Sunday, July 1, 2012

J.T. Farnham's of Essex

Back in the New England swing of things!
There are few things that go more hand in hand in New England than the phrases "a day at the beach" and "clam shack." And it's finally beach weather. As luck would have it, the Bigger Half had his day off on Sunday, and we were in business. Up at a relatively lazy Sunday morning hour, off we went to Crane Beach.
PARKING LOT FULL. That dreaded sign reared its ugly face as we headed down Argilla Road in Ipswich. The Twitter machine said that people had already been lining up at 8 am at the parking lot entrance, and by ten the lot was full. Heads hung in sadness, we decided to about face and take a little jaunt over to Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester. Again, the dreaded sign. PARKING LOT FULL. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice... whatever. I always have a contingency plan to combat horrid disappointment, and it almost always involves great seafood.
J.T. Farnham's
Since we've not yet covered this particular clam shack on Soused Blueberries yet, our choice of which Cape Ann institution to visit was set, and we were off a little ways down the road to the lovely, J.T. Farnham's.
Amazing view by the
picnic tables
There are many clam shacks on the North Shore serving up impeccable clams. But each has little differences, specialties, or menu items that make them very special. Perhaps the most notable advantage for Farnham's is the view; in my opinion, the most stunningly beautiful compared to Woodman's, Essex Seafood, and the Clam Box. The roadside location does have its parking and passing traffic noise issues, but to take in the view is a little bit like feeling life slow down in graduated paces. Behind the restaurant and by the parking lot are several picnic tables overlooking winding brooks that dance alongside the fluffy green marshes during high tide. With a clear blue sky, and a refreshing breeze, you can gaze at the boats skimming the water in the distance, or a kayaker or two, themselves on a most enjoyable commute to the little clam shack known as Farnham's.
Place your order at the counter
After situating yourselves at one of the picnic tables, you can walk around to the inside, and line up to order. This is a cash only establishment. They do have an ATM, but I've found that it's often out of order, so it's best to bring some cash money with you. You'll recognize the inside counter from that bleach blond yell-happy weirdo, Guy Fieiri, who is credited with introducing the wider world to this gem of a clam shack. That being said, their quality has not diminished since hoards of hungry fans have descended on the restaurant. They've got your classic array of fried, whole-bellied clams, which you really do have to order. There are lobster rolls (very good if you're in the mood for lobster) and then there's also fried fish and a few items for people who don't like seafood (hrmph). The portions are generous, and I actually think that for a famous clam shack, the prices are pretty competitive compared to others like Woodman's who are clearly taking advantage.
So what do I recommend to order? Well, we were here early. My appetite is always present, but I'm not one to want to stuff myself to the brim with fried delicacies when there is still a very real possibility that I'll have to show my uber pale butt in a bikini an hour or so later. So here's what I suggest if you're just hungry enough, and will be sharing between two people. Get yourself a bowl of the seafood chowder, a signature dish at Farnham's. Follow that up with the fisherman's combo. Oh, and a fresh brewed ice tea or a beer is also always a good idea.
Seafood chowder
Let's start with the seafood chowder. This is something unique to Farnham's. While other places have delicious clam chowders, this is the only place where you can really experience the best of the best in seafood broth, and lovely simmered bits like lobster, scallop, fish, and clams. The potatoes are tender, and the liquid silky, while also briny and creamy. There is just enough milk and a touch of bright orange fat skimming the surface, a result of cooking items like shrimp and lobster for the seafood chowder. It's so delicious. Every piece of seafood is somehow, miraculously on point, although this may have been because on this occasion we were there so early. Sweet shrimp and succulent lobster, and those bright, tender and thick scallops all present and accounted for. A few spoonfuls of this chowder, even on a hot day, will give you a clue into what they must serve in heaven.
Fisherman's combo
The second item is really the reason why we only ordered two things: The fisherman's combo. It's a massive feast of lovingly cooked seafood, with each item processed separately to cook for the perfect amount of time. Have you ever had a seafood plate of clams, shrimp, scallops, and fried fish, where the scallops were so rubbery you could bounce them off the wall? Yeah, that's a product of everything being cooked simultaneously in the same batch. Farnham's commits no such sin. All the items are perfectly tender and juicy, none resembling shriveled pencil erasers. The shrimp are sweet, and have that pleasant chew, a texture akin to the consistency of lobster's tail meat, and perhaps just as pleasurable. The scallops melt in your mouth. They are again, sweet and incredibly juicy, almost buttery. There are few things as delicious as a perfectly cooked, fresh scallop. Then there is the fish. Now, normally I believe that the fried fish they serve at Farnham's is haddock. However, on this occasion, they did not have haddock, and let us know at the counter. We were fine with this, but it's nice for them to make sure that the customer knows what they are getting. As for the reason why they were out? Well, this is a tough fishing industry. Sometimes the quality is not up to par, or sometimes you just run out by Sunday. Either way, what we received as a nice fresh piece of flat fish, maybe sole. The white meat was flaky and light, very clean tasting. And oh those clams! I love a wonderfully fried clam: belly intact, strips of meat fantastic at the first bite. They are both sweet and livery, a touch chewy, minerally and rich. The clams at Farnham's, their claim to fame, are right on par with all the perfect, sweet Ipswich and Essex clams that you find at the other clam shacks. What sets them slightly apart, I think, is the batter. The batter at Farnham's seems to be entirely cornmeal based. This makes the frying a little more on the greasy side, but every item is still crisp, and there's a touch of saltiness to that crust that forms on the outside of each seafood morsel. It's this batter, and the quality of the ingredients that has kept Farnham's in the limelight for so long. They deserve every accolade. The whole plate, systematically and skillfully cooked, and with that special cornmeal batter, was wonderful.
Crane Beach - Beautiful
So we left after about an hour of devouring our fisherman's combo and that awesome seafood chowder. Satisfyingly full, and spirits brightened, we wandered around the area for a while, going through this antique shop and that, just killing sometime and longing for our next little purchase of things that were made before we were born. And then the Twitter man told us that the parking lot at Crane Beach had a few cars leaving and they were slowly letting more people in. If you haven't been to Crane Beach before, go. It's my favorite beach on the North Shore, our closest thing to the National Seashore on Cape Cod, and a sanctuary for the world's cutest birds: Piping Plovers. Have yourself a beach of a day... and visit Farnham's, truly a special clam shack.

J.T. Farnham's
88 Eastern Ave
Essex, MA 01929
(978) 768-6643

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