Arts & Culture

Operation Clambake

By Angela Garbes April 30, 2010

My oldest brother is a genius. He was reading by the age of two; he skipped fourth grade. He scored an 800 on his Math SAT and went to college at MIT. Adding icing to the stereotypical Asian cake, he was also a piano prodigy with perfect pitch. I spent much of my youth resenting him slightly and wondering if he was some sort of alien.

Every year my family would head to Boston for a few days to visit my brother during spring break. It was here, finally, over the red-and-white checked tablecloths of a touristy restaurant near Faneuil Hall, that I discovered something we had in common: the desire to eat our body weight, over and over again, in New England Clambakes—bucketfuls of briny clams, sweet whole lobsters, and countless hunks of boiled potatoes and corn on the cob. Growing up in Pennsylvania, we'd never heard of clambakes. They were a New England tradition, and soon they were our tradition.

Just like the all the land we proudly call America, settlers stole the whole clambake idea from Native Americans, specifically the Wampanoag people of southeastern Massachusetts. The clambake, called appanaug, is a celebration to honor tribal elders and the changing of seasons. Fresh seafood—clams, lobsters, mussels, crab—is steamed over hot rocks and seaweed in a fire pit dug on the beach.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re blessed with a similarly ridiculous bounty of native shellfish: Littleneck clams, Dungeness crabs, spot prawns, mussels, oysters. And while Seattle is a great restaurant town, when I really want to impress out-of-town guests, I just take them to Pike Place Market, pick up a pile of whatever the fish man says is best, and cook up a clambake of sorts on my own stove. It’s a foolproof, fantastic meal.

So it leaves me wondering: With all the incredible seafood around us, where are the Northwest clambakes? So far, I have found only three.

At Ravenna’s Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor (2616 NE 55th, 525-0220), where the oysters are great, the steaks sub-par, and everything is slightly overpriced, they serve a mighty fine dish they call the Petite Clambake ($22). A wide white bowl holds one Dungeness crab leg, manila clams, two hand-formed patties of linguica sausage, a few remarkably moist pieces of chicken, fennel slices, and grilled fingerling potato halves, all sitting in a shallow pool of lovely pink lobster broth.  The seafood is fresh, with that oceany salty-sweet flavor; the sausage is good (though underseasoned compared to what the rest of the world calls linguica); and the grilled potatoes, with their creamy insides and smoky finish, are a real treat. The lobster broth—subtle and rich—was a great base, and eminently sop-able.

While I enjoyed Frank’s Petite Clambake, I was not as into Frank’s scene: a little stuffy and packed with white, well-heeled, highly accessorized couples swigging cocktails. I craved a more casual, welcoming atmosphere for a seafood boil, so I took it to the extreme and headed to The Crab Pot (Pier 57 on Alaskan Way, 624-1890) on the waterfront, where my boyfriend and I shelled out $23.95 each for a bucket of Dungness crab, snow crab, whole shell-on shrimps, clams, mussels, Andouille sausage, pieces of corn on the cob, and red potatoes—all dumped directly onto our table. (We also got bibs, wooden mallets, and a big metal bowl to throw shells into placed at our feet.)

Was The Crab Pot’s food as good as Frank’s? No. The seafood was not as tasty—mostly because it was overcooked, boiled just to the verge of rubbery—but there was plenty of it. The sausage was mostly fat and filler and the corn was frighteningly sweet, but it kind of didn’t matter. We had fun, and we were surrounded by other people having fun—a crowd of Taiwanese students, Spanish businessmen, and mulleted visitors from Eastern Washington. It will probably be a while before I go to The Crab Pot again, but it’s worth noting that 98% of people eating a seafood boil in Seattle are doing it here, every night. (We waited nearly an hour for a table on a Tuesday night.)

The last seafood feast I tried is the newly launched Wednesday night Seafood Boil at West Seattle’s Fresh Bistro (4725 42nd Ave SW, 935-3733). For $25 a person (minimum four people, reservations required), you get a big stainless steel pot filled with at least four pounds of Dungeness crab, scallops, clams, prawns, salmon, mussels, potato, and Andouille sausage, swimming in a white wine broth, along with a few inexplicable stray slices of chayote and mushroom. You also get an array of sides, served family-style: a bistro salad with pickled red onions, bacon, and feta; jalapeno cornbread muffins; and spicy dirty rice with Merguez sausage. For dessert, there are individual rhubarb tarts and vanilla ice cream.

Fortunately, the seafood at this seafood boil is solid (not to mention very generously portioned): no one will go hungry and you’ll all be angling for those big juicy scallops hiding underneath crab legs and camouflaging themselves beside the potato halves. What falls short, though, is everything else: the sides are clumsily executed, the service hesitant and awkward. Also, Fresh’s atmosphere and décor—tiny bundles of wheat floating above tables, wrought-iron bread baskets, three-foot high branches as room dividers—feels forced and heavy-handed, which left me longing to be eating the big pot o’ seafood I was sharing with three friends in the comfort of my own home. Which, unless the Seattle clambake scene steps up its game, is exactly what I'll be doing with my brother when he comes to visit this summer.
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