A seafood trip to Boston
It’s 8:30 in the morning and the busiest part of the day is already over at seafood wholesaler Red’s Best, located at Fish Pier in Boston’s Seaport District. The flow of vans and trucks has slowed to a trickle and the scallop auction has just finished.
Red’s Best sells over 45,000kg (100,000lb) of seafood here every day, which can include up to 60 different species – depending on what is in season. Today, the main items sold from the crates in the large chilled hall included oysters, razor clams, Ipswich clams, sea slugs and monkfish.
“We don’t set a specific quota for each respective type of fish,” says Retail and Marketing Director Valerie Rosenberg. “We buy whatever the fishermen come in with. This ensures nothing needs to be thrown overboard or go to waste. It’s also our way of supporting small, familyowned fishing companies that have often been in the same family for generations.”
Rosenberg acknowledges that this doesn’t make life easy for the retailers. But they are actively working to change consumer attitudes towards the local catch and the importance of eating what’s in season.
“These days, consumers have become used to being able to buy what they want, when they want,” she says. “But we would like people to go into their local fishmonger and buy what is available that day. It is all about educating them.”
And they are already having success with this policy. Thanks to a campaign at Red’s Best’s own fish store at the Boston Public Market, monkfish has grown in popularity. They are now also able to sell some of the less familiar parts of monkfish. The head and especially the cheeks are now considered to be delicacies.
“We dropped the price and told our customers ‘we have something here that we love and we think you’ll love it, too.’ The food market that opened last summer has been incredibly important for us in reaching out with our message,” Rosenberg says.
The Seaport District around Fish Pier is one of the hottest areas in Boston right now. Over the past ten years, the area has undergone a dramatic transformation, with new hotels, apartment complexes and offices springing up like mushrooms.
“We’re now targeting our advertising towards a whole different type of person,” says Frank Zanti, Assistant General Manager of the Yankee Lobster Company. “Before, it was blue-collar workers and fishermen. Now we have tourists as well as young and old professionals – for example, lawyers. We have evolved with the area but haven’t lost our true identity.”
The Zanti family has owned and managed Yankee Lobster since 1950. At that time, the company revolved around the fishing and selling of lobster. Today, they also run a simple restaurant, just a stone’s throw from Fish Pier.
It’s coming up to 10am, and Zanti and his staff are filling the counter with fresh shellfish ahead of the arrival of the first customers. It’s a small restaurant and the lines can be long at lunchtime, with waiting times as long as 90 minutes in the summer.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Zanti says. “When we started, we had 20 guests a day, then 1,000 and today we have 2,500 people a day coming here. We used to run the operation with three people, now we have a staff of almost 40.”
Most of the dishes are prepared on site. The star of the menu, and what most people come here for, is the lobster rolls. Zanti sells around 200 a day on average, or 6-7,000 a month.
“Plus we have lobster mac and cheese, lobster clubs… so we’re going through a lot of lobster,” Zanti says with a laugh as he points to the 14 large seawater tanks behind the restaurant, all full of lobsters.
We sit down at one of the wooden tables and Zanti serves one dish after another. The traditional lobster rolls consist of fresh lobster mixed with a touch of mayonnaise and other secret ingredients. Then we try hot lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese and fried clams. Boston Magazine has named Yankee Lobster’s fried clams the best in town. Zanti confesses to keeping an eye on the magazine to see if Yankee Lobster is included.
“Sometimes I walk out to the parking lot and see license plates from Oklahoma, New York, Idaho – from all over the country. That the restaurant has become a nationally recognized brand is something we’re all very proud of. My grandfather never experienced this – we weren’t in this location at that time – but I think he would have been proud,” Zanti says as he waves towards family photos on the walls.
A near neighbor of Yankee Lobster is Legal Harborside, another familyowned restaurant but with an entirely different character. The three-storey building houses three different restaurant concepts and is the flagship of restaurant group Legal Sea Foods. The ship-like building, with vaulted walls and large sliding panorama windows, overlooks Boston Harbor, the marina and the nearby open air Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, one of Boston’s most popular music venues.
“Actually, on our large roof deck you can hear the music, so if you’re smart you come here, grab a seat, enjoy some sushi or cocktails and listen,” says Ida Faber, Vice President of Marketing at Legal Sea Foods. “But get here early – from 3–4pm there will be a line starting to form.”
Legal Sea Foods began as a fish market on Inman Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1950. The group now has 20 restaurants in Massachusetts, all focusing on seafood. However, Faber is adamant that Legal Sea Foods is not a chain.
“The word chain denotes poor quality and lack of personality. We pride ourselves on quality and freshness, and each restaurant is different,” she says.
Chris Cowen, Executive Head Chef, has been working at Legal Harborside since it opened twenty years ago. He exudes passion and pride in his dishes. As a server passes us carrying deep bowls filled with clam chowder, he points, and says, “This is one of the foundations of the organization.” The clam chowder recipe has been in the company for over 60 years. It is their best-selling dish and is regularly named the best clam chowder in Boston.
“George Berkowitz, our founder, only shared the recipe with two other individuals,” Cowen says. “So it’s near and dear to our heart. And very secret. A clam chowder should be comforting and nostalgic. It screams Boston, that’s for sure.”
And everyone fortunate enough to eat it is in the best of company. Legal Sea Foods’ version has been served at every presidential inauguration dinner since 1981. “So it’s referred to as the presidential chowder,” Cowen adds.
Fort Point, just a couple of blocks away from Boston’s Waterfront, is another area that has blossomed in recent years. The streets around Congress Street are packed with restaurants, bakeries and breweries housed in former industrial premises. The area was once dominated by textile factories and warehouses, and like in many other big cities, it was the artistic community that first spotted the potential of the run-down buildings.
“We actually still have artists living above us, which is cool,” says Suzanne Hays, Service Manager for oyster bar Row 34. “This building was used for textile storage and you can see the big windows that were opened to load the textiles onto a train. We’ve tried to keep the industrial feel and also incorporate typical things from oyster farms.”
Row 34 has a high ceiling, plenty of steel and weathered timber pillars that rise in stately fashion. One of the walls is dominated by a large light installation made from cylinder-like oyster tumblers, which are used to sort and wash oysters. Despite this industrial design theme, the atmosphere feels relaxed.
The main focus here is oysters and beer. “We consider ourselves a craft beer bar so we take a lot of pride in serving unique beers, both local and from all around the world,” Hays says as she offers us a couple of drinks to try with the oysters.
One is Lightning Fields, a sour ale, that is brewed with the citrus fruit Buddha’s hand. It has a lovely lemon-zesty flavor that complements the salt of the oysters. “A similar effect to squeezing a few drops of lemon on oysters,” Hays explains.
The platter in front of us contains four types of oyster. “You should start with an Island Creek,” says John Tubolino, Chef de Cuisine. “It’s grown by Skip Bennet, one of the owners of Row 34. He started growing oysters in 1992, in Duxbury Bay‚ just south of Boston. It is a great oyster, slightly complex. It tastes salty in the beginning and sweet at the end. It is great for someone who has never tried oysters before.”
And so to the unavoidable question: how do you eat oysters in Boston?
“Honestly, the best way is to slide it out of the shell, chew twice and swallow,” says Tubolino. “We serve all oysters with cocktail sauce and two different vinaigrettes, but personally I prefer a squeeze of lemon and that’s it. All oysters are unique and have their own flavor. To add something else would be like pouring chocolate syrup in your wine.”
Text: Anna-Lena Ahlberg
Published: July 4, 2016
Last edited: September 14, 2016