I spent an interesting and revealing afternoon yesterday comparing the fried whole belly clams in Fairfield county's three most revered seafood joints:
Black Duck Cafe 605 Riverside, Westport, 203-227-7978 blackduckcafe.net
Westfair Fish & Chips 1781 Post Rd. E (behind strip mall), Westport, 203-255-3184 westfairfishandchipsct.com
Rowayton Seafood Market 89 Rowayton Ave, next to The Restaurant at Rowayton, Norwalk 203-838-7473 rowaytonseafood.com
The Black Duck is one of my favorite spots for whole bellies, and one of only two venues I frequent for them outside the vaunted zone stretching along the coast from MA down through RI and extreme eastern CT. The other is Bigelow's, perplexingly located in sprawly Nassau County, Long Island (79 North Long Beach Rd, Rockville Centre; bigelows-rvc.com).
But this was a terrible example. The clams themselves were right on - grotesquely large, impeccably fresh, weighty and unapologetically funky. And the batter was Black Duck's usual nicely granular crust. But our mesmerizingly awful waitress seemed to have left them on the counter for five minutes or so, so they were tepid and mushy. And they were undercooked to begin with. So the result was crispy highlights amid general mushiness.
Still damned good, however, because the clams were great and the process has decades of momentum. Plus, you can't beat the ambiance of eating on this derelict old ship, with its oddly non-horizontal floor surfaces and grouchy bartenders.
Westfair was friendlier but more austere. A non-nonsense shack operation where you order at the window. Frying's the other extreme of diligence here; they've got all possible kinks completely worked out. Clams were impeccably crisp, but the batter was fine grained and thick, resulting in a smooth, pillowy crust, akin to yeasty donuts or diner onion rings. Fine for many things, but not for whole bellies.
Plus, the clams themselves were small and effete, and utterly without funk. These were whole belly clams for squeamish types. I might as well have ordered strips.
But, damn, these guys fry their asses off. I'm willing to bet any fried item on this menu would kill. They're just too far west, and in too sniffy an area, to really grok the essence of whole bellies. They don't get it. Black Duck, by contrast, is an aberation of funk in the snooty I-95 corridor, so it doesn't surprise me that they'd be way steeped in that sort of thing.
The Restaurant at Rowayton is a classy joint, but I opted for the affiliated Seafood Market next door. Therein, an intense middle-aged black dude named Irving rules the roost, and he's got systems. Do what Irving tells you to do. Also: tip Irving. Irving works for tips.
Here's the thing to understand about soul food: it's a technology for elevating crap ingredients. Ribs were crap until black people got to them. Same for ham hocks, whiting, and the rest of the canon. It's poor people's food, and the cooking techniques which evolved were all about transcending crap rather than highlighting the innate goodness of great, fresh ingredients. My grandmother, raised in the flea-infested, pogrom-plagued swamps of Shnyaten (rhymes with "rotten") was not, when she fried potato latkes or stewed flanken, on some Alice Water's-ish crusade to do only minimal things to Earth's fragrant bounty. And neither is Irving.
Irving is kind of a genius. His crust hits you like a crowd of enraged kung fu assassins, from every angle. It's super coarse, yet flakey, it's as crunchy as glass yet has an innate tenderness, and it's dosed with a good shake of cayenne pepper. It's the Magical Everything Crust, and it left me wanting to eat literally anything Irving fries. Except whole belly clams. Because you can't taste the clams under Irving's genius. In a contest of Irving versus clams, Irving wins, hands down. And, anyway, they're the same lovely, effete, sterile clams used at Westfair, their bellies as taut as those of the neighborhood's wealthy socialites.
So: Black Duck for whole belly clams (and pray your waiter gets them to you in time). Westfair for salty/seaside frying of anything BUT whole belly clams, and Irving for, really, anything Irving does - unless you need to taste anything beyond Irving's own heart and talent.
See photo of Irving's work, attached.
Bigelow's beats all three. But this is the wrong board for that...