This is one in an occasional series about eating establishments in neighborhoods near Tufts’ three campuses—and during the summer, a bit beyond. Recently, we covered clam shacks near Boston; now we venture to the North Shore. Have a suggestion for a place for our roving diners to explore? Email us at email@example.com. You can also follow Dish on Foursquare.
The fried clam we know and love was allegedly fathered on July 3, 1916, in Essex, Mass., by Lawrence Woodman, progenitor of Woodman’s clam eatery still located in the same town. The story may be apocryphal, but the Cape Ann corridor has since become an established mecca for mavens of the delicious frybabies, and no purported survey can honorably stand without a visit.
Woodman’s may lay claim to parentage, but how did it hold up to nine sharpshooting palates in deadly earnest quest of an undisputed champion? The initial impression of our hardnosed group was bluntly delivered: “not charming.” Proceeding to the meat of things, we were met with smallish, reticent clams lard-fried to a golden brown. Tasters remarked on a dry and flavorless coating, but abstained from further approbation, apart from noting the tourist price of $24.95 for a pint. Harshest invective heard the entire day was reserved for the so-called clam cakes being marketed as featured items here, about which less said the better.
The name JT Farnham’s, also in Essex, will be familiar to serious clam lovers in these parts. Charming is exactly what you can expect here, down to the picturesque salt-marsh location and attendant greenhead flies. Go ahead and cluck with your confreres over the colonial window valences, but you’ll find the unpretentious hominess is for real. The air of authenticity extends to the service and staff, who were observed by our party as “nice but not overly solicitous or snobby” and tellingly “confident.”
A pint of clams here is $19.95, and they were by consensus admirable: hot and fluffy, slightly chewy and crispy enough. Some tasters noted that bellies weren’t ideally juicy, and brininess was in short supply, but these were judged to be minor cavils. The exceptional house-made tartar sauce is a real advantage, as is the choice of frying medium. A mixture of canola and vegetable shortening is standard; other alternatives available are 100 percent canola and gluten-free cornmeal coating. Oil is changed frequently on a rotating basis among the eight fryolators in action.
Before proceeding north to Ipswich, we made time to visit an Essex spot heralded by esteemed food writer Mark Bittman in the pages of Saveur magazine in 2000. His praise was so effusive (“best soft-shells in the universe”) that an investigation of the Village Restaurant appeared unavoidable.
The locally harvested clams lived up to their daunting reputation: fresh tasting, meltingly tender treasures that appeared to have been individually prepared and went down with no resistance, barely requiring to be chewed. Some remarked on the cognitive dissonance of encountering them on a porcelain plate, likening the experience to “the fried clam equivalent of fine dining.” While a commitment to sitting down and having your order taken might be anathema to hardcore fried-clamheads, the bar area looked like it would be a cozy place to park.
Our final destination was the highly regarded Clam Box in Ipswich, its exterior fashioned to resemble a gigantic clam box. We took our place in line just in time for the daily 2:30 oil change, necessitating a brief but merciful interregnum. The option of big-belly clams (“when available on request”) should silence complainers of puny bellies and provide a dare to the foolhardy. We were told everything is fried in a combination of vegetable oil and “beef product—not lard.”
Clams were revealed to be from Maine on the day we visited, and they evinced a sweet, classic clam flavor that won the designation “best overall” of the ones we tasted. The fried lobster curiosity item was better than expected. The very concept, however, was damned as “blasphemous” and “just wrong” by the more judgmental, eventuating a daisy chain of autorecrimination within the group (“dipping a fried item in butter, I just hate myself right now,” “let’s forget it ever happened”). Onion rings were crunchy and a model of their kind, and like everything else, not overly greasy.
After the clam bender, we were ready for some ice cream—next up on Dish.
Woodman’s, 121 Main St., Essex, 978-768-2559, www.woodmans.com
JT Farnham’s, 88 Eastern Ave., Essex, 978-768-6643, https://www.facebook.com/pages/JT-Farnhams/101355273262324
The Village Restaurant, 55 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6400, http://wedigclams.com/
The Clam Box, 246 High St., Ipswich, 978-356-9707, http://ipswichma.com/clambox/
Read earlier Dish entries at now.tufts.edu/dish.
Fred Kalil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.