Freddy's Lobster and Clams

$$$$ ($14 and under)
A beachy lobster shack in the middle of downtown Bethesda.
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday
11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sunday
11:30 a.m. -9 p.m.
Bethesda (Red Line)
70 decibels (Conversation is easy)

Editorial Review

A new Maine event for Bethesda
Freddy's Lobster & Clams will butter you up
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

The design, if not always the food, at Freddy's Lobster & Clams dips suburban Maryland into coastal Maine.

Picnic tables are parked inside as well as in front of the Bethesda newcomer. Fishnets cling to a half-roof over the bar. White-framed "windows" punctuate the shingled wall of the main dining room; the pretend views (actually photographs) capture life on the water. What at first glance appears to be a hot tub in the back turns out to be the source of one of the signatures at Freddy's: It's a lobster tank, purchased in Martha's Vineyard and animated by as much as 450 pounds of lively inhabitants. Life buoys, paddles and tiny plastic lobster toys round out the scenery - which includes T-shirts for sale, because when did you ever drop by a lobster or clam shack that didn't stock them?

The only missing ingredient seems to be sea spray; there's even a (wooden) sea gull perched on a piling between two of the booths.

Freddy's Lobster & Clams is the spawn of its neighbor, the wine-themed Grapeseed, both owned by veteran chef Jeff Heineman. The new joint is a nod to his grandfather, who introduced him to clam-digging in Maine as a boy, and the result of some good observation: Heineman figures all the Boston Red Sox caps he sees around the area translate to an audience that appreciates simple seafood.

Freddy's paper menu, tucked into a pail with some condiments on the table, is a breeze to read. Just think of what you like at the beach, and hold the saltwater taffy, the pizza and the sand.

"Let's Get Started" signals appetizers. Freddy's slips surf into an increasingly common restaurant snack. Its deviled eggs show up with lobster meat instead of mashed yolks. They're fun and rich. The difference between New England and Rhode Island clam chowder? Cream for the first, "clear" for the other. Both float tender clams, potatoes and celery, and both are tasty, but my preference tilts to the creamless recipe, invigorated with thyme and other herbs. Just one problem: Both are tepid when they hit my table.

Those soups aren't the only dishes you can compare. Lobster rolls are served at two temperatures, hot or cold. The first involves sweet chunks of the seafood gilded with butter. The second is lobster enriched with mayonnaise and sparked with lemon zest. Neither sandwich is very big, which is why you might want to order both styles and conduct a taste test. On a hot day, I vote for a cold one chased with a cold one. But both rolls are minimally dressed to let the lobster star.

Fried food falls under the heading "Crispy Goodness," and some of it is. Juicy rock shrimp from Maine sports a golden coat of buttermilk batter that barely clings to the hot seafood and lets the flavor shine. The beer batter encasing the fried haddock, on the other hand, weighs the fish down. Fried whole clams are a treat to find and to eat. (For those who care, they're also gluten-free.)

Order something fried by the "box," and you get just the main event; a "platter" includes french fries that originate from the deep-freeze and coleslaw apportioned as if for Communion. (The slaw is good; I just want more than a thimbleful of it.) Regarding the commercial french fries, Heineman says he'd rather focus on the big picture for now: "We're cleaning 150 lobsters a day."

Vegetarians should eat before coming. Beyond the '70s-era iceberg lettuce salad, best splashed with the house-made Catalina dressing (it's like French), there's little for herbivores. Meat eaters can mull over grilled chicken breast, grilled steak and grilled pork sausage. The last is best. The scored red links, snappy and sassy, acknowledge the influence of Portuguese fishermen on the East Coast. (As do the bell peppers and fried egg, an optional topping for that grilled steak, which needs every bit of their flavor.) The night I tried the daily catch, I wanted to toss it back. The best way to describe the swordfish served with boring asparagus is . . . wet.

Beer drinkers will be in hog heaven, with 40 craft brews to ponder. A cooler stocked with Oskar Blues G'Knight Imperial Red from Colorado, Exit Four American Trippel from Flying Fish in New Jersey - and on and on - runs practically the length of the bar in front of it. But cocktails are given their due, too. Bar manager Chris Cunningham, late of Galileo III downtown and once of Dino in Cleveland Park, whips up drinks that will encourage revelers to drop by Freddy's even if they're not interested in eating.

Freddy's version of Maine's official state treat, the whoopie pie, is a sad sandwich of dry chocolate cake supporting a filling of sweetened butter - and Crisco. If you have a sweet tooth, ice cream is a better way to sign off.

From its cherry-red stools to its cheery young staff, Freddy's radiates good times. "Frankly, scallop, I don't give a clam," reads one waiter's T-shirt. Not everything on the menu is a catch. Roll with it.