I needed a break. I’m sure you know the drill. You work, work, work 60 hours each week and forget that, wow, the seasons are changing right before your eyes and, wow, you’re so lucky to live in Massachusetts. But I had forgotten all that and desperately needed a mini-vacation, a moment to reconnect with my husband and appreciate the glorious summer that’s beginning to cloak one of my favorite parts of the world, the New England coastline.
Since a real vacation is not in my immediate future and I was itching for a tiny break, I knew the husband could see an idea in my eye when I returned from lunch with one of my favorite foodie people, Heather Atwood, a wonderful lady, food columnist at the Gloucester Daily Times, and sometimes-writer for this very site. She had just met the team at Market Restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts and tasted their delicious menu; I was urged to visit as soon as possible.
Gloucester is about 45 minutes from Boston, but only half that from me, so I made an early reservation and zipped out to the seashore on Saturday evening. As the traffic began to build up (as it’s wont to do near the beach), I worried a bit. I didn’t want a busy beach experience, I simply wanted to spend a quiet evening staring at some bobbing boats and devouring some local food. Good, local food. If the traffic didn’t stress me out enough, the anticipation of visiting a new restaurant that had been open only two days did worry me. The hubby and I really needed a chance to breathe and appreciate life, and a bad meal wasn’t going to aid in our relief.
Market Restaurant isn’t exactly in downtown Gloucester. It’s in the village of Annisquam, out on this little interior harbor called Lobster Cove. It’s the type of village that is, as Heather puts it, quite “pure.” (I wondered what she meant, and totally got it the moment we drove into town.) Annisquam is primarily a residential neighborhood, but it does have one restaurant, one little spot on the dock that was recently occupied by this energetic twosome who have some fabulous resumes, including gigs at Alice Waters legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
As we turned the bend toward the restaurant, the skies suddenly opened up, letting loose a steady stream of fat rain drops and a few pounds of thunder. It was beautiful and frustrating at the same time. I believe in signs and a downpour was the distinct sign that something big might happen. Well, it totally did. I had one of the most refreshing and friendliest evenings in a long, long time.
Before I even tasted a morsel, I fell in love with the very modest restaurant decor. This joint is small, with seating for about 30 guests, and many of those guests are served at a long bar. The walls are covered in a mellow yellow and warm almost-periwinkle blue, colors I somehow firmly associate with the seaside. The woods in the room are all blond and the tables are so sweet, each pressed and laminated with maps of the region.
The food was as modest as the decor, but in the best possible way. My husband’s pounded tuna carpaccio was sweet, tart and full of texture, thanks to some crispy-fried shallots. It was so pretty and pure on the plate, tempting me to sneak fork-fulls when he was busy staring out at the harbor. I stared out the window too, and was especially touched when a bride and groom jumped onto their sailboat and proceeded to sail off toward their new life… and their reception around the curve. I had a flash of my own wedding, also held on a cove, and smiled before I dug into my dish.
My first course was as pretty as my hubby’s. Imagine a white cafe-style plate, thick and weighty as if it belongs in a roadside diner, but loaded with barely cooked and lightly seasoned shaved asparagus, radicchio, soft-boiled eggs and a crunchy homemade romesco sauce. The pretty pink radish set it all off beautifully… and reminded me that my spicy gems will be ready for harvest next week.
Our next courses were so special too. My salmon was gently cooked (poached? baked?) with butter and potatoes and fava beans and fresh dill and more butter. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the soft dish, each bite sprinkled with fresh local dill sprigs. The hubby loves potatoes and kept nibbling mine. That was fine. I wasted no time lapping up the herby aioli that accompanied his seafood cakes, lightly fried, full of lobster and scallops and barely anything else. I believe they took the position that when you have seafood this fresh, you don’t need much else.
Market Restaurant is very new, so their liquor license is still in progress. That was no bother to us, because we came prepared with a luscious bottle of Hendry Primitivo from our favorite vineyard in Carneros, a region of Napa Valley. The bottle was a precious souvenir from our honeymoon. We keep a small stash of Hendry wines in the bottom of our wine rack (the special spot, no?) and only grab a bottle when the moment moves us. Every moment at Market Restaurant definitely moved us. We felt lucky to live in a region that was finally getting its due, full of fresh local product, meats and grains that would compel seriously inspired chefs to take on an old lobster shack. More pointedly, chefs who would take something small and make it very big, all the while keeping it small… if you follow my drift.
While the food touched our hearts, we were far more impressed by Market’s gift for delivering gentle hospitality. We were seated fairly immediately. But for those forced to wait a few, they were invited to do so on a beautiful deck. With a glass of wine in hand and that gentle breeze, I would have waited all night.
The moment I sat down, my server Lauren (hello, Lauren!) smiled her sweet smile and pointed out that she recognized me from the prior day. In fact, she was in the very same restaurant where Heather and I had eaten lunch, in the same room when Heather urged me to visit Market Restaurant. I love coincidences. Between the downpour and the familiar woman walking us through our meal, the signs were stacking up in our favor.
Lauren was a delight, but so was every staff person in that small room. Everyone was friendly and almost lit up from within. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who felt lucky; the staff seemed united, happy to be making great experiences for each guest. (You can follow Market’s owners/founders on Twitter here.)
The little signs didn’t stop there. Two other little strokes of genius will keep Market in my memory. First, I always celebrate super salty butter and when a restaurant serves creamy butter loaded with delicate salt, I feel loved with each brush of the good stuff on my crusty bread. Market serves bread from A.J. King in Salem, Massachusetts. A.J. King makes some great bread and the butter only made it shine more.
The next special little sign was the milk served with my coffee. Both the coffee and milk were lovely and local, but better yet, the milk was served in the cutest little glass bottles labeled as though they were from, get this, Normandie. As in, France. As in, where I lived for the early part of this year. As in, it may not mean much to others but for me, it was a gentle reminder of my time over there. It hit a memory in the best possible way, and stuck my entire Market experience into my memory as well, way back there, in the spot where you just don’t forget for a long, long time.
Our dinner at Market was really wonderful, and the entire experience moved me to want to cook. (Don’t you love it when that happens? When a chef or restaurant or experience sparkles enough to make you say, “I want to do that. I bet if I focused, I could do that!”) So I spent today focused on making that herby aioli. As members of the Cape Ann Fresh Catch weekly distribution program, we get piles of amazing fish from just off the coast of Gloucester every week. I knew that herby aioli would go well with any of it, so made a large batch packed with herbs from my garden, local eggs from my farm (a.k.a., my community-supported agriculture program) and lots of olive oil. It wasn’t perfect, but cooking never is. I’ve stashed it away in my fridge for our fish later this week.
So while the food and hospitality and decor were all very lovely, Market restaurant won’t be remembered for all those things individually. I’ll remember the smiles from the staff, the bride and groom on the boat, and the downpour that finally broke for the sun to shine down on this little cove. I’ll remember the vacation vibe radiating from all the guests and from one previously stressed-out husband and wife (us!). I’ll remember and remake that aioli all summer long, and perhaps twist it up and make it mine. And I’m certainly bringing all my summer visitors out to Market Restaurant, so they can make their own little memories.