I have never been comfortable playing the “best you ever (fill in the blank)” game. I don’t like having to limit to just one the wonderful movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read or meals I’ve eaten. Haven’t we all enjoyed memorable meals – whether for the food, the company or the setting? Last week, I had lunch at The Boathouse in Westport and found myself making room on my short list for another “best meal ever” because of the food, the company and the setting.
John Holzwarth, formerly the Executive Chef of the Dressing Room, has opened The Boathouse Restaurant in The Saugatuck Rowing Club and on a recent, sunny afternoon he prepared lunch for Stephanie Webster (of CTBites), along with Barb Rochat and Linda Altobell of Vermont Quality Meats – one of the restaurant’s suppliers. We were joined on the patio overlooking the Saugatuck River by John, Laura Gillis, The Boathouse General Manager, and Line Cook Luis Puga to sample John’s new menu and learn more about his vision for the restaurant. Clearly, having a table set, al fresco, for the sole purpose of dining with people whose life revolves around food can skew your palate. Rest assured, we sent a group back to The Boathouse the next Saturday evening for a reality check on our initial experience.
The Boathouse offers farm to table dishes, which is the restaurant concept du jour, but John considers it his challenge not to be pegged into one type of cuisine or concept. While farm to table is his mission, he wants his menu to reflect his travel and culinary experiences, the people he’s learned from - Master Chefs Fortunato Nicotra and Lidia Bastianvich at Felidia in New York City - and the food he likes to eat. John has been cooking professionally since 1995 and has experimented with various cuisines throughout his career. When pressed to describe the cuisine at The Boathouse, he cautiously conceded: “A Mediterranean background seen through a New England looking glass. I want to showcase food that is close to home because then it’s close to our hearts.”
Our first course couldn’t have been any closer to home. John brought a plate of oysters on ice to the table that are cultivated in the Saugatuck River; then raised in Long Island Sound. He pointed toward the bridge and told us there are 500 million oysters in the river. I don’t know who takes the oyster census, but if the other 498 million can be prepared as deliciously as the two I ate, there’s a lot of local pleasure to be pulled from that river. The oysters were sprinkled with pickled ramp mignonette: perfect, tiny tubes of finely diced ramps, brined in red wine. The first taste sensation was a slight sourness from the pickling, followed and mellowed by the fruit from the red wine and finished with the light and pleasant saltiness of the meaty oyster - so many layers of taste in one slurp.
The oysters, we learned, are cultivated by Jeff Northrup of Aquaculture in large cylinders off the docks in front of The Rowing Club. Apparently, The Saugatuck River has an ideal brine in which the oysters can grow. When they are large enough, they are dropped in specific spots in Long Island Sound where they mature for about two years. Jeff brings the oysters to the restaurant fresh out of the water daily, using sustainable practices that do not disturb the surrounding marine environment.
Over our next course of composed salad of local greens with braised beets, runner beans, fennel and kumquats, John spoke of his excitement to have 100% control over the menu, be able to showcase nature and feature local products. The salad greens, for example, were from Satur Farms, which is run by Paulette Satur and her husband Eberhard Muller on the North Fork of Long Island. John has purchased from Satur for years because he likes their protocol, explaining that he looks for suppliers who “use sustainable growing practices that maintain the integrity of the product as well as its surrounding ecological habitat, as opposed to conventional practices, which are run by large economies of scale without regard to the product or the cost to the environment.” John looks for these practices in agriculture as well as aquaculture – like Jeff Northrup’s oysters. “All wild fish is sourced through regulated sustainable catch practices and all the proteins on the menu – like those from Vermont Quality Meats - come from small farmers who are raising their animals responsibly.”
The Boathouse menu will change seasonally and John scripts it loosely to be able to substitute vegetables that are available in any given week. So, while “Market Chopped Salad” may be on the menu for a season, the specific ingredients will vary slightly from week to week given what has come in from the farms. John will also keep the menu small, explaining that when you receive farm deliveries once a week, “when you’re out, you’re out” and he strives not to disappoint.
We were far from disappointed when John and Luis brought to the table two pasta dishes to showcase Barbara and Linda’s meat: a homemade fettuccini served with braised baby veal, sautéed ramps and Long Island cherry tomatoes, and an herb pappardelle with lamb, slow braised in red wine and tomatoes and finished with bread crumbs and Beaver Brook Farms Parmesan. The fettuccini with veal was a beautiful mingling of tastes with the brightness of the lemon infused olive oil accented by the sparkle of peperoncini flakes. We tasted, and initially, no one spoke; we simply moaned our way through the first few bites until finally exclamations of “delicious” and “amazing” burst forth like fireworks around the table. In both dishes the meat was succulent, the pasta tender, and the flavors harmonic. Linda, from Vermont Quality Meats, summed up the experience best when she declared, “Our meat has never tasted this good!”
When I asked John about his vision for the restaurant, he paused before saying he aspires “to create a space where people can support each other and take pride in their careers and themselves; to keep it simple with good food and good service; to keep the concept honest with my purveyors, our customers and with the food on people’s plates.” And, he added, “To do it all as seamlessly as possible and ultimately live a balanced life.” John and Laura found this last point extremely amusing. Apparently, opening his own restaurant has left John’s life anything but balanced. They are still hiring staff and the kitchen is running very lean with “everyone working 150%.”
We were eager to see how a Saturday night dinner experience would compare to our exceptional lunch. On all counts, the food lived up to our high expectations: every ingredient in every dish was remarkable. A buttery, bread crumb crust topped the very fresh and quite perfect Roasted Oysters. The Market Vegetable Contorno was a small, but lovely dish featuring 3 beautiful asparagus spears atop a medley of fava beans, fiddleheads and spring onions, with a dollop of fresh buratta cheese. One diner remarked, “Every fiddlehead and fava bean tastes as if it has been individually selected and treated with care.”
The Pan Seared Diver Scallops were served over fresh pink beets, spring pea shoots, favas, and fennel and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. The Grilled Sustainable Fish of the Evening was Halibut, served over market vegetables, with the same vibrant citrus vinaigrette. In both cases, this burst of citrus provided a delightful accent to the harmonious flavors of the vegetables. Both the scallops and the halibut were cooked perfectly and everything tasted straight out of the sea and the garden.
The Hand Made Ravioli with Bartlett Pear & Fresh Pecorino-Lidia's Way was buttery and melt in your mouth delicious, the pear serving as a refreshingly sweet complement to the pecorino’s saltiness. The $15 size is a small portion, but worked well as a shared dish for the table.
Of the three desserts sampled, the Pineapple Torte and the Shortbread with Rhubarb Compote were deemed excellent and the Handmade Chocolate and Vanilla ice cream scored a very good! We hear rumors that handmade sorbet will be coming soon.
As we experienced at lunch, John’s food was extraordinary and presented thoughtfully, in a fun manner that makes you smile, rather than a fussy one that makes you coo. John and The Boathouse's General Manager Laura Gillis are still working on staffing up and training, so be patient in the dining room as the new staff finds its rhythm. That being said, there is nothing out of sync with the food, the memory of which still lingers pleasantly in my mind.
The Boathouse at Saugatuck Restaurant (Saugatuck Rowing Club) 521 Riverside Avenue, Westport. 203.227.3399