Many New Yorkers cherish memories of New England seacoast vacations. And a visit to a lobster pound, clam shack, or oyster bar poised by the water or on a dock is often one of those favorite sensory snapshots. The food isn’t complicated—fried or boiled seafood, french fries, mayonnaisey coleslaw—but the taste is enhanced by the proximity of lapping waves and the smell of surf, and it provides a lasting lesson in the virtues of plainness and freshness.
While the city has always had its seafood palaces such as the Grand Central Oyster Bar, and homegrown clam shacks like Randazzo’s in Sheepshead Bay, it wasn’t until Pearl Oyster Bar opened in Greenwich Village in 1997 that an approximation of the intimate seaside spot became a trope of modern urban restaurateuring. It was followed by perhaps two dozen other places—and soon you could get a lobster roll from a café, truck, or food event in many New York neighborhoods.
So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see Kittery—named for a coastal town in Maine—open in Carroll Gardens not far from the Gowanus Canal, which gives it a kind of maritime credibility, though the wafting breezes bring a smell not quite so salutary. A paved courtyard lies beyond a gate; before you stands a white clapboard structure like something out of a Jamie Wyeth painting, with windows that will be flung open to dispense oceanic snacks in warmer months. Inside, the nautical decorations are wisely kept to a minimum, though whitewashed walls with blue trim prevail. The result is a feeling of uncluttered spaciousness, almost conjuring a beach vista.
Not everything is great at Kittery, but the things that matter are. Served on the usual split buttered bun, the lobster roll is beautiful. It’s not overstuffed, but not overpriced either ($19), considering that it comes with generous servings of purple slaw, pickle spears, and homemade potato chips so good they’re worth ordering on their own. Experimentalists might even try stuffing the chips right into the sandwich for extra crunch and salinity. There are praiseworthy fried clam rolls, too, but it’s better to migrate to the seafood platters for that sainted creature—a Brooklyn obsession since the first Canarsie Indian pulled one out of Jamaica Bay.
The clam platter ($19) features entire bivalves (not just strips) fried crisp in flour and cornmeal. They’re so profuse and rich you can nudge them one by one onto your dining companions’ plates and still have plenty for yourself. The irregularly cut fries, with little bits of crisp skin here and there, are admirable, too, but what threatens to upstage everything else is the wonderful tartar sauce—its effect enhanced by a substantial wallop of raw garlic.
You might be tempted to sample the omnibus fry plate ($28)—squid, shrimp, little swatches of lobster, and fish fillet done in a rather sodden beer batter—but with clams this good, it’s hard for the other stuff to keep up. The New England clam chowder is unimpeachable, with neither too much bacon nor too much cream, allowing the shellfish, with its hint of an almost romantic bitterness, to shine. This being at least nominally still an Italian neighborhood, there are stuffed clams, too (seven for $14). Rather than bombing them with garlic and crumbs in the Sicilian fashion, Kittery does the recipe one better by luxuriantly mounding the open clams with fennel-flavored Italian sausage. It’s a convincingly delicious idea.
Scallops make an appearance on the appetizer menu, bathed in citrus and flecked with hot chiles as a ceviche. This really doesn’t belong on a seaside menu anyplace nearby except the Hamptons, but the minced scallops are tart and refreshing, though the quantity is meager for the $12 price. There are full-blown entrées, too, but really, these are beyond the purview of the traditional Down East seafood shanty. The lobster stew ($26) is passable, but massive quantities of vegetables and a curried cream broth make the lobster meat rather hard to find.
More than half of the eight main courses are turf rather than surf—steaks, chops, and chicken. One evening, having finally tired of creatures that cling, float, and swim, my friends and I became curious about the grilled half-chicken ($18). The size of the bird and mountain of herby stuffing was impressive, but the bird was damp and tasted reheated. It posed the obvious question: Who but a landlubber, despising every breath of bracing sea air, would order chicken in a seafood joint?