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The best dining experiences come when you're traveling or passing through an unfamiliar place and you serendipitously stumble upon a true gem. But a close second is getting a chance to try out a new place that others are raving about.
I was in the latter situation this past weekend when I went to the Matunuck Oyster Bar in East Matunuck, R.I. The place was named best new restaurant by Rhode Island Monthly in 2011, listed by USA Today as one of the "10 great places to savor oysters on the half shell" in the country, and considered one of Rhode Island's best restaurants of 2011 by Yankee Magazine.
So it was with great anticipation that I pulled into the crushed seashell parking lot for lunch on Sunday afternoon.
Now, let's just say I was not the only person who heard great things about this restaurant. It was about 2 in the afternoon when I went up to the hostess with my wife and son to get a table for three. We were told it would be a 30-minute wait.
But the wait actually wasn't bad at all. In the end, it wound up being only 10 minutes, and while you wait, you can order a beer or cocktail at the outdoor bar and even put in an appetizer order while you sit at one of several wooden picnic tables. There's also a beautiful cottage-style garden out front to take in and some marine-themed textbooks on the tables to browse through.
The first thing that struck me when we took our seats at the Matunuck Oyster Bar was the view. We opted to sit outside on the patio, which I would consider a must for anyone taking the roughly 45-minute drive up from the New London area.
The restaurant sits on what appears to be a cove but is actually a stretch of water between Point Judith and Potter ponds. On my visit, the sky was about as blue as the water, and there was a soft breeze coming through the dining area.
The restaurant's roots date back to 1992, with the founding of Ocean State Aqua Farm, now the Matunuck Oyster Farm, a seven-acre space on Potter Pond. (The farm is also open for tours.) Oyster farmer Perry Raso then decided to open the restaurant.
It seemed only fitting to start off our meal with some Matunuck oysters. I've read that travel essayist Eleanor Clark once described the taste of an oyster as a "shock of freshness." I think that sums up my reaction fairly well.
I also tried the restaurant's take on the "stuffie," the quintessential Rhode Island appetizer of clam and stuffing packed into a clamshell. This was a pretty unusual stuffie, made with Portuguese chourico sausage and cherry peppers. The flavor was outstanding, but for my taste, it was a little on the dry side. However, it should be noted that after more than six years of living in Rhode Island, this reviewer may have refined his stuffie palette to a degree not worth emulating.
Keeping with my "when in Rome" approach, I continued with oysters into the entrée portion of our meal with the fried oyster po boy. It's rare that you see cooked oysters on a menu. It's like coming across pickle chips or bacon pieces atop a cookie. So I figured I should see what this was all about.
The oysters had a crispy battered outside and a soft inside. I would liken this to a whole belly clam roll, but it's certainly still different. It came on a toasted baguette with a Cajun mayonnaise sauce that tied it all together nicely.
My son, who's now 13 months old, had the fish and chips. For something that's so simple, a lot of places can do fish and chips pretty poorly. The batter will either be flavorless, or the fish will be a little rubbery. This restaurant did the classic dish fabulously. The batter had a dusting of seasoning that seemed similar to the Old Bay variety, and the fish was a fresh piece of Atlantic cod. The oyster po boy and the fish and chips both came with fries that were done in the pomme frites style.
I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, but I developed a serious case of entrée envy after I tried my wife's seared scallops with wild mushroom risotto, truffle butter and roasted vegetables. It was such a simple dish, but it was done so well. The scallops were incredibly fresh and cooked perfectly. It's also my personal opinion that truffle oil or butter can make just about any dish taste that much better.
The food at the Matunuck Oyster Bar was excellent, but the operation itself was very impressive, too. There was an obvious push toward sustainability. The restaurant's website makes a point of saying the meals unite "fresh, locally grown produce with farm-raised and wild caught seafood." But I also picked up on some little details while I was there.
My son's leftovers came in a compostable container, and plants for the garden were being grown on the patio in compostable trays. There was also an inconspicuous Plexiglas barrier along the fence of the patio, presumably to block wind and keep napkins and other detritus from going into the water.
I'd have to say the service was also excellent: prompt but not hurried, and certainly hospitable. To borrow a line from Homer Simpson, it's nice to be called sir without hearing the addition "you're making a scene."
When it came to price, the Matunuck Oyster Bar certainly wasn't a cheap eat, but it wasn't unreasonable either. For three entrees and two appetizers, my bill came to a little more than $70. Entrees range in price from $14 to $30, and appetizers are $3.95 to $12.95. Oysters from the raw bar are $1.85 each.
As I said, one of the great dining thrills can be trying out that new place you've heard so much about. But one of the great dining let downs is when the restaurant falls well below your expectations.
The Matunuck Oyster Bar is worthy of the hype.
629 Succotash Rd., East Matunuck, R.I.
Cuisine: Seafood and raw bar
Prices: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers $3.95 to $12.95. Entrees $14 to $30.
Atmosphere: Casual waterfront dining
Service: Friendly and attentive
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily (till 9 p.m. Fri.-Sun.)
Credit cards: Visa, Master Card Discover and American Express
Handicapped access: The side entrance has an accessibility ramp.