A new seafood restaurant in Jamestown proves that less is more and that a fresh, understated menu can be addictive.
Photography by Angel Tucker
14 Narragansett Ave., Jamestown, 423-3474, jamestownfishri.com. Hours Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Cuisine New England with a touch of Italy. Capacity Forty in the main dining room. Bar and private dining for eight upstairs. Vibe White bread on the surface with a primal gastronomic passion underneath. Prices Appetizers $10–$15, entrees $22–$35, desserts $8. Karen’s picks Jamestown fish soup, salumi plate, seafood, dessert.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
There’s something to be said for quiescence — particularly given the onslaught of soon-to-be-summer tourists who migrate toward water views and freshly plucked shellfish. Fortunately, Jamestown manages to keep seasonal chaos to a minimum thanks to a dearth of commercial real estate and resolute year-round residents. Cathy Squires and husband, John Recca, however, did secure a rare restaurant space on the town’s modest strip and, more impressively, have managed to maintain an air of coastal serenity while making a definitive culinary statement.
In some sense, Jamestown Fish could be considered local: Squires and Recca have long operated Narragansett Cafe, most of the wait staff hails from the neighborhood and the menu’s eponymous ingredient is plucked from indigenous waters. The wild card is partner and executive chef, Matthew MacCartney, who has worked recently in Connecticut and, before that, a handful of Manhattan mainstays such as Gramercy Tavern and Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Though he served as beverage director for the latter, the Craft simplicity is not only evident at Fish, it defines the restaurant’s very identity.
Set in a Colonial house — one that still feels tenaciously residential — Jamestown Fish tends to avoid any aesthetic focal point that might tear diners from its food. Sure, there’s a fire burning on cool nights and yes, the kitchen illuminates the back wall with a sort of immaculate artistry. But the early American blue walls and white accents are more blank canvas than eye-catching opulence. Even local woodworker Joe Yoffa has managed to make the bar subdued rather than strident. And with good reason. MacCartney keeps a tight rein on the restaurant’s image, crafting dishes that uniformly surprise but never appear hyperbolic on the page. In fact, at first glance and until first bite, dishes seem almost unadorned.
There are several first courses as minimalist as their surroundings, shuttled out by gracious servers whose deferential demeanor applies to food and customers alike. (They’ll talk if you want them to but discourse is kept to a minimum as they read your mind from across the room. Yes, you did want your blue-hued water glass filled after just a sip; it just hadn’t occurred to you yet.) Plates emerge from the kitchen like an Ellsworth Kelly canvas, occasionally monochromatic but bursting with vibrancy. A sweet mound of peeky toe crab is served on blood orange slices ($15), dusted only with fennel pollen to harmonize the disparate flavors. Paper-thin slices of raw fluke, tuna and salmon ($14) are dotted with a single pomegranate seed or a pea-sized dollop of tapenade for textural contrast. But—and this is where one can’t help but see Colicchio’s influence—there is no attempt or desire to lure local seafood from its inherent characteristics. Even the signature fish soup ($10), a vesuvian broth of tomato, saffron, hot pepper and the daily catch, appears one-noted until it hits the tongue in a slow, fragrant burn.
Of course, MacCartney’s not from Rhode Island and brings with him a gaze that extends beyond local shores. Well beyond. If it doesn’t swim, he culls from around the country, bringing beef in from the Midwest and some surprisingly spectacular speck and fennel-infused finocchiona from Salumeria Biellese in New York ($15). Served alongside Narragansett Creamery’s Atwells Gold, the plate generously pays homage to the achievement of others. Not an insignificant decision given the limited menu space and the well-earned right to be egotistical in its creation.
Entrees are marginally more aggressive as crimson cast-iron cookpots stuffed with steamed shellfish ($35) parade out brigade-style. It’s a dish right at home in Rhode Island (chorizo makes an appearance) but still with European panache as Pernod wafts up in plumes of scented smoke. Sure, there’s another side to Jamestown Fish — it’s in the clubby bar room upstairs, in the Missouri rib eye with molten potatoes and certainly out on the patio during the warmest evenings when diners might get dangerously close to loud. But, quintessentially, it is those restrained dishes that will make a name for the restaurant. Snow-white halibut served with blood-red beets and a sharp Japanese salsa verde ($27) is flawless; tuna on top of red wine sauce ($28) wholly separated from a pristine pool of celery root puree is a culinary yin and yang: acidic on one side, rich on the other. Occasionally, even entrees are barely touched by creative hands as with the linguine and clams ($22), which boasts nothing more than garlic, olive oil, pepper and parsley. Again, its task is not to exalt the chef but to make diners mindful of what was simply born into achievement.
The clientele, not surprisingly, is reserved as well, bordering on homogenous. Any more distinguished gentlemen or pastel polos and you’d be sitting on a golf course. One has to believe though that, like the food, there’s something brewing beneath the polished exterior. Many diners have already established themselves as regulars and it’s fairly common to see a crayon-toting kid behind their cable-knit parents. MacCartney and his sous chefs, Keith O’Marra and Heliovaldo Araujo, meander out in shifts, shaking hands like old friends and cordial hosts. Many of the servers, though young, have culinary backgrounds and it’s no secret that this is their training ground for a future in the restaurant business. One might say it’s a training ground for all involved given the emphasis not just on food, not on visual charm, but on hospitality across the board — something that made Gramercy Tavern and all of its sibling restaurants wildly successful.
Given its universal appeal, dessert ($8) surely falls squarely in the domain of hospitality and comfort. Accordingly, the kitchen executes dishes that are both familiar and formal. Chocolate and Grand Marnier souffles are served with mocha and chocolate whipped cream respectively: an earthy study of hot and cold. Coconut panna cotta is too subtle to make an impression as is a chestnut torte with persimmon puree, but the kitchen knows its strengths. A Guinness gingerbread with apple compote sounds almost staid in print but its heady flavor manifests MacCartney’s approach: depth without superfluous decoration.
Confession: It’s rare for a reviewer to dread his or her own expression. Reviewers aren’t an egoless bunch. But so accomplished is this new venture that it’s bittersweet to anticipate the table drought that’s soon and deservedly to follow. With the modern propensity to do everything quickly and to great acclaim, it’s a welcome change to watch a restaurant move methodically, deliberately and quite beautifully into its success.