Market is a changeable feast
Area purveyors help to keep the menu fresh
Girl moves from Gloucester to California for cooking school and gets a job at famed Alice Waters restaurant Chez Panisse. Girl meets boy from California, who also cooks at Chez Panisse and happens to be Waters’s godson. Girl returns to Gloucester with boy to open their own tiny, seasonal restaurant overlooking the boats that bob on the Annisquam River. The Chez Panisse pedigree sets Gloucester abuzz, and soon the place is packed. Operated by Amelia O’Reilly and Nico Monday, the Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove is a love story, quite a sweet one.
It offers a sweet menu, as well: three appetizers, three main courses, and one dessert, changing each night according to the ingredients available. The Market works closely with local purveyors such as First Light Farm in Hamilton, Russell Orchards in Ipswich, Topsfield dairy farm Valley View, and A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem. It opened in June and will close for the season Oct. 15. Perhaps after their years in the Bay Area, O’Reilly and Monday couldn’t bear the idea of hunkering down with root vegetables for so many weeks. It’s too bad. In the summer, the dock offers scenic seating overlooking the cove; some patrons arrive by boat, dock, and dine. But it’s easy to imagine a cozy evening inside with the snow falling, looking out at the silver water while eating a hot bowl of soup.
Never mind. It’s the shank of the summer yet, which means the Market’s menu is ripe with tomatoes and eggplants, melons and peaches. Although the staff composes each day’s menu at around 3 p.m., there is continuity. Tomato salads and beet-potato salads appear frequently, as does some form of salmon. The same soup might be offered two nights in a row. Entrees tend to be fish, beef, and pasta in various permutations.
The salads, and vegetables in general, are a particular strength. A recent visit yields a simple combination: potatoes and beets with hard-boiled egg, tapenade, and arugula. The ingredients taste so fresh and are so nicely cooked — the potatoes tender without being mealy, the eggs bright yellow at the center — that the salad is a pleasure to eat, although the tapenade could use finesse. It’s more like straight-up crushed olives than the usual paste with pine nuts, garlic, and anchovies.
Another evening, slices of heirloom tomatoes are simply dressed, served with a scattering of snipped herbs and anchoiade toast, crunchy and beautifully pungent with the anchovy paste. Tomatoes also appear in gazpacho, a thin red soup that is pure summer, drizzled with olive oil, with a crunchy island of chopped vegetables in the center. A roasted tomato and pepper soup with a chive butter crouton is much less nuanced — it tastes like a bowl of liquid red peppers.
Sockeye salmon appetizers are excellent here. One night, the fish appears slow-roasted, a deep coral color, lightly oily and with a lox-like texture. Can I get that with a side of bagel? No, but beets, cucumbers, and olives will do nicely as accompaniments.
Several days later, the salmon is slow-baked, revealing an entirely different side of the fish, flaky, pale pink, and moist. It’s paired with roasted eggplant and cherry tomatoes, with a moat of tangy yogurt surrounding it on the plate. The yogurt is studded with fennel seeds, earthy and herbaceous at once.
Appetizers in general are stronger than entrees. Handmade fusilli looks impressive, but it’s a bit gummy and heavy. Tossed with generous amounts of pesto and chopped tomatoes, it’s the sort of one-pot dinner one might put together when pressed for time. As fresh as it tastes, it may not be something one wants to pay $21 for. Lasagna noodles, also handmade, are too thick and thus also heavy and doughy. The menu claims they’re layered with summer squash, but the only vegetable we notice is eggplant. It’s delicious and tender, but anyone who despises eggplant would be unhappy with the substitution. There’s no need to rewrite the handwritten menu; a warning from the waitress would suffice. That said, the flavors of the dish don’t disappoint. The tomato sauce is bright, balancing tartness and sweetness, and the ricotta salata and snippets of mint perk things up yet more.
Eggplant wows as ratatouille, served aside a piece of slightly overcooked striped bass. We strike out with fish — a Portuguese seafood stew features plenty of briny, petite mussels and tender kale sopping up a light tomato broth, but the pieces of haddock are just slightly past fresh.
Grass-fed ribeye from Maine is a big steak with a nice all-over, griddled sear, although it’s unevenly cooked. It’s a fatty version of this fatty and flavorful cut, which can make for tough chewing. One night it’s served with appealingly crunchy, battered fried green tomatoes. Another, it comes with caramel-sweet, bright yellow corn and dull roasted green peppers, topped with marrow butter that fails to lend extra flavor or decadence.
Like the salads, dessert is winningly simple. A summer berry bread pudding is short on berries, but it’s eggy and light. The pudding and the whipped cream that tops it are barely sweet. This restraint works. It would also make an excellent breakfast.
Another evening, a peach is baked until tender, the sweet fruit with its hint of bitterness free of any doughy distraction. Someone is unfortunately stingy with the vanilla ice cream that comes on the side, and by the time it arrives at our table, the small dollops are nearly melted.
The Market is BYO, which somewhat offsets its prices, high for the kind of food the restaurant is serving: $36 feels like a lot for that steak, for instance. Many of Market’s dishes resemble things one might cook at home. It’s not very “restaurant-y,’’ and that’s both its appeal and an occasional pitfall. And then, there’s a $10 corkage fee, generally only charged when you bring your own wine to a restaurant that has a liquor license. (The Market is waiting for one.) It instantly turns a $12 bottle of wine into a $22 one. Goodbye, frugality. But on a weekend night, guests don’t seem to be holding back. The mirth increases as the bottles empty, until one evening a man winds up dangling over the side of the porch. “He’s throwing up!’’ gasps one of his companions, in a tone somewhere between shock, concern, and amusement.
“That was interesting!’’ the man exclaims, rising, jovial once more.
Servers could catch the spirit a bit. At a small, hands-on operation like this, one wants to be greeted with warmth. One evening our waitress is so sour, shoving our bread aside and setting down our plates with a clatter, we begin to feel we’ve offended her by eating here. On other visits, service comes with more smiles.
The Market is just a deck on the water attached to a little room painted yellow, a long bar running through it. A skillfully illustrated chalkboard features a map pinpointed with the locations of Market’s purveyors; for decoration, there’s a Chez Panisse poster on the wall and a few pitchers of herbs and wildflowers. If the food is uneven, the restaurant has charm and the view is splendid. By phone, Monday says the Market recently stopped serving breakfast and lunch for the season. “We’re getting to focus more and spend more time’’ on dinner now, he says. “We had to simplify too much.’’ The restaurant was busy, and they were learning the ropes.
“It was a really fun summer,’’ he says. Soon it will be time to look forward to the next.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.