Photo by Cathy Pinsky
The inviting entry includes a sign advertising produce sold at the restaurant’s adjacent farm market.
What makes a hit restaurant? An excellent chef is nice, but it’s not necessary. The same goes for a great location, swank décor, and slick, intuitive service. Beyond the necessity of achieving basic competency, a restaurant’s excellence is pleasant, but not predictive of success. What makes a hit is when a smart restaurateur divines the desires of a bankable community and then opens the only restaurant to offer satisfaction. It’s that simple.
Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish’s genius is that it’s a no-brainer that exploded onto well-heeled North Salem in March with a pre-sold concept. You know this cuisine and, chances are, you already like it—it’s beach-house comfort food that’s familiar to anyone who’s vacationed anywhere from Cape May to Kennebunkport. At Farmer & the Fish, you’ll find freshly shucked shellfish, chowder, and lobster boils, plus fragrant, farm-stand corn and juicy local tomatoes. On the walls, you’ll see your neighbors, tanned and posing with their freshly hooked catches. Smartly, Farmer & the Fish’s photos were (in part) crowd-sourced from its customers, while its digs, a circa 1775 farmhouse (listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Joseph Purdy Homestead), has been a part of this community for actual ages. On some level, visiting Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish feels like coming home.
Much has changed since this old house’s last incarnation as John-Michael’s Restaurant. A rickety, post-1970 enclosure has been removed to open the porch’s welcoming arms. Inside, walls that once made the rooms feel either intimate or claustrophobic (depending on your view) have been removed to offer a continuous flow around the house’s Revolutionary-era chimney block. Multiple gorgeous hearths remain, while accents like a large American flag and vintage photos verge into inoffensive Ralph Lauren territory. On the downside, high noise and low light can be hard on some diners, and everyone should prepare for a wait. Even armed with a reservation, you might find yourself dodging harried waiters in the thronged bar, or even, on weekends, shivering outside of its quaint split doors.
It pains me that hepatitis fearers might skip Farmer & the Fish’s open raw bar, which offers a long and oft-changing roster of bracingly delectable oysters. A recent dip found both East and West Coast varieties in all their brimming, glorious freshness, somewhat painfully priced at $2.50 each, regardless of where sourced. Iced king crab legs were cool and buttery (and so satisfying to peel out of their split shells like sea-swimming bone marrow), but Farmer & the Fish’s New England clam chowder is of a starchy, gluey variety. In it, the mild flavor of cooked-’til-rubbery clams was sacrificed to brawnier ham notes. Steamer clams were garlicky and thymey, but still sea briny, and perfect to unsheathe and drag through little pots of butter. Better was a scallop salad that offered four perfectly buttery, creamy scallops and bacon lardons with a perfectly fried egg. Sadly, those gems were buried under a haystack of frisée that seemed to apologize for a perfectly rationally sized starter. It would be better with half of the greens left off the plate.
Photo by Cathy Pinsky
A simple plate of beer-battered cod and hand-cut fries is simply delicious at Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish.
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One of Farmer & the Fish’s charms is that, except for those pricey oysters, it offers perceived value in spades; for a seafood restaurant, it’s actually reasonably priced. On its long wine list, you’ll find decent bottles in the $20 to $40 range (like a cheap and cheerful $27 Vina Robles), plus specials like the at-the-bar-only “Red White & Blue”—Pabst Blue Ribbon (or a choice of house red or white) and Blue Point oysters. Meanwhile, as I write in September, Farmer & the Fish is raising about 80 percent of the produce it serves on its attached farm. This fall, the restaurant plans to debut an attached farmers’ market that promises locally raised produce and meats, plus seafood and some prepared foods (including the restaurant’s crab cakes).
While that chowder might fail, some of the vacation classics are rampant successes, including a perfectly pitched “lobster boil,” a bargain at $25, that offers a one-and-a-half-pound lobster plus steamer clams, red potatoes, and corn on the cob. Admittedly, this is not difficult food to cook, yet still, on both tries, the lobster claws and tail were steamed to split-second perfection, while the potatoes offered just enough resistance to my fork. And the corn…well, let’s just say it was a welcome excuse for more butter, as were the three or so steamers. Fish and chips is another star. Hand-cut fries supported large chunks of milky-fleshed, beer-battered cod that had the good taste to be simple and perfect. For terrestrials, there is a traditional burger and a nicely charred, grass-fed rib-eye steak that, unfortunately, on one try, arrived with cut corn marred by corn silk. Don’t miss perfectly cooked fish under the heading “From The Pan”: We loved salty-creamy Icelandic cod served with a mountain of crisp, garden kale.
Of the desserts, the crumbly, warm blueberry peach crisp is best, but buttery, white-chocolate bread pudding makes a close second. Given this joint’s stony fireplaces and untamable, happy energy, you might just want to close your meal with a drink in the hearth-lit bar, reflecting on what makes Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish such a hit. Is Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish an excellent restaurant? No, but it is a supremely thoughtful one. I know I’m looking forward to many happy returns.
Purdy’s Farmer and the Fish â˜…â˜…â˜…
100 Titicus Rd, North Salem
(914) 617-8380; farmerandthefish.com
Hours: lunch, Mon to Sat noon-3 pm; bar menu, daily 3 pm-5:30 pm; dinner, Mon to Thurs 5:30 pm-11 pm, Fri to Sat 5:30 pm-midnight, Sun 5:30 pm-10 pm; brunch, Sun noon-3 pm
Raw bar: $2.50-$24; appetizers: $5-$13; entrées: $10-$36; desserts: $8-$12
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good