Thursday, May 24, 2012

Woodman's of Essex

Woodman's of Essex
I'm about to breach a sensitive subject for us New Englanders, particularly one that hits the heart of every North Shore resident of Massachusetts that longs for a summer day on the bleakest of January nights. I'd say that there are four major clam shacks that are on equal footing, but each with something special that makes it outstanding, and maybe the occasional nitpicking negative that bastards like me will think of. The four that I speak of are Woodman's, J.T. Farnham's, Essex Seafood, and the Clambox. My favorite among the four remains Essex Seafood, despite having the least scenic view of the four. But today, we're going to take a little look at Woodman's, arguably the most famous, and the institution that lays claim as the first to ever fry a clam.
The line
Woodman's of Essex is a powerhouse of a clam shack. Set on Main Street in Essex after passing a handful of antique shops, the first thing you may see as you pass by on a beautiful day is a rapidly growing line, snaking past the building and down the street. Don't be deterred by the line. Make a quick left before the building, and you should have some success in locating a space in the large parking lot, not to mention a chance to take in the gorgeous views of the marsh behind the building. A quick stroll to the building, and it's time to queue up. The line moves at a reasonable pace, and allows for diners to thoroughly examine the menu and make their decision well before coming to the counter. There's also the famous lobster counter, where those in line can watch as customers pick out boiled lobsters fresh from a large brick vat where the crustaceans meet their maker.
Working the lobster counter
Now admittedly, here's where one might get a little annoyed. First off, being in line with a lot of loud out-of-towners can royally piss me off. There's a lot of New York plates in that parking lot, and a lot of women commenting ridiculously about calorie counting at a fried seafood joint. You also might notice that the guy boiling the lobsters keeps taking them out, sticking a thermometer in them, and then throwing them back into the water. I'm sure he knows what he's doing, but they must have overcooked or undercooked a shit ton of lobsters in order to require someone to physically pierce the shell of the lobster in order to check the temperature of the meat. Also check out the dedicated gift shop located behind the restaurant. A dedicated gift shop. Not like a few t-shirts for sale in the place, but a dedicated Disney-esque gift shop with stuffed lobsters and shit.
Twas the day
of the clambake
I should be happy that so many people want a clam shack experience, and that a place like Woodman's is doing such a bang up, smart business. And I am. At any rate, seeing the above each time that I travel to Woodman's is a little bit off putting... and I damn near pull the abort on the whole plan each time. However, the food is very good. The turnover of fresh seafood that they do at that restaurant promises nothing but the freshest, highest quality local sweet clams. They bang out their product like no other. And after you place your order and secure your number, you proceed to a second line where you can order drinks. This is genius because the timing kind of works out just right. As soon as you have secured your beverages, you only have a few minutes longer before the super efficient army of young girls at the food counter puts together your wares. One more note on the beverages, as tempting as it is, I recommend going non-alcoholic. If you buy a beer or a wine or a cocktail, you're not going to be able to sit outside and enjoy that priceless view. And sitting inside on a gorgeous day, especially a gorgeous day that inspired a run to a clam shack in the first place, well, kind of blows. You can have your booze and fight for one of the tables indoors, or you can grab your glass of lemonade and proceed to a picnic table on that refreshing lovely marsh. The choice is yours... just saying...
World's most efficient assembly line:
The ladies of Woodman's
Ok, so you've got your number, your beverage, and you're ready to start listening for numbers being called at the food number. Watching the girls put together each plate is actually part of the fun of coming to Woodman's. They're all in sync and it's just so fast. They assemble each order, and then quickly grab one of the microphones hanging from the ceiling to call the appropriate number. You can actually watch as they put together the food into a little Narraganset beer tray and pre-determine which order is yours. Then, you grab your food, take two steps left, load up on ketchup, salt, pepper, spoons, forks, napkins... whatever you might need, and hightail it the hell out of that noisy dining room.
The menu
Outside, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Fresh air and all of that. Gorgeous views, and kids playing in the marsh. This kind of a quiet atmosphere lets you take a deep breath and remember why this place became so renowned and beloved. It's Essex and it's the sea and it's those amazing clams. So let's take a rundown of the items that are really wonderful, and should not be missed.
Delicious clam chowder
THE CLAM CHOWDER: Clam chowder is a sacred thing in these parts, and Woodman's produces an excellent version, characteristic of great clam chowders in this area. While so many restaurants outside of New England try to produce their own New England clam chowder and throw it on their menus, many times I find that they are producing some sort of thick glop, more akin to the stuff we find in cans than the pure, silky, clammy broth that you can experience at a place like Woodman's. Laden with chunks of sweet clam, briny and harmoneously salty with the touch of added milk, each mouthful is a joy to be had... warm and comforting on a cool night, and served with just enough tender potatoes to make the chowder hearty. This is the consistency you find in a great Cape Ann chowder.
NANA BESSIE'S FAMOUS CLAM CAKES: If you're a Rhode Island transplant, like my bigger half, then come the warm weather, you start to twitch with a need to eat those fluffy, semi-greasy, crunchy fritters with chunks of clam throughout. You've heard me wax poetic about them before. (See entry Road Trip to Rhodie.) Since clam cakes are really a Rhode Island thing, there's no great promise that you're going to get a good version of them up here or even see them on the menu for that matter. But I would say that Woodman's puts out the best version of the other clam shacks up here. The clam cake is a bit bigger than those found at Flo's in Portsmouth, RI, but they're still full of bits of clams, light and fluffy on the inside, and have that very important outer crunch. You can order a single clam cake, a small order has four, and a large has eight. We made the mistake of ordering only the single, which is why I have no picture to show you. Trying to tell my husband to slow down so I can take a photo of something he's been craving since the temperature climbed above freezing is like trying to teach my stupid cat not to claw at the carpet. Not gonna listen, not gonna happen.
Crispy batter on sweet fried clams
THE CLAM PLATE: You may be tempted to order the "Down River" combo. If you're sharing with a lot of people, and you really feel like you'd be less of a person had you missed out on the scallops, fried fish, and shrimps, don't let me stand in your way. But if you really just want to focus in on what this place is so famous for and does so incredibly well, please refrain and just order the fried clam plate. Say those exact words, "clam plate." No strips, no fried lobster tail (honestly... don't see the appeal of that one), just the clam plate. Each fried clam is lightly covered with the batter. They're not greasy, but perfectly cooked and still juicy. There's a crunch, where you get the hit of the savory coating, then the sweetness of the clam, and finally the livery pay dirt of that briny belly. They're not too big and they're not too small. Each clam is uniformly fried, without any clumping. Woodman's also does a great job of keeping that crispness of the batter, even as you walk out and pop clam after clam after clam. I absolutely love these clams, and while the restaurant has grown into a bit of a phenom around here, they haven't lost their touch in producing the item that first made them famous.
Perfect onion rings, perfect
I'll also take a moment here to discuss the ONION RINGS. The onion rings come with any of the seafood plates, along with a helping of french fries. This may sound weird, but these are the best onion rings that I've ever had. They are super crunchy, a touch greasy, but generally just the greatest onion rings on this planet. You know the type of onion rings where you pick them up, and they don't a) flop over b) fall apart or c) have a ridiculous thick cornmeal kind of batter that has turned dark brown during the frying process. These lack all those nasty pitfalls and shine on as a paragon of onion ring glory. Amazing.
A succulent, done right lobster roll
THE LOBSTER ROLL: Despite my initial bitching about the dude boiling the lobsters out front, I will say that this place produces an excellent lobster roll. The meat is a little more chopped than say other lobster rolls that I've had elsewhere, but that's alright. It has the perfect amount of mayo, and they do their bun correctly. Split top bun, grilled with butter. There's no filler (i.e., celery, avocado, onion, etc) in the actual lobster mix. It's just the sweet, essence of the sea lobster, salt and a little mayo. That's a perfect sandwich for a nice day.
God's dining room
So, I've given you the rundown, the plusses and the minuses. While the crowds may be a little unnerving, Woodman's has attracted a following and a number of tourists for a reason. They may have hoards of people, but efficiency has still kept up the quality of the food. And the quality of the food is great. The views are perhaps even better. One last thing to keep in mind when visiting this place is that Woodman's, I think, is the most expensive of the clam shacks that I've mentioned above. It may be because it is the most famous, but the lobster roll is a good five dollars more than one that you might find at Essex Seafood, and you can count on adding a few more bucks for the clams than a similar order at one of the other places up the road. If all that doesn't deter you, I still think that everyone can enjoy an experience at Woodman's, which I do maybe once or twice a year. Come for the chowder, come for the view, and god damn, come for those sweet clams and damn near godly onion rings.

Woodman's of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, MA 01929

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