A self-proclaimed “foodie” charts his annual vacation with menus instead of maps.
On the Outer Cape, people who own food shops and restaurants are soft-spoken and humble. When you have had a fabulous entrée, or if you have purchased the perfect raw ingredient that you will soon prepare in your own kitchen, your effusive and breathless string of compliments, “So good. Thank you very much. You are the best!!” are met with a knowing and twinkling eye, and tacit acknowledgments.
Annually, during my one week of vacation in a blissfully undeveloped segment of Cape Cod, my first stop, assuming I can resist the sirens’ call of the many clam shacks that line every road, is Hatch’s Fish Market in the center of Wellfleet. My car is loaded with a cooler and ice packs, so I am ready to buy fish and keep it as fresh as their promise. Years ago, after a relentless search on the Cape for fish and shellfish fresh enough to make Japanese sashimi, I wandered into Hatch’s and couldn’t believe my eyes. The fish sparkled like those at Tsukiji, the great wholesale fish market in Tokyo. The shellfish, especially the giant scallops with their roe, were pristine. From then on, during each subsequent trip to Cape Cod, I bought fish every morning and made sashimi for my family, in whatever house we rented, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and evening snacks—every day for a week.
The scallops are so fresh that even after being sliced into thin roundels, they still quiver with the little bit of life that is left in them, so that the surfaces seem to shimmer. Giant quahogs, which don’t get the same respect as littlenecks or cherrystones, are perfect for clam sashimi. You can clean out the black belly before you slice them, but I prefer to eat them intact. And then, there is the treat of treats: Toro. This fatty underbelly of a tuna, the part most prized in Japanese sushi bars, is sparkling fresh with so much oiliness that you might find oil dripping down your chin, down your shirt and pants, down to the soles of your shoes which are doing a glissando with your feet across the floor. The stock at Hatch’s, their beautiful, edible asset, is glistening, shimmering, absolutely fresh seafood, taken from the ocean minutes before I drive up to the door.
When I’m not cooking for myself and my family, I love to eat at local restaurants. When I want fried clams, I go to Arnold’s on Route 6 in Eastham. Arnold’s is the—with an emphasis on the “the”—place to get fried clams. As much as I love steamers and raw clams, I love fried clams to an astounding amplification. The reason is the contrast between the crunchy outside and the soft, warm, oceanic, slightly briny smelling belly. I spent a few minutes with the Chef de Fryolator at Arnold’s one day, and he introduced me to the role that timing plays. Fry too little, and the batter fails to crisp up; too long, and the belly is overcooked. Just right, and the belly explodes in your mouth, just as the pleasure center of the brain explodes in unison.
The food on the Outer Cape gets more interesting every year. There are restaurants that serve Thai and South African cuisine, an eclectic food truck, and new places serving lobsters and fried food. Fish markets sell smoked fish and fish pâté. There are farmers’ markets with local vegetables, and the small supermarkets freshen their aisles with curated foods and fine wines.
My first croissant at PB Boulangerie, just off Route 6 in South Wellfleet on the way to Lecount Hollow Beach, propelled me at light speed right back to Paris. When I was working at L’Archestrate, a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris, I would spend my days off at Patisserie Millet, one of the city’s most famous pastry shops, learning how to make Tarte Tatin, Creme Chiboust, Baba au Rhum, brioche, and of course, croissants. To make a perfect croissant, you must have two ovens at different temperatures. The hotter oven causes the croissant to expand to its full size; the lower temperature oven makes it crisp, flaky and golden brown. Too long or short a time in one or the other, and you get an imperfect croissant.
That first croissant at PB Boulangerie was flaky enough to completely cover my pants with its ethereal crumbs, and soft and buttery enough in its interior that I wasn’t exactly sure what country I was in. It is the croissant that tests the true talent of a patissier, and even though I really like the Bombe au Chocolat, Tarte aux Pommes, Tarte aux Fruits au macaron, and a few other things I have been able to fit into my belly during my one week stay each year, it is the croissants that I love the most.
Our food adventures at our rental houses have included, beside sashimi, an attempt to make gluten-free fried clams for my oldest son who has Celiac disease. For this I used rice flour, which was the base for fried clam batter used by a secretive chef in Maine, now long retired from his kitchen as well as this world. We have also cooked lobsters and discovered that eight minutes is plenty for a 1 ¼ lb. lobster; steamers that have barely opened their doors; scallops and roe with a French beurre blanc sauce; lobster bisque using only heavy cream; and a mussel souffle whose recipe I borrowed from L’Archestrate.
Although you might not expect it, there is an exquisite South African restaurant in a very unassuming part of the Outer Cape. Karoo Restaurant, off of Route 6 just before the stoplights in North Eastham, began its life as a small cafe in Provincetown. Now, the owners serve authentic South African food in a big, breezy, inviting building that will take you back to some lovely meals in Cape Town, if you have ever been so lucky to count a visit as a life experience. I was in Cape Town once, but it will stay with me forever. The reason I went was to deliver cakes, from my business, Desserts by David Glass, to Nelson Mandela for a charity benefit for his Children’s Fund aboard the Queen Elizabeth II oceanliner.
I always enjoy the food at Karoo, but there is one thing that consistently draws me back: the Peri-Peri sauce, made with chilis (African bird’s eye), red bell peppers, red onions, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, lemon, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, bay leaf, oregano and smoked paprika. This is an inspired and culturally-defining sauce, much like Mexican mole or French bearnaise sauce. Even when the restaurant is crowded, which thankfully is often the case, the complexity of the sauce cancels out the noise and conversations, insisting that you devote all of your attention to it. The best way to experience it in all of its glory is through the Chicken in Peri-Peri sauce. The succulent chicken is not overpowering, but perfectly prepared, and lets the sauce shine through.
For dessert lovers, it’s ONLY Lewis Brothers on Commercial Street in Provincetown. One of the world’s best sundaes is available right on the other side of their front door. The construction of said sundae starts with the ice cream; I adore the White Russian, complete with a full dose of alcohol. The topping should be chocolate sauce, dark and bitter, maybe 75 or 80 percent, but balanced on the bottom by the ice cream and on top by real whipped cream, never from a can. Freddy Girardet, owner of Restaurant Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland and the best chef in the world during the 1970’s, taught me that if your entrée or dessert has multiple layers, you must thrust your spoon to the bottom of the dish and be certain, before the spoon goes into your mouth, to get some of each layer on your spoon. Be sure to do that if you ever get the chance to indulge in a sundae at Lewis Brothers.
One summer after swimming in some rough surf, I sustained an unexpected array of broken toes, and this led me to a small, quiet beach where I could recuperate. In the parking lot was something I had never seen next to a Cape Cod beach: a food truck. The choices were not hamburger or hot dogs but rather Som Tum (a green papaya salad with salty crab or shrimp), Confit of tiny local fingerling potatoes, Heritage Berkshire pulled pork and cabbage, Baba Ganoush with chips, roasted tomato Gazpacho, and other unlikely and delicious choices not usually offered at a Cape beach.
The sign on the truck proclaimed, “No shirt. No shoes. No problem.”
Most of the ingredients were local. In fact, many came from Tim Friary’s Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable. The truck is called Solace and used to reside all summer in the Lecount Hollow Beach parking lot, right up the road from PB Boulangerie.
On the last day of my vacation that year, with broken toes on my feet and a food truck by my side, I dined in luxury on delicious, eclectically-inspired food, with a view of an entire ocean, whose waters, just coincidentally, stopped right where I was sitting. With a whirlwind week of foodie adventures that rivaled the late Anthony Bourdain, I was overcome with flashbacks of fried clams. I wondered what fish was in the case at Hatch’s Fish Market. Or, was the chef at Karoo Restaurant reaching back to the recipes of her mother and grandmother for another fantastic dish. Maybe PB Boulangerie was in the process of inventing something stunning.
Or maybe the visions were actually of myself, working through a new dish: making a beautiful plate of sashimi with thinly sliced fluke, surpassing my teacher in Japan. Or, perhaps he was trying something completely different, as he did when he made bluefish sashimi upon his visit to the United States, or making lobster sashimi even more astounding than the raw live shrimp I ate in Tokyo.
Each year, as we drive home toward the Green Mountains of Vermont where our organic garden awaits us, challenging us to practice culinary alchemy with its sunshine-filled treasures, I am formulating new menus as I am doing on any given day of my life. New food adventures await me, as do new places to visit and new foods to try. I’ll be back on the Cape this summer, with every family member I can drag along, as I have been almost every summer since I was a little kid.
David Glass is a world traveler who calls himself a Cape Codder for one week a year.