Long known for the fried clam and other eat-in-the-rough seafood favorites, the nearby coastal town of Essex, MA is now making it's case for "New England's Dining Capital." In a one-mile stretch, you'd be hard pressed to find a more diverse foodie destination, with over 13 restaurants creating their version of culinary nirvana.
One big advantage of living so close to the ocean is the freshness of the seafood that is widely available. As Steve Woodman of Woodman's Restaurant said, "it's all around us. It comes in fresh. It's sustainable, it's local. There's nothing better." And I'd have to agree. I mean, nearly every restaurant I went to sourced their seafood just miles away, ranging from lobsters to haddock, and of course, soft-shell clams dug right in the Essex River. Not everything can be served straight from the backyard though; most of the scallops come in from New Bedford, which is a ninety-minute ride to the South Shore.
When I visited Pat Shea, executive chef at C.K. Pearl, he was busy filleting fresh striper that was caught by a local fisherman hours earlier and spontaneously added to the night's specials. He also brings in the majority of his ingredients from community farms to incorporate in his fusion-inspired dishes because, "it's a win-win for everyone." But nowadays, as Shea said, "Essex is so much more than just seafood." Sure, you can still find world-class sushi and other, more traditional New England staples. But C.K. Pearl is really changing the culinary game in Essex, and the North Shore in general. Now, to be clear, I'm not a food critic by any means. But what I can tell you is the dishes Pat was crafting could have been mistaken for pieces of art instead of entrees. The vibrant colors radiating from each plate were truly a pleasure to film and I was blown away by the creativeness injected into the dishes.
Tim Kennefick, owner of the Windward Grille, also echoed Shea's sentiment. "We still do fried clams and all the other fried items," he said, "but the biggest end of our business is coming from the broiler, and also sauté items." His restaurant is actually an old farmhouse that was built in 1680, and people travel far and wide to enjoy delectable cuts of beef in his dining room constructed of exposed timbres. But of course, no meal would be complete without a little dessert (hopefully you saved some room.)
Enter Kevin and Mark Ricci, co-owners of the Village Restaurant, who are still cooking homemade desserts that their grandmother introduced to Essex in 1956. "All the locals were really great bakers - my grandmother was a great baker and she started the tradition here [at the Village.]" They always have six or eight homemade desserts on the menu every day, ranging from the hard-to-find traditional Indian pudding to strawberry shortcake. And I was lucky enough to score a savory slice of their famous coconut cream pie that, to my surprise, wasn't overly sweet. It's so famous, in fact, that Kevin told me a true story about how a "coconut expert" came in to try a slice and deemed it the best pie he had ever eaten. It's hard to argue with someone that dedicates their life to the study of coconuts, but I suggest having a piece as soon as possible so you can be the judge.
To wrap things up, you can certainly still enjoy a famous clam basket on a picnic table, but there are so many more modern, eclectic dining options available in Essex than ever before. Not big on seafood? No problem. Gluten-free? They've got you covered. Not only are these people doing a fabulous job sticking to their rugged New England roots, they're creating innovative new experiences that should be tasted to be believed.