On a recent early Saturday evening, a slender, white-haired woman visiting Whidbey Island from New England stepped off Langley’s First Street and into Saltwater, where she joined the rest of her party at a four-top in the back corner. Above the table hung an oyster board, which beckoned with the day’s fresh bounty scripted in muted, pink chalk: Kumamoto, Mirada, and Penn Cove select among them. In the restaurant’s small bar area, a toy model of a fishing boat sat docked between top shelf liquor bottles; in the slightly larger dining area, black and white photos of ships lined the marine-blue walls.
Saltwater, a spinoff of Langley stalwart Prima Bistro, opened its doors in the summer of 2017 with a bold assertion: This is the nautically themed seafood joint in town. And besides, after you’ve slept and supped down the street at the renowned Inn at Langley—those ship photos and everything around them seemed to ask—where else are you going to go?
But how would Saltwater compare to the storied fish shacks and oyster houses of this customer’s New England? New England with its lobster rolls, its chorus of cracking crab legs, its de rigueur adult bibs lest rogue cocktail sauce muck up anyone’s pristine L.L. Bean shirt—maybe a 200-year-old lighthouse somewhere, vaguely, in the distance.
This New Englander had seen a lifetime of nautically themed seafood joints. This New Englander would be hard to impress.
She studied the menu and discovered many well-worn classics with a decidedly local twist. The mussels were steamed in Rainier beer. The crab cakes were Dungeness crab cakes. Her three dining companions would settle on halibut and chips, an oyster po’boy, a smoked salmon salad. For her: the shrimp louie—a shoal of chilled, naked shrimp atop ample arugula and baby romaine.
But first, oysters. The Pacific Northwest’s most reliable showstopper. Here came 12 shimmering bivalves on a bed of ice, their sight enough to make you forget all you have left back home. Your Connecticut neighborhood, your Connecticut neighbors, and, certainly, the lobster rolls by which you’ve subconsciously measured your life.
Our New Englander lifted a prize Kumamoto, tilted it back with a slurp, and said the thing anyone with a stake in the duel between the Pacific Northwest and the Atlantic Northeast longs to hear. “That was so good.”