A pretty location and an approachable menu are ingredients for success at this new waterside restaurant.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
Trafford 285 Water St., Warren, 289-2265, traffordrestaurant.com. Hours Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine New England
genealogy with a Rhode Island accent. Capacity 150. Vibe Beach house chic. Prices Appetizers $3.50–$11, entrees $9–$28, dessert $9. Karen’s picks Raw bar, seafood, dessert.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
The small fryer basket of lobster corn popovers arrives, steaming hot and swaddled in newspaper. Or is it? Myriad clam shacks around the States — and thousands of British pubs across the Atlantic — happily wrap their goods in yesterday's Times, Globe or Herald and, if they end up with a politician's face on a piece of fried haddock, so be it. But not Trafford. Its food is tucked away in parchment paper made to look like a smudge of fading history but without the inky peril.
Aesthetically conceived — we'll get to food later — as a collaboration between artist Alyn Carlson and interior designer Kyla Coburn, the clean New England identity of the space is easy on the eyes. Housed on Water Street and wedged directly between water and street, the restaurant appears to be a remodel of an early twentieth century residence but, fooled again!, it's a new building that emits the charm of decades past.
Built in earthy hues more Scandinavian than rustic, the building is compartmentalized like a house: main dining room next to the bar, extended family gathered for drinks on the outside patio, the younger, more raucous crowd upstairs. The secondary bar has Coburn's signature style: serene, slightly enigmatic and happy to stay out of sight. But all of Trafford is tinged with Carlson's sense of whimsy — from the quirky logo that sports a centuries’ old windjammer on wheels to the canoe carcass hanging languidly from the ceiling.
Then, of course, is the tertiary inspiration: the Warren River itself. A gravel parking lot gives way to the dock and a handful of benches that allow diners to linger long past dinner, admiring the setting sun and swaying boats. It's a bit like a deconstructed Newport estate grounds — privilege and attitude excluded. But like the area’s most coveted locations, it’s nearly impossible to imagine an empty seat now that the temperature's settled into the eighties and twilight dawdles well after curfew. If we fall into seasonal amnesia during the winter, the onset of summer makes the startling number of water viewing seats in the state evident, as well as how agonizingly fast they fill up.
Unlike the iridescent sky, however, Trafford has no interest in pretension. Chef Trafford Kane almost always opts for the informal cuisine one expects in a seaside town. Calamari, lobster salad, littlenecks and mussels are all front and center and supported by other familiar foods that draw reluctant diners in rather than push them away. Many servers look as if they're at least a year from sitting legally at the bar and they’re youthfully enthusiastic with their recommendations. “The brioche chicken is my favorite thing on the whole menu,” gushed one doe-eyed waitress. The chicken ($18), like several other dishes, gravitates toward the sweet side, another sign that Kane is appealing to a mainstream American palate. Coated in brioche breadcrumbs and drizzled with a peach and zinfandel reduction, it could easily be served for Sunday brunch and certainly won't intimidate less adventurous eaters.
The lobster bolo ($22, market) is similarly approachable, tossed with a lemon chive aioli but, again, the sweetness of the bread dominates the sandwich. The seared scallops ($24) represent sugar the way it ought to be in a savory dish: shellfish complemented by a grilled corn salsa and juxtaposed with a smoky, spicy cheddar-rich crock of grits. It's a study in contrast that appreciates both the delicate and the audacious, appealing without being weary.
That sense of balance, however, can be lost in other preparations. An appetizer of sesame and togarashi seared tuna with edamame ($11) is so delicate that it's in danger of getting lost among bolder flavors, while the Cajun grilled salmon and mango salsa ($26) takes the contrary approach, overwhelming the palate with self-assured spice. The flip-side is that there are also plenty of dishes that deliver exactly what you'd expect and with little attempt to break custom. Linguica-stuffed quahogs ($5), fish and chips ($15), fried clams with slaw and tartar ($19) and a cod roast piled high with mussels, shrimp and chorizo ($23) all speak to a native and familiar cuisine that residents embrace. Even burgers are loud and proud, topped with BLT, a variety of cheeses and, expectedly, a mellow brioche roll.
Are some options too staid for more exploratory eaters? Perhaps. Rhode Islanders like what they know and seasonal travelers expect indigenous fare. (Imagine showing up in Kennebunkport to find that lobster had been disowned and replaced with halibut. It doesn't matter how good that piece of fish may be; diners will respond with hostility.) After all, despite the “Top Chef” onslaught that suggests people want sweet potato soup with smoked pork cheeks for dinner, it's simply not so. Research will tell you that they'd rather sit at a picnic table with a plate of calamari. But Kane maintains a sense of good-humored vision, peppering the menu with the quirky (sirloin with hot pepper-beer sauce and a sunny-side up egg) and the comforting (red lentil and wheat berry salad with dried fruit and champagne vinaigrette).
That vision coalesces easily when it comes to dessert ($9), a course that remains simple but well executed. A strawberry shortcake appears triple-portioned but the field's worth of berries still brightens rather than smothers a soft Southern biscuit. Even better is the cappuccino creme brulee, which brings depth to a simple dish without meandering too far from its heritage.
In a sense, and despite its recent opening, Trafford is really more of a veteran venture. Kane's parents own Marguerite's in Westport and have backed this endeavor as well — with good reason. Both restaurants acknowledge that space is often the way into success and a waterfront spot practically guarantees it. It's also clear that Trafford is more about appreciating the details you know than the others waiting to be discovered. A view of the water, a soothing color scheme, a comfortable porch seat — some things in life never go out of style. No doubt there'll be out-of-towners traipsing through, but for those who call New England home, this spot is full of domestic pride.