If on a traveler’s night a dinner

With apologies to Italo Calvino, who famously proclaimed in his 1979 postmodern novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler that “…every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” Just so. Very Tao, very Zen.

The unheralded food critic, Imago Cuisino, would surely add a third unrepeatable experience to the list: eating. When a meal is great, we can be transported and lose track of time; in Calvino’s words we can be someplace “different from measurable time and space.” Of course when it isn’t a great meal… well, never mind. And so, dear Eater, in what follows the usual disclaimer applies — the past-performance, future-results, and your-experience-may-vary disclaimer. Caveat gustator.


In early August, we spent a week’s vacation on Cape Cod, the arm-shaped peninsula — glacial moraine, sand spit, barrier island, and more, depending on what aspect you want to emphasize — at the southeast corner of Massachusetts, roughly a two-hour’s drive south of Boston. It was the height of tourist season, so our Harwich Port innkeeper, Winstead Beach Resort, had already made our dinner reservations for all four nights. After all, look at the photo: You just know that you don’t want to end an exhausting day — sitting on a beach chair, watching the Atlantic, reading some escapist fiction, occasionally turning and basting yourself — by waiting for a table somewhere. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.

Harwich Port is on the south coast by Nantucket Sound, along the triceps in the anatomical simile. It is also apparently Mid- or Lower or Outer Cape, depending on your boundaries and conventions, all of which I find very confusing. Instead, I just raise my flexed arm, make a fist, and point to my triceps, just short of the elbow. (Or should that be Short?…) The only reason to belabor this is that we had to narrow our driving limits for dinner to mid-Cape, if not strictly Mid-Cape. We would go as far west as Hyannis and as far east as Chatham. All of which sounds like it should then be pretty easy to choose restaurants, but it wasn’t. Even with independent resources such as OpenTable and Zagat, we found afterwards in conversations that we simply never ran across some places that other people recommended highly. And they responded similarly with blank looks when we mentioned a couple of our choices. In the end, we compiled a short list and then phoned the ever-helpful Jackie at the Winstead Beach Resort. She guided us away from a couple of places on our list, confirmed another, knew nothing about yet another, and made our reservations when we finished. Herewith, in order of the visits, our final four, our selections, and some thoughts.

  • L’Alouette Bistro, Harwich Port
    Appetizers: ginger and carrot soup, blanched asparagus
    Entrees: duck, steak frites
    Dessert: apple tartin
    Wine: 2006 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah (CA)
    The individual dishes were very good, even exceptional — the ginger and carrot soup, asparagus, and duck stood out. Our server was excellent, and, because it was a slow evening, the host spent a lot of time with us talking about the extensive wine list. He recommended the Wind Gap syrah, which turned out to be the best wine of the four nights. But somehow, immediately afterwards, we felt like the whole thing didn’t quite come together. Maybe we were just tired from our 5-hour drive earlier in the day. In fact, looking back as I write this now, I can’t help but think, hey, that was really good — both the individual items and the overall experience. It’s a definite re-do on our next trip.

     

  • Twenty Eight Atlantic, Chatham
    Appetizers: dumpling with parmesan & mushrooms, gazpacho with crab cake
    Entrees: eggplant, salmon
    Desserts: white chocolate cheesecake; chocolate ganache, brioche, & raspberries
    Wine: 2008 The Crossings Awatere Valley Pinot Noir (NZ)
    The food was very good, the decor elegant, the view wonderful, and our server excellent. But if those were the good notes, then the jarring dissonance was the three hosts in suits, who were somewhere between frantic and frenzied. Whether through overbooking or choice of style, we couldn’t decide. For example, a party would leave and four or five people — including one, two, or even all three of the hosts — would descend to re-set, tweak, and then re-tweak. The background effect on us was a distracting, noisy bustle that left us wondering how they could manage it all without collisions…. Oh, wait, I almost forgot: A scurrying waiter inadvertently bumped one of the suits who was carrying a tray of champagne flutes, which ended up on the floor, with champagne on two newly-seated customers at the table next to us. Needless to say, we will not be returning any time soon, unless we learn that they have begun issuing slickers at the door.

     

  • Lyric, Yarmouth Port
    Appetizers: arugula salad, lamb turnovers
    Entrees: pasta with shrimp & garlic, sole
    Desserts: lemon cake, cheesecake
    Wine: 2007 Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Chardonnay (CA)
    What a find!!! This was the place that no one we talked to knew of. The design and decor in the bar and side dining room where we were seated were elegant, intimate, and contemporary. The menu was fairly traditional, but individual items were generally excellent. The lamb turnovers were sublime. In an enthusiastic moment, I found myself thinking, if this whole place could be teleported to Seattle, the consummate foodie town, it would be an instant hit. I am less sure of that now, largely because of that word “traditional.” (The cutting-edge places in Seattle, for example, Steelhead Diner and Dahlia Lounge, are much more fusion-y and experimental.) But that shouldn’t stop it from being a hit on the Cape.

     

    In a more overt moment of enthusiasm, I said to the owner of Lyric as we were leaving, if this isn’t the best restaurant on the Cape, tell me what is so that we can change our reservation for tomorrow night. She graciously demurred, thank goodness, because otherwise we might never have gone to…
     

  • Ocean House, Dennisport
    Appetizers: 11-veggie chopped salad
    Small plates: ground filet lettuce wraps, spring rolls, parmesan truffle fries
    Entree: yellow fin tuna with red quinoa
    Desserts: creme brulee, Key lime pie
    Wine: 2007 Bethel Heights Eola Pinot Noir (OR)
     

    I’m not sure there could be too many superlatives about Ocean House. For the two of us, the setting was spectacular, since we lucked out with a table for four at the big windows fronting the Sound. The surf couldn’t have been 100 feet away. Despite the crowd, our server was patient and attentive; the rest of the staff was busy but unobtrusive. And the food — simply amazing. The chopped salad was “understated,” yet complex, like no other green salad that we could remember eating. The ahi was exceptional, probably the best tuna I have ever had. Only one cautionary note: Whatever you do, don’t let your guard down and order the parmesan truffle fries. No, stop!!! Don’t even think about it. Unless you really like parmesan, truffle oil, garlic, salt, and perfectly cooked fries. But only then.

     

    And one more thing: As I said, Lyric was the place no one else seemed to know about, but it was during that pre-arrival phone call with Jackie that I first learned of Ocean House. Thank you, Jackie. More importantly, at the end of that call, I left to her, as she made the reservations, the choice of the order in which we would eat at the four restaurants. That’s how we ended up at Ocean House on the last night. You don’t suppose she knew that it would be the best?… Thank you again, Jackie.

     

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