretations of classic forms. So it’s no surprise that the food served inside the blond-wood dining room echoes his contemporary style. Chef Joshua Duda draws inspiration from Ireland and France when imagining his regional specialties, which include a butternut squash risotto croquette with pistachio cream and pumpkinseed oil and a horseradish-crusted cod that comes with herb-mashed potatoes. 1760 Quechee Main St., Quechee, VT, 802-295-1470; www.simonpearce.com.

RESTAURANT, OFF THE BEATEN PATH
The Old Inn on the Green

Combine a centuries-old inn, artfully executed (and constantly changing) menus, a graceful dining room, a canopied garden terrace and plenty of candlelight, and you have the Old Inn on the Green, tucked away in the hamlet of New Marlborough. Chef-owner Peter Platt quietly and brilliantly prepares clean, seasonal dishes ready to pair with a reasonably priced wine list. 134 Hartsville New Marlborough Road, Rt. 57, New Marlborough, MA, 413-229-7924; www.oldinn.com.

RESTAURANT, ROMANTIC
L’Espalier

If our stomachs are indeed the way to our hearts, then lovers should head straight to L’Espalier. Sexy orchids grace this elegant Back Bay townhouse, where chef-owner Frank McClelland sets hearts afire with haute cuisine ranging from buttery Maine lobster served with native corn to plates of farmstead Vermont cheeses. 30 Gloucester St., Boston, MA, 617-262-3023; www.lespalier.com.

RESTAURANT, SPECIAL OCCASION
American Seasons

Simply visiting Nantucket can make an occasion special. Dinner at American Seasons takes it to another stratosphere. The rustic dining room and
candlelit patio are festive backdrops for the creative cuisine of chef-owner Michael LaScola, whose foie gras crème brûlée, lobster bisque and tuna katafi are the stuff of legends. This place never takes itself too seriously. And neither should you, so don’t skip dessert. 80 Centre St., Nantucket Island, MA, 508-228-7111; www.americanseasons.com

STEAK HOUSE
Grill 23 & Bar

The folks at Grill 23 know the best steak houses deliver classic fare without needless frills. Because what’s better than a perfectly charred, rosy-centered, dry-aged sirloin delivered by a white-jacketed waiter? Well, maybe a 24-ounce porterhouse preceded by a tower of plump local oysters. Or buttery filet mignon alongside a dish of creamy whipped potatoes. 161 Berkeley St., Boston, MA, 617-542-2255; www.grill23.com.

STEAMERS
Woodman’s of Essex

Clams at Woodman’s of Essex are big, juicy and steaming hot. The iconic clam shack, just north of Boston, takes credit for inventing the fried version of these bivalves. Steamed in netted bags and still holding onto a bit of gritty sand, the meaty pearls are best enjoyed dipped into melting butter and accompanied by a cold beer at one of the shack’s family-style picnic tables. 121 Main St., Essex, MA, 978-768-6057; www.woodmans.com.

WATER VIEW
The Back Eddy

There’s no better place to take in a sunset than the Back Eddy in Westport. Whether that’s the result of an act of nature or brilliant architecture, the sunsets—seen from any seat on the outer deck—are consistently colorful and brilliant as they saturate the marina. A sunset combined with a Westport clambake, complete with local littlenecks, mussels and cod, makes for a true New England moment. 1 Bridge Road, Westport, MA, 508-636-6500; www.thebackeddy.com.

WINE LIST
Silks at Stonehedge Inn

Wine racks may line the walls at Silks, but the dining room shows off only a percentage of the restaurant’s vast (100,000-plus-bottle) collection. Silks’ famous wine cave stocks everything from bargains to wallet-busters. Owner and wine director Levent Bozkurt keeps many choices accessibly priced by buying wines young and aging them on site. He’s been known to pull out a few well-aged options for the inn’s seasonal wine dinners. Stonehedge Inn, 160 Pawtucket Blvd., Tyngsboro, MA, 978-649-4400; www.stonehedgeinn.com.