The Village Restaurant
55 Main St., Essex
Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
We had driven by the Village Restaurant in Essex’s main intersection hundreds of times but had never gone in. We assumed it was a regular old family restaurant: a place with an enormous, meat-heavy menu and lots of frozen entrées out back ready for thawing. We realized our mistake when the man at the front desk handed us bumper stickers advertising the Village’s website, www.wedigclams.com. According to the site, Saveur magazine, no less, labeled the Village’s specially prepared bivalves “the best soft-shells in the universe.’’
Not yet having studied the website, we didn’t order clams when we visited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the seafood we did order - and the Village is all about seafood. Arriving a little after 8 p.m. on a Saturday night near the tail end of Cape Ann Restaurant Week, we found the place packed. The Village doesn’t look especially big from the street, but inside it’s enormous. New dining rooms have been added in back and to the side since the days 50 years ago (pictured in old photos on the walls) when the place was a little seafood joint and clams cost pocket change.
Despite its size, the Village retains a homey, comfortable vibe: lots of roomy, upholstered booths, paper placemats, fresh flowers, and nautical-themed artwork. Near our booth was a ship’s wheel with a giant lobster, cooked and glistening red, draped over the top.
We were a little uncertain how our meal would turn out after our waitress delivered a helping of bread - some of it cornbread so sweet it was almost cake, and some puffy white rolls too bland and soft to eat. But given what was to come, we were lucky not to have spoiled our appetite on bread.
We chose to pass up the Restaurant Week special of a three-course meal for $22.09 from a limited menu, even if it was an outstanding deal. Instead, we picked and chose items that struck our fancy from the reasonably priced full menu. An appetizer of portobello crostini ($7) - marinated mushroom and roasted red pepper baked with mozzarella on crispy garlic bread - was mouth-wateringly good, and it was big enough to give everyone in our party of four a decent sampling.
A bowl of oyster stew ($11) was more soup than stew, but it, too, was delectable. The chowder was rich and buttery-tasting, and the oysters tender. And it was hot. In fact, all the cooked entrées we ordered were apparently whisked to us straight from the kitchen. The service was efficient and friendly, despite the nearly full house.
The menu emphasized that most of the seafood the restaurant buys is fresh, not frozen. One of our party of four ordered the traditional grilled fresh swordfish ($17). He liked it, but he would have liked it better if he’d overruled his wife’s advice and ordered it Cajun-style, with pepper and spices.
A plate of broiled assorted seafood ($19) was a tasty collection of scallops, haddock, shrimp, and salmon. It was simple, fresh, and juicy. Like several of the other entrées, there was enough left over to take home for another meal. An order of haddock LuAnne ($16), a house specialty, was lightly dusted with bread crumbs and topped with tomatoes and red onions. It wasn’t pretentious, just flavorful.
The fourth member of our party, a woman with such high culinary standards that she buys her fish directly from the Gloucester docks and rarely eats out, had a plate of grilled mahi-mahi ($18). She’d been reluctant to visit what she assumed was a high-volume, low-pizzazz family restaurant, but she loved her fish dish. The mahi-mahi came with a touch of fresh citrus butter and was topped with mango salsa. “Yummy,’’ she said when she’d finished it all. “That was just plain-old good food.’’ We were impressed that she was impressed.
We were all pretty full, but in the interests of research, we decided we’d better have dessert. We ordered some mud pie, which was a large slice of mocha ice cream cake with hot fudge sauce ($5), and a serving of white chocolate bread pudding ($7), a specialty of the house, topped with amaretto sauce and whipped cream. They both tasted homemade and fabulous, and we polished them off. We’ll be back, and we won’t wait for Restaurant Week 2010.
COCO McCABE AND DOUG STEWART