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November 29, 2009

The Clam Box

The Clam Box - Ipswich, Massachusetts Dominic Armato

With the Boston winter rapidly approaching, we've been looking for excuses to get out of the house, trying to enjoy a little bit of crisp, clear weather before the nastiness sets in and we're relegated to the living room for a few months. Of course, having only just barely arrived, I'm still trying to acclimate myself to the food scene and learn a bit about the local specialties. So on a sunny, late November afternoon, it was time for an educational road trip. Good fried clams are something I've been anxious to try in a region that's known for them, and though the coast is dotted with little fried seafood shacks, one place pops up time and time again in discussions of which is most beloved.

Concerns that The Clam Box might be hard to spot proved unfounded. Situated at a nook in the winding, tree-lined Route 133 in Ipswich, about an hour north of the city, you come around a bend only to discover that you're pointed directly at the building, for which the term "box" couldn't be more appropriate. It's cute, outside and in, where nautical kitsch, unsurprisingly, rules the interior. Though there are a few generic items like cheeseburgers and chicken fingers to be found, this is a place where fried seafood is king. The list is extensive -- clams (strips and native), scallops, shrimp, calamari, haddock and oysters, in various plate, box and roll combinations, as well as specials and a few non-fried seafood items. But I saw in the menu a chance to take a crack at three local specialties, so we didn't stray too far off the beaten path. And without further ado, I wade into a minefield of local controversies.

Clam ChowderDominic Armato

First on my educational tour of New England specialties, a big ol' cup of clam chowder. When I'm not teaching my kid to say it like Freddy Quimby, I've been trying to sample this one whenever possible. Though it's the sort of thing that I'm sure seems obvious to the natives, what struck me the most about the clam chowders I've sampled here is their consistency. I'm used to those heavy, creamy, viscous concoctions that seem to define New England clam chowder everywhere except for New England -- so much so that I was quite taken aback, when I first arrived, at how thin much of the local fare is. The Clam Box's chowder is no exception, a soup thin enough that the chunks of clam and potato settle at the bottom leaving nothing but a lightly sweet cream at the top. Between this and a couple of other versions I've tasted, I see the wisdom in the tradition. For starters, it helps the clam to come through when you aren't sucking on cream pudding (though perhaps the use of substandard clams elsewhere is partly to blame for the proliferation of the thick stuff). But more importantly, it ends up being surprisingly light and -- dare I say -- refreshing for a cream soup, easy to eat and a much better balance of flavors. Clam Box's chowder wasn't knocking my socks off, but I dug it -- light and sweet and teeming with fresh clam flavor, it wasn't fancy, but it tasted more of its namesake critter than just about everything I've had outside of the region. It's official. I'm a convert to the thin stuff.

Lobster RollDominic Armato

Up next, the venerable lobster roll. Reading about lobster rolls online reminds me a lot of the Italian Beef debates back in Chicago. It's a relatively minimal foodstuff that inspires rabid devotion, and while there are plenty of enthusiasts that enjoy the minor variations that can be found around the region, there are also a great many who feel that a "proper" lobster roll is defined by an absurdly narrow set of criteria, and anything that strays just isn't the real thing. In any case, The Clam Box's version is, to date, the most stripped-down version I've had. Lightly toasted split roll, a pile of lobster meat that's been just barely kissed with mayonnaise, and I might have detected a sliver or two of celery, though I wouldn't swear to it. It was delicious, though I'm not sure how much there is to say other than, hey, the lobster was fresh and tender. And though I realize I'm probably setting myself up as a target for the purists, I have to say that having tried a couple of other lobster rolls that were "dressed up" a touch (more on this shortly), while I appreciate the roadside simplicity of a roll like this, for $15+ I prefer some other versions that some might consider blasphemous.

Fried Big Belly Clams & ScallopsDominic Armato

And then, on to the main event... though, actually, this was the first to be consumed. Fried seafood waits for no man, especially when it's the house specialty. I went for the clam and scallop combo, making a special request for the "big bellies" that, fortunately, were available that day (they aren't always). Here, I'm wondering if it was a matter of heightened expectations, but I was a little let down. On the plus side, and really most importantly, this was some deliciously fresh seafood. Both clams and scallops were juicy and succulent and not the least bit over-fried -- such a common pitfall. Where I felt they were a little lacking, actually, was in the coating. Thing is, it wasn't crisp. At all, really. If anything, it seemed a little soggy in places. Now, I'm cognizant of the fact that fried foods sometimes need to be consumed IMMEDIATELY before their quality drops off a cliff, but I doubt that was the case here. From the time I picked them up at the counter to the time they hit my mouth, it couldn't have been more than 90 seconds, so if I missed peak awesome, that means the Clam Box's fried coating decays faster than the top quark. And the joint was hopping, meaning that I doubt they were held for any length of time (if they even do that, which seems unlikely). An off day, perhaps. I'd be curious to know. Whether I'll be able to find out before they close for the winter in two weeks is doubtful. But it left me somewhat disappointed, despite the plate's very good points.

My education continues, and it was nice to get a triple dose of local fare in one spot. The Clam Box is awfully charming, in a cheesy kind of way. And it's clear they're trying to go the extra mile. Sadly, there are many, many miles between our home and the Clam Box, making it unlikely that I'll make the trip often. Truly life-altering fried seafood may have done the trick, but it's tough to justify two and a half hours of driving for anything that's short of spectacular. On this particular day, much as I enjoyed our lunch, it wasn't quite there.

The Clam Box
www.ipswichma.com/clambox/
246 High Street
Ipswich, MA 01938
978-356-9707
Call for hours, closed on December 14th for the winter, reopening in February

Comments

Tasty review. I miss fried New England seafood. There is definitely nothing like that where I live now. I mean, I can get good fried seafood, but it is Asian influenced tempura... Which is awesome but different enough to make me miss the New England version. I didn't realize places like the one you review are so seasonal. Do they all close down for winter? What's the local Boston winter specialty?

We Massachusetts folks understand the friendly rivalry between The Clam Box and Woodman's, in Essex. I'm a Woodman's girl, though I enjoy The Clam Box, too. But there's something about eating out on the marshes, in summer, that gives Woodman's the edge. Hope you get there next season.

If you're sampling lobster rolls in the greater Boston area, you might try J.J. McKay's in Wayland. I didn't expect much from the food there, but seven years later, the lobster roll is still the best one I've ever had.

Having come out to Boston for school, I too appreciate the charm of a true New England clam chowder, and a simple lobster roll.

I hadn't tasted clam chowder before living in Boston, so I've always assumed that clam chowder had a "thin" cream broad (still heavy by Asian standards). I was rudely awakened when I tried NE clam chowder in California.

I agree with you on the fried clams and scallops. My theory is that New England shops focus on cooking their extremely fresh seafood perfectly, which probably means a slightly lower oil temperature and a less cooking time, to preserve the juicy flavors. But without that thin-layer of overcooked protein right next to the crust, the steam of the juicy clam or scallop probably soaks the coating right away.

For those in the area, I have to argue that the best seafood shack is neither Woodman's nor the Clam Box, but Essex Seafood, less than a mile from Woodman's on 133. There's a very nice, old-fashioned toy store near there, Dom, and if you combine it with a trip to Crane's beach it's a perfect weekend day-trip. There's even a pick-your-own farm near the beach that has great cider donuts...

Lobster on a hot dog bun with mayo???

How can one be better than another unless the meat is rancid?

Is the lobster seasoned in any way to differentiate it?

This is a question to gain knowledge, not being a wise ass - What would make one better than another other than the quality/quantity of lobster?

Why waste your time with a bun?

This is from a 'neck who can tell subtleties between batches of boiled peanuts (because of the seasoning), but in a way, it is like saying one stores roasted peanuts are better than another. I can't tell, other than who gives a bigger bag for the $$.

Gilmore... some differentiating factors I've seen tossed about online:

Freshness of lobster.
Seasoning on lobster (basic salt, it would seem).
Ratio of claw to knuckle to tail.
Volume / Price Performance.
Type of bread/roll.
Quality of bread/roll.
Whether roll is properly toasted.
Amount of mayo.
Type of mayo.
Presence/absence of celery.
Presence/absence of lettuce.
Presence/absence (rarely on the former) of pickles.
Presence/absence of any other seasoning.

That's all I can think of at the moment, but I believe I've seen each one of these tossed about as a reason why lobster roll A is fantastic and lobster roll B is a piece of junk.

As Dom referred to, there are a number of debates that surround Lobster Rolls. The big one would be a mayo based roll (cold), more popular in upper New England, versus undressed lobster with melted butter, which is especially popular in Connecticut (warm). Like with any minimal sandwich, each ingredient becomes the cause of self-righteous proclamations of standard bearing from its most arduous fans. The variety of bun, toasted or untoasted, the lettuce, with or without celery, what kind of mayo, the amount of mayo, the kind of meat used (claw vs tail), the amount of meat used, etc.
While I was in Boston for school, I was hooked on James Hook lobster rolls. One of the cheaper versions without sacrificing quality/quantity of meat. What I would be willing to do to have one just a T ride away right now would not only shock you, but most likely violate a number of local and federal laws.

Thanks for the help.

Oh sure, post while I'm writing my post so it looks like I'm just the jerk who gives the same info but with less detail after it's already been given. Who do you think you are, the author of a helpful, interesting blog who actually engages with his commenters? Jeez! Some people, I tell ya.

I never found New England fried seafood particularly crispy, although it was still often awfully good. I make my own clam chowder so I can get the right consistency. The only not-made-by-me seafood soup I can get here that is the consistency of good NE clam chowder is the corn and crab bisque at Seastar, which is an entirely different beast.

I graduated from college and left New England 28 years ago now, but I still miss some of the regional food specialties.

I also can't get out of my head the lobster rolls from chinese restaurants - lobster meat & vegetables wrapped in a crunchy flaky dough and deep fried. The hot-dog like bun of the New England lobster roll throws me.

Dom, also, if you're at that cafe before security in the E terminal at Logan, throw in "presence/absence of shell fragments" as another factor to consider.

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