Words by Joe Ricchio | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Few meals would entice me to drive two hours in a snowstorm, and dinner at 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill in Rockport is one of them.
When you taste chef Patrick Duffy’s food, it becomes plainly apparent that he understands the fundamentals that make a dish successful. Grilled duck breast is served with endive, citrus, and a thick slice of brûléed, salt-cured foie gras, which melts its way into every crevice of the bird, creating a perfect marriage of fatty, sweet, bitter, and acidic. However, if he hadn’t mastered the intense and unforgiving flames exuding from his impressive, Texas-made wood grill to achieve a perfectly cooked duck, all of those flavors would be rendered forgettable. One glance at the wine list reveals a thoughtfully assembled range of bottles that are clearly geared toward parity with the food, courtesy of Patrick’s wife and coowner, Jessica Duffy.
Nestled into the center of Rockport in the historic 1891 Shepherd Block, the Duffys quietly run what is, in my opinion, one of the state’s best restaurants. Both worked at the space’s former incarnation, Shepherd’s Pie, which gave them a leg up on design and concept when they decided to make it their own in 2016. All the wood floors, exposed brick, and even the front door are original to the building, and additions to the rooms such as the bar, kitchen pass, and shelving are constructed with striking Douglas fir. The kitchen is entirely open, giving Patrick and his kitchen crew prime vantage points on the dining room.
“Having observed the flow of the restaurant before, we were able to make small tweaks,” Jessica tells me. “These changes have really streamlined the time and energy required for the staff to work the room.”
Patrick utilizes a variety of local vendors and purveyors to maintain a consistent offering of five to seven Maine oysters and one to three from away (based on the season), with certain types such as Pemaquid and Otter Cove being menu staples. There are a few different schools of thought concerning what wine pairs best here, but the list offers a full range from the crisp, citrusy Chateau Tour de Mirambeau white Bordeaux blend to a richer, more lavish and decidedly more modern Burgundy such as the Oceana Chablis. Both would be equally delicious with plump, chilled cocktail shrimp dipped into a smoky, wood-grilled tomato cocktail sauce.
Fried Pickled Tripe and Calamari, served with papas bravas
The concept of seasonality in restaurants is generally a topic beat so far into the ground that it immediately induces the urge for a nap, but in the case of 18 Central, it is imperative because it literally determines the clientele. In the summertime, it is easy to pack in the diners with crowd-pleasers like broiled oysters that pay homage to classic escargot, being elevated with a dollop of umami-rich roasted marrow butter. Of course, a plate of properly fried chicken, brined in buttermilk and dredged thinly enough to allow the crispy skin of the bird to shine through, served with robust braised greens and heirloom grits, is guaranteed to sell out on a hot August evening. The challenge is maintaining regulars throughout the lean months when so many places shutter and the owners move to warmer climates.
Celery Root Bisque with a jumbo Fried Oyster
“We are very realistic about where we live,” Jessica says, “and knowing we have guests who come in to dine one or two times every week makes us very proud. It also makes us realize that we are not able to be hands-off at any time with the restaurant; we want to always be here to ensure that the experience is consistent.” This being the case, the Duffys regularly close for less than a month between March and April, for much-needed family and relaxation time.
Roasted duck with brûléed, salt-cured foie gras
While the cocktail list indeed rotates, certain libations will never go—most notably the Kilnwooder. An interpretation of the classic old-fashioned, this blend of Bulleit rye, citrus, and maple syrup, accentuated with highly addictive Luxardo cherries, takes its name from the kiln-wood schooners that carried wood into Rockport Harbor to fuel its massive limestone kilns. There is also the cleverly, and sometimes aptly, named “Small Craft Advisory,” a daily rotating cocktail that “Changes Depending Upon the Weather.”
Always having leftover brioche means there will always be bread pudding
While it was undoubtedly busy the night I visited, the pace is more relaxed in the dead of January, allowing for a bit more experimentation in the kitchen. A dish of fried calamari over traditional papas bravas, crispy, Spanish-style potatoes, also featured the addition of fried pickled tripe. As a rule, I will consistently order tripe in any incarnation if I see it on a menu, but admittedly this was my first time experiencing it fried, and it did not disappoint.
“We do business with Curtis Meats, and I noticed pickled tripe in their shop,” Patrick says. “I bought some and fried it up. While it was good, I felt it was a bit much, but then I started thinking how it had a similar texture to squid, and how they might complement each other.” And so, yet another iteration of surf and turf was born.
Of course, winter evokes the need for comfort, both emotionally and in terms of consumption, and I feel 18 Central meets both of these needs with ease. An impossibly silky celery root bisque is reminiscent of an excellent oyster stew, aided in part by the addition of a single jumbo oyster, deep-fried, which is best eaten with a fork and knife, like a steak. Although Patrick is insistent that they are not a “burger restaurant,” he clearly takes pride in the thick, custom-ground beef patty that comes off the wood grill and is topped with caramelized onions, Roquefort, watercress, and a charred tomato aioli inspired by “special sauce.” Any leftover brioche buns find their way into bread pudding, one of the four desserts on offer any night, which in my case was butterscotch with espresso crème anglaise, toffee sauce, and maple Chantilly.
The beauty of 18 Central is that the food itself, as well as the presentation, is refined and reminiscent to me of some of the better Quebecois restaurants I have visited—in that the portion size is still ample and one does not need to order seven courses to feel sated. It is not gratuitous gluttony, just a generous helping that in turn shows an appreciation of its guests.
This being said, I still heed Patrick’s warning with complete seriousness when he says those three words: “Show up hungry.”