Matunuck Oyster Bar
Oysterman Perry Raso’s new venture brings the pond to plate movement (quite literally) to Matunuck. And the view’s not half bad either.
Photography by Angela Tucker
Matunuck Oyster Bar
629 Succotash Road, East Matunuck, 783-4202, rhodyoysters.com. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Wheelchairs can make it, but the shell-coated ground is a struggle. Private parking lot that’s perpetually full. Cuisine New England’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1. Capacity Inside: fifty. Outside: thirty. Standing: always. Vibe Salty, sticky, suntanned, laid-back. Prices $5.95–$27.95. The wine list is pretty well-rounded and offers almost everything by the glass as well as the bottle. Karen’s picks Anything that comes out of a shell.
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The last five years have given rise to a quiet culinary coup, led by a small but determined band of players intent on changing the state’s identity by building up its agriculture. Farm Fresh Rhode Island was born six years ago, the brainchild of Luella Hill, who went on to open Narragansett Creamery, the state’s first homegrown cheese manufacturer. Small growers — Baby Greens, Five Star and Four Town Farm among them — have forged relationships with local restaurants to get fresh herbs and vegetables onto plates the day they’re picked. And a group of two dozen aquaculturists have made it their life’s work to redefine Narragansett Bay and its surrounding tributaries as fully functioning aquatic farms.
Perry Raso’s been a key player in the effort for nearly twenty years, supplying diners with pond-raised oysters while still maintaining a pretty low profile. With the opening of his restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar, he’s out of the water more than he’s in, hauling tables over people’s heads and trying, in his distinctly earthy manner, to keep seated people smiling and to get standing people seated. “Look,” he moaned one weekend over the phone, “technically, we take early reservations, but I don’t want anyone ticked off when the traffic pattern changes. Just give us a call on your way and we’ll do our best to find a table, right?” It’s a challenge.
When you’re a small state up against big cities, it’s difficult to lay a claim to fame, particularly in the culinary world. What does Rhode Island have, after all, that New York, Chicago and L.A. couldn’t plate and publicize at twice the price and all the glory? A simple pond view that thrives on enthusiasm without a hint of ostentation. Matunuck is quaint bordering on rustic, with only a handful of outdoor tables to suggest a hierarchy between customers. The shell parking lot is usually full by 5 p.m., and before the hungry mob hits the adjacent walking path, it becomes quite clear that attitude is better left in the Land Rover. This may be a seaside town, but the Lilliputian cottages that border the pond assert a simpler way of life. Chances are good that you’re going to wait in line and, if you’re planning on pitching a fit, most of the locals are happy to take the table that was slated for you. (The T-shirt clad, college-bound servers are equally willing to find a spot for you at the bottom of the pond; Raso’s a bit more diplomatic.)
The centerpiece of Raso’s seaside shack-turned-sit-down is, not surprisingly, a bar. Only this one is lined with ice and oysters rather than absinthe, and the bartender is in no mood for small talk. Wrist high in salty brine, it’s his job to shuck — quickly — and bystanders are
eager to peer without prying. In fact, there’s an awful lot to take in at Matunuck, though very little of it has to do with decor. Tables are just wooden rectangles, chairs look as if they were swiped from someone’s anniversary banquet, and you might half-expect a singing fish on the wall. Even the restaurant’s indoor lobster tank looks more like a hot tub than a holding cell, though it still lures sun-kissed kids who wander while waiting for their fries. And then there’s Raso, who’s usually trying to make room for at least one more party in a space that always seems too small for its visitors. It must be the food.
Summer’s a peculiar time in the culinary world. People stay out later, eat out more frequently, but often they’re after nothing more than simple fare served Matunuck style: large. Appetizers shift weekly and almost always, the specials give the formidable oyster bar a run for top spot. A single crab cake (served with nearly impenetrable Jonah crab claws) might be the best in the state: dense with crab meat and barely anything else. At thirteen dollars? A steal, even if it took the better part of a half hour to arrive. Bruscetta ($10.95) with chunks of fresh tuna and bright pink shrimp tossed with tomato is almost as good, with fistfuls of fish pooling around garlic grilled bread. Even heartier is a roux-heavy lobster bisque ($6.95) that challenges diners to finish the thick concoction before it cools to a pudding.
Small plates are really just child’s play though, a teaser for a diner’s true appetite and forearm strength. There are delicate dishes, of course: lobster salad ($16.95) served with citrus and honey tossed greens or piled unpretentiously on a buttered hotdog bun ($15.95). Oh, please. Is that what summer is about? July is about wrestling a rock-hard red lobster into submission using only a piece of metal and the sheer will to eat. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better one than Matunuck’s — saltwater boiled and yet sweet as can be ($21–$28). Occasionally, servers even forget the crackers, or they appear to be in short supply, which only feeds the ego more. (“I can destroy this mammoth beast with just the sound of my snarling stomach. Watch me melt the butter with my eyes.”)
If you’re intent on keeping clean, however, you can have the work done for you. Stuffed lobster ($26.95) boasts an astounding array of indigenous meat as well as scallops and shrimp, though the breading borders on damp and braises the shellfish rather than baking it. A cauldron of linguini and clam sauce is spot on — full of sweet clams accented with garlic but not overwhelmed by it. And while fish and chips may not be high-profile, the restaurant’s massive cod filets ($13.95), dredged in batter and deep fried, are impossibly light, giving beach food a better name than it’s earned for itself.
There are a few oddballs on the menu: Chicken parm and even steak seem displaced and not altogether welcome. But desserts — flourless chocolate, cheesecake and bread pudding — are a fitting end to Raso’s homage to simplicity. For a man committed to the local waters, he does his best to keep things in their natural state. No artifice, no innovation, no need. As to their reputation in the culinary world? It’s an impossible equation. Prices and attitudes like this will never be found in an urban gastrodome. But it says a lot about Rhode Island and its quiet strengths. Strengths that are being built one butter-doused plate at a time.