The Back Eddy

The superstar Boston chef is gone, but an upscale Westport seafood shack still lures locals with fresh fish and killer sunsets.

Photography by Angel Tucker

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One Bridge Road, Westport, Mass., 508-636-6500, Summer hours: Open for dinner every night; lunch Saturday and Sunday. Check for seasonal hours. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more before 6:30 p.m. and after 8:30 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking lot. Cuisine New England sea-faring novel with an Asian bookmark. Capacity 200. Vibe Jimmy Buffett if he were a Yankee. Price Appetizers $7–$15.50, entrees $18.50–$27.50, desserts $7. Karen’s picks Something in a glass. Anything raw. Everything in a shell.
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At the final loop of a tree-lined highway, far from most signs of modern society and comfortably clinging to the last vestiges of a sea-borne life, sits The Back Eddy. Not so much on the water, perhaps, as in the water. The restaurant maintains a dock, available to diners floating in from farther waters, though owners Sal Liotta and Chef Aaron De Rego seem more connected to native fishermen than seasonal sailors. The building itself dates back more than a century and, like almost everything in Westport, has its roots in fishing. But the tides are changing and so has the village, morphing from a blue-collar port to a beach town dotted with summer residences.

It may seem inconceivable that any business with this cornerstone location would ever need to shift gears, but the restaurant’s changed hands several times in past years, morphing from the archaic Moby Dick’s to Chris Schlesinger’s Back Eddy in 1999 until it ultimately fell into the eager hands of Liotta and De Rego (Schlesinger remains a partner). Some mourned the loss of Schlesinger’s reputation, but something significant was gained in the process: The focus has gone back to luring local goods into the kitchen rather than distant patrons into the dining room. Even in an area known for meals that swim right up to shore, the shellfish is inspiring and the locals understandably spoiled.

Despite the etymology of the name (“a current that runs counter clockwise to the mainstream”), the restaurant’s strength lies in simplicity and a bountiful catch. Appetizers are almost all aquatic: Oysters, rock crab claws, wild shrimp and chicken lobsters (less than a pound) all come from the surrounding waters. Steamers are served with butter and broth ($16.50), but neither are necessary; the sweetness of the diminutive clams is astounding. Littlenecks, often guilty of grittiness, usually need a good soaking, but the kitchen manages to do so without stripping their natural flavor.

The culinary jewel, however, was a half dozen Taylor bay scallops ($10.50) that are farmed in nets (no sand) and harvested from Buzzards Bay. Served in the shell with a drizzle of chive butter (courtesy of Eva’s Garden down the road), they may very well be the best scallops I’ve had in my life. Even the memory brings on a gastronomic swoon much like Italophiles experience after their first bite of balsamic drizzled parmesan. Food this close to its birthplace has a splendor all its own.

Land-based starters are more nostalgic. Deviled eggs ($6.50) may not win hard-boiled haters, but those who already adore the retro dish will lose no love, particularly if you’re a fan of heat. These are filled with Schlesinger’s mustard-heavy Inner Beauty hot sauce. (I ate six without shame.) Shy Brother’s French-inspired Hannahbell cheese thimbles ($8) also show up, baked and served with a tangy rhubarb jam. (And if you think the cheese is endearing, you should see the third-generation Dartmouth farm, run by the Santos brothers — two sets of fraternal twins who named the cheese after their mom.)

Entrees are heartier and also more apt to stray from the marine theme. Rigatoni carbonara is accented with house-cured pork belly, pulled pork is done up Southern style, and sirloin is wood-grilled with steak sauce and fries. It seems counterintuitive to surround oneself with water and eat off the farm, but even natives might tire of ocean breezes eventually. To each his own. Nevertheless, the beach lives on in a variety of fried, shack-style favorites: scallops most nights, Cape clams on occasion. (Portions may keep you from ever putting a swimsuit on again, but that’s tomorrow’s problem.) “Lazy lobster” ($27.50) couldn’t be more traditional or more delicious. Claws and tail meat are served on a bed of braised leeks and covered only with a veil of butter-soaked cornbread crumbs. It’s a medley of main-course sugar.

Asian style tuna ($25.50) is more modern. Just barely seared, the sizable slab of fish is served with a heaping bowl of ginger (enough to solve the intestinal problems of the whole Northeast) and a pile of house-made kimchee. The latter’s slightly nouveau given that the kitchen uses the substantive bok choy instead of Napa cabbage, placing the focus on texture rather than heat. Turns out that it makes a well-suited accompaniment on a hot summer’s evening.

Many regulars skip food altogether, securing a beer and a seat out on deck. Nothing’s ever going to compete with a crimson-streaked sunset and no one here wants to attempt it. In fact, they may be trying only to block out the sounds of the highway — barely used by urban standards. They do so with a lively banter that permeates the entire restaurant, decorated in casual carved wood and leaf-green paint but awash in the gregarious conversation of people at home. It’s as if a ski lodge, with all its eager-to-relax athletes, sprung up at the lip of the bay rather than the base of a mountain. Tables scrape around the room to accommodate sun-worn parties who turn often toward the flanking windows to reflect on the day. It can get loud, but the beach is inescapably festive; serenity can be found elsewhere.

If you’re still up for it, order dessert. Everything’s seven dollars and the best — no surprise — are straightforward. (Now’s not the time to go fancy on anyone.) Black raspberry ice cream is served on top of warm brownies while espresso chip hides out between soft, chocolate chocolate-chunk cookies. There are more mature options — creme brulee and a coconut rice pudding with fresh pineapple — but there’s joy in regressing back to the simple life where nothing’s more important than a dry suit and a clean towel.

Liotta and De Rego’s world isn’t ornate. They could make their year’s salary in one season if they charged $20 for a margarita and the view. But that’s not particularly neighborly and, in an era of skeleton economics, a little goodwill can make a pretty expensive meal taste better. Residents may not like the commune of cars that creep up in anticipation of the sunset, but there’s a lot to love about this local hangout. It bears unswerving allegiance to a life in which salt water and sand are nature’s dominant elements. And it brings the area’s native cuisine up on land for all to appreciate.

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