Technique, flavor, beauty: It's all there in this clam creation. (Photo courtesy SaltAir Seafood Kitchen)
It was never a bad idea to stop at one of the roadside shacks (well, more than a few were close to being actual shacks, while the rest were usually in need of a new coat of paint and some other general sprucing up) and order a lobster roll and some steamed clams. A few beers to go along with the seafood, and the afternoon was complete. Sitting by the sea or the bay, breezes blowing our napkins off the table, gulls hovering, sun lowering into the water … there was nothing else to do, and nowhere we’d rather be. It was enough to close our eyes and enjoy the salt air, savor the lobster and clams and sip beer.
That’s exactly where I was last night … at least in my imagination. What took me there, though I was far from Maine or Long Island, was Brandi Key’s New England menu at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, part of her Chef Tasting Series (New England is, alas, no more, as these five-course dinners run for three days only), which will take in the flavors and sensory notes of, among other locales, the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Fifty bucks is all you need for the airfare, and if the rest of the menus are as successful as my New England courses were, Key has done your travel budget a favor.
First up was a clam “chowder” … quotes put in place by Key on the menu to denote, of course, that this would be no normal chowder. And it wasn’t, but it was good. Very good. A clam served on the half shell, swaddled in bacon, potato, leak, and chowder sauce. Aside from a mouthful of flavors, all of which work well together, the clam is roasted with aplomb, and each component is treated with grace and respect: the bacon and potato are brunoise epitomized. My only quibble? There is but one clam per diner.
Next came Portuguese Sausage, which was my least favorite course of the evening. Nothing was bad on the plate, which was comprised of a house-made kielbasa-like link, baked beans and maple syrup, and a piece of dark steamed bread. The flavors of this were fine, and I know why Key put this on the New England menu, but for me, it is a fall or winter dish. I want it again once the temperatures fall, because the sausage’s unique texture and deep, slightly smoky taste intrigued me.
And then, lobster. Poached in butter. Poached well. Key named this course “Lazy Man’s Lobster Roll,” and it was a delight. You get a King’s Hawaiian bread bun, and it’s buttered and dense and satisfying and full of that succulent lobster. Chives, drawn butter, and a unique “Tony’s” sauce (ginger a highlight in it) named for, yes, Tony, a man who is known to carry around the ingredients for this concoction in a brown paper bag, mixing it at whichever bar or restaurant he dines. The sauce made for a different lobster experience, even for a man who needs nothing on his but butter and salt. Key has a winner on her hands with this.
The final savory course was haddock; it’s “Fish and Chips” (along with cod and plaice, haddock is fish and chips in Britain), and if you like tartar sauce, peas, potatoes and a firm-flesh fish, plus beer batter crispies (the curly, light-brown pieces in the photo above), you would definitely like this. As with the clam dish, everything here is done right; the sauce has a pleasing amount of acid and fat, the potatoes and peas are on point, and if you reserve the pea tendril for the end, as the final bite of this course, the brightness of it will leave you smiling. Yes, the fish, with its lightly battered exterior, is more than satisfying.
Dessert remained. Back to Boston, with a “Cream Pie” ice cream: vanilla ice cream with fluffy cake pieces, cream spread, chocolate sauce. Dense and rich cake, an ice cream that’s been churned exactly right (this is homey decadence epitomized), and a dark chocolate sauce. I want to eat this seated in a rocking chair on a porch overlooking the Atlantic.
Key’s Chef Series continues through October 5; I am looking forward to San Francisco and France, and I’d advise you to make sure your passport is valid.