On Cape Cod, Desperately Seeking Seafood

By Phuong Ly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 5, 2007

As I contemplated my first visit to Cape Cod, I imagined quaint colonial villages, endless unspoiled beaches and, best of all, restaurants that gloried in the bounty of the sea.

Well, I got the villages and beaches right.

My first meal on the Cape was at a seafood shack that my husband's family traditionally goes to every year on the night they arrive for their annual summer stay. The decor wasn't particularly distinctive, so I presumed the crowds happily standing in line to order were there for the food.

I presumed wrong. The fried clams were indistinguishable from the onion rings, which tasted remarkably like the fried shrimp. After a few bites I felt as if I had rubbed a bowl of grease onto my face.

"You don't come to the Cape to eat," my husband explained, polishing off his french fries, or were they clam strips?

Look at the famous images of the Kennedy clan in Hyannis Port, he added. They're in the back yard playing football, not chowing down at the local restaurant.

Still, it's a little mysterious. The Maine coast is renowned for its lobster. Rhode Island and the North Shore of Massachusetts are celebrated for chowder and clams. Cape Cod is best known for its cranberries, grown in giant bogs, and Cape Cod Potato Chips. Tasty, of course, but not exactly reasons to spend a fortune on a rental house.

People go to the Cape, as David's family has for two decades, because it's what New Englanders do. There are so many ways to play -- kayaking, sailing, whale-watching, nature hikes, biking, golfing, antiquing, swimming, sunbathing -- that good food becomes an afterthought.

Which doesn't mean, I discovered, that it's nonexistent. You merely have to seek it out, to distinguish by trial and error the few spots that are good from the many that are adequate or worse. My hunting grounds were in the middle of the Cape, east of Hyannis and south of Provincetown.

The most ubiquitous sign on the Cape seems to be "Best Fried Seafood." Only a handful of the seafood shacks manage live up to it.

At first glance -- or sniff -- Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham (3580 Route 6) doesn't seem as though it will be one of them. It claims to sell two tons of onion rings a week. You can smell them from the highway, long before you join the inevitable line under the restaurant's yellow-striped awning.

A lobster roll erased my anxiety. The bun was nicely toasted and the meat abundant. The famous rings were good, too, sliced thin and lightly breaded without an oily aftertaste. The chowder was less seasoned than I would have liked, but that's typical of the Cape, which prefers it bland.

At night and on weekends, Arnold's boasts a raw bar with superlative local clams. If you overindulge there's a miniature golf course next door that might burn off a calorie or two.

Lobster rolls are usually a safe bet on the Cape. They're expensive, sometimes approaching $20. But if they're hard to mess up -- most places just put chunks of tail and claws on a buttered hot dog bun, sometimes with a swirl of mayonnaise and perhaps celery or lettuce -- they're hard to make extraordinary.

Whole steamed lobster is generally good, too, but lobster fritters are so cheap (less than a dollar each at one place I tried them) that they have little actual meat. As for the lobster crepe I tried in one overly creative restaurant, the poor crustacean was drowned in raspberry sauce.

Cobies, a shack in Brewster (3260 Main St., Route 6A), isn't quite in Arnold's class, but it keeps things commendably simple. On the flower-decked patio, I indulged in the fish and chips. The breading is just enough to complement but not overpower the flaky and flavorful fish chunks. The lobster rolls are generously stuffed.

Arnold's, Cobies and nearly every other seafood shack offer ice cream, which is convenient and satisfactory. But for an experience that approaches transcendent, it's necessary to make the pilgrimage to Sundae School in Harwich Port (606 Main St., Route 28).

The hot fudge is incomparable, worth the trip by itself. The standard ice cream flavors are available, but so are ginger, black raspberry, grapenut and maple walnut, plus some I had never heard of before: shark's tooth, grasshopper. (Clearly, I've led a sheltered life.) The seats and tables are outside, pleasantly bordered by hydrangeas and miniature roses.

For ice cream that is equally good although more limited in variety, Hallet's Store in Yarmouth Port (139 Main St., Route 6A) has served with steadfast charm for 118 years. It's a tiny place, fully conscious of its role as an authentic museum of long-vanished Cape life, but if you can squeeze up to the carved oak counter, the ice cream sodas and sundaes are splendid.

After seafood and ice cream, the major food group on the Cape is doughnuts. These aren't the hot and gooey Krispy Kreme type but a heavier cake doughnut, usually adequate but rarely exciting, with one exception: The oversize cinnamon apple doughnuts at the Chatham Bakery (69 Crowell Rd., Chatham) are worth a detour of at least 10 miles -- more if you're hungry. If you're lucky, they'll still be warm.

At least one afternoon or evening, you'll feel like ditching the passel of relatives, no matter how much you love them, and splurging on a serious meal. For that, a seafood shack doesn't cut it.

Instead, go to Abbicci in Yarmouth Port (43 Main St.). Like Hallet's, it's on Route 6A, the leafy, winding artery strewn with antiques stores, inns and oddities. (Macabre illustrator Edward Gorey's home, now a museum, is a short distance away.) Abbicci's name, Italian for "the basics," is a coy understatement, like calling a $3 million beachfront mansion a cabin.

Abbicci is set in a cheery yellow Colonial frame house, but inside the glass and slate walls say European chic. We happily savored our way through the extensive tapas menu, including oysters with a gratinee of leeks, pancetta and cream, and succulent grilled scallops with more pancetta.

If you refuse to notice that most of the men at lunch are wearing shorts, Abbicci could fit in anywhere there's high-end dining. And that's the one problem: It may be on the Cape, but it doesn't feel like it.

I felt more at home at the Impudent Oyster in Chatham (15 Chatham Bars Ave.). It's a strange name; there's nothing about this place that implies a casual disrespect for either the food or the diners.

Chatham, located in the Cape's elbow, is a center of old wealth somewhat akin to Georgetown, but lunch at the Impudent Oyster is relaxed and surprisingly cheap. The moules na cataplana (mussels and chorizo sausage in a spicy tomato sauce) is a house specialty, piquant and ample and only $10. The bacon, cheese and fried scallop sandwich slathered with tartar sauce is another winner, although probably not endorsed by your cardiologist.

The decor is eclectic, with stained glass, French posters, butter-yellow walls. The tables are always full. Next door is a small park, where you can sprawl, sated, until -- why not? -- the Impudent Oyster reopens for dinner.

Phuong Ly is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area.

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