Before I moved here, when I thought of American food, I thought of burgers and pizza, and diners serving pancakes. I didn’t think of seafood. But since I’ve lived here and traveled around a bit, I’ve discovered that seafood in America can be found all over, in all sorts of places, and is not only delicious but also excellent value.
In the UK you’d probably think twice about having oysters in a pub – unless the pub was very much in the area for them and was known to be good. Probably you wouldn’t be able to find oysters on most pub menus. But here on the East Coast you’ll find them fresh by the dozen or fried in a po-boy in all sorts of pubs and bars, and it’s a safe bet to go for them. Even our local sports bar on 18th Street advertises oysters for a dollar each.
I had difficulty working out how to organize this piece, as we’ve had such good seafood on so many wonderful parts of the east coast, and each experience reminds me of another. But in the end I decided to take each type of seafood in turn.
Enjoying lobster my two favourite ways in Maine.
I mentioned the lobster shacks of Maine in a recent post. Lobster certainly is plentiful in this state! You could get it in lobster rolls of slightly sweet brioche-type bread stuffed with cold sweet meat and slathered with mayo. Or steamed and served hot with melted butter, with biscuits and corn cobs on the side. Or even as an ingredient in Mac and Cheese. This was probably my least favourite way to treat lobster – while I can’t really choose between lobster rolls and steamed. But if I thought this was just a Maine thing, I was corrected when we went to Boston and I discovered that you could get a lobster roll for a comparable price at Faneuil Hall, along with excellent clam chowder (I wrote about our trip to Boston here). I’ve also heard that the lobster is similarly great in Connecticut, though they make their lobster rolls with warm meat, tossed in melted butter.
Clams (more specifically, clam chowder)
When we were in Maine we decided to try to find the best clam chowder. We tried an award-winning one in a small cafe in Freeport (home of the outdoors store LL Bean), but in actual fact found one in a small pub in Boothbay harbour that beat it in our opinion. Both were creamy and had plenty of clam meat in them, but both also had slightly too much bacon taste for us. And we couldn’t seem to find any that used whole clams. Finally the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Fanueil Hall in Boston came into our lives and turned every other clam chowder into a distant memory. It might just have been that we were cold and needed it – but I don’t think so.
Incidentally, when we got back from Maine I found this recipe for clam chowder which I always use now. I like the fact that it doesn’t use cream (always a flavour-killer in my experience) and that it gives such clear instructions for really cleaning the clams to avoid your diners crunching on sand and silt. We had some really badly-cleaned sandy large clams in Maine (they’re known as Steamers because they’re just steamed), and that almost put me off clams for life.
So I wrote a while ago about how I am enamoured of crab, especially in crab cakes and crab dip. Here in DC we live pretty much on the Chesapeake, so crab is a local delicacy. Everywhere serves crab dip, and crab cakes are a very usual alternative to a burger in many bars in the area. Recently though, R and I discovered the fun that is beating up whole crabs to eat their legs like lolly-pops. We learnt the art of hammering and cracking and fishing about in the shards of shell for tiny morsels of sweet, sweet crab meat on the dock of a water-side bar in Deale on the Chesapeake. Just an hour away from DC, after a day on the beach, we felt like we were on holiday as we ate and drank beer in this beautiful spot. We ordered half a dozen medium crabs, along with a side of hush puppies, and were delighted when the crabs arrived covered in old bay seasoning. While it was hard work (especially when the sun had set) for not very much meat, what we got out of them was completely delicious.
We discovered oysters in Boston. Did you know that oysters from different places taste different? Well we’d never found this until we went to Boston and found that oyster menus are more like wine menus, practically coming with tasting notes. We have learnt that the more Northern oysters from the coast are usually saltier than the ones that come from the Chesapeake or the Virginia river estuaries. Once we’d had our education in Boston (at their Legal Seafood and the wonderful Neptune Oyster) we found that Pop’s Seabar on our street in DC also has fresh oysters daily in at least three varieties, so we’ve been continuing to enjoy tastings.
We haven’t made such a comprehensive survey of other seafood such as scallops, shrimp and mussels. And I’ve not really had much straight fish. However, we’ve had excellent meals including scallops, in both DC and Boston. Cashion’s Eat Place does nice things with scallops but it was at Boston’s tiny Neptune Oyster that we had the stand-out dish of our time here. R had amazing scallops tossed with perfectly cooked sprouts, and I had one of the best seafood stews I’ve had outside of France.
I have noticed a tendency in DC to overcook mussels. This was not a problem at Neptune Oyster.
One place we have not visited yet is New Orleans, where I’m told they have amazing shrimp. So far the shrimp I’ve had in shrimp and grits has been excellent, but I’ve heard that in New Orleans they get Gulf Shrimp, which I need to try. I’m also looking forward to finally travelling to the West coast this fall – R has been and has brought back reports of amazing sushi and fish dishes.
There’s probably lots of American seafood we still haven’t tried – the combination of a lot of coast and numerous culinary styles is a guarantee of that. I just hope the fish stocks hold out. Luckily there are some fish so plentiful they’re actually considered a pest – a local seafood bar hosts a regular all-you-can-eat blue catfish night to do its bit to ‘save the seas’ (see their facebook page). I think I need to get down there!