Ford's: From shack to chic in the off-season
It's wonderful to live in a place where many a restaurant meal comes with a glorious view. Unfortunately, during the high season, it's easier to get into your skinny jeans than it is to book a table in one of these local hot spots.
Ford's Lobster in Noank is one such place. The landmark lobster shack clings to the Groton bank of the Mystic River at Haring's Marine, offering lobster dinners on the dock and a front row seat at the never-ending parade of vessels - from yacht to skiff - that ply the river in the summertime.
Some of Ford's popularity must be attributed to its brief appearance on the big screen - in the film "Mystic Pizza," Cat hops on her scooter and delivers a pizza to her mom, who is hard at work at Ford's (renamed Ferriera Lobsters in the film). But mostly, I think, Ford's appeal springs from its fresh, briny fare and its rare gem of a location.
But this time of year, Ford's tells a different story, transforming itself from shack to chic, from tourist mecca to intimate, seafood café, offering creative, fresh, local fare in a charming indoor setting.
A recent quest with friends for an early Saturday dinner had us meandering Noank's steep, twisty lanes, following the signs to Ford's. We briefly had the place to ourselves as we pondered the small regular menu and the extensive list of specials, which changes daily.
The small dining room - six four-top tables and four two-tops - was perfectly charming, cozy and warm on this frigid afternoon. Sets of French doors span the front of the shack, letting in the light and the views of Fishers Island Sound. Boards painted a milky green line the walls and hold an eclectic mix of artifacts, colorful paintings and old photographs of Noank and its inhabitants.
We were given two menus, the regular and the specials, and as we perused them, we watched the sky beyond Fishers Island turn pink and orange with the setting sun.
The regular menu offers chowders, clear and creamy ($5), and lobster bisque ($6.50); a small selection of appetizers, including clams casino ($10) and steamed mussels ($10); and a short list of entrees, heavy on the lobster, including a roll, hot or cold ($17), boiled (market price), and the bomb ($32), a full pound of lobster in a bread bowl covered with bisque. There's also a scallop dish ($24) and a New York sirloin ($24).
With the specials menu, the chef seems to riff on whatever was available that day. For our meal, the resulting long list featured, among others, chicken, salmon, little necks, tuna, scallops, cod and, of course, lobster.
We started with the fried calamari with banana peppers ($10), a dish that can reveal much about a kitchen's seafood expertise. Clearly, Ford's knows what it's doing.
These tender rings of squid were fried golden brown, as were the tangy slices of banana peppers. We rebuffed the perfectly fine marinara served on the side and enjoyed them just as they were.
In our first entrée, pan-seared seafood alfredo ($25), the generous portion arrived full of cod, salmon, tuna and scallops, all in a creamy, cheesy sauce over penne, encircled by four, large slabs of buttery, grilled bread. The pasta and the seafood were perfectly cooked and bathed in just the right amount of sauce - not swimming, just coated.
Our next, pan-seared U-10 scallops with apple cider butter ($25) offered big, succulent scallops, nicely seared on the outside, silky within, and served on a bed of spaghetti squash baked with asiago cheese. The mild sweetness from the apple cider butter offset the salty, rich squash, bringing the whole dish together. This was the winner of the night - succulent, creative, perfectly prepared.
We also sampled baked cod with lobster and scallops stuffing ($25). A thick slab of moist, tender cod was served with a flavorful pilaf of white rice and vegetables in a ring of tender-crisp broccolini. But the stuffing on top of the fish was heavy, kind of gloopy, and very rich. The flavor was good but it weighed down the otherwise fresh, bright flavors.
Our final choice, lobster risotto croquettes ($12) with Ford's salad ($12), were reminiscent of arancini - Italian stuffed, fried rice balls. These were darkly fried, providing a wonderful crunch around the creamy filling and its chunks of lobster meat. The salad included pears, strawberries, Mandarin oranges, candied walnuts and feta cheese, and was dressed in a not-too-sweet raspberry vinaigrette, a good accompaniment to the croquettes.
All in all, Ford's served us a delightful meal, one that demonstrated its expert hand at local seafood and its great ability to combine interesting and not often featured ingredients in innovative, delicious ways.
Two things to note: Ford's does not serve alcohol, but guests may bring their own. Also, the restaurant will be closed for its winter respite, Feb. 2-28, reopening March 1.
15 Riverview Ave., Noank; (860) 536-2842
Cuisine: Mainly seafood, also pasta and sirloin. No alcohol is served, but patrons may bring their own.
Atmosphere: Upscale lobster shack
Service: Very friendly and welcoming.
Prices: Lunch entrees up to $18; dinner entrees up to $42.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Serving breakfast Wednesday through Saturday and brunch on Sundays. Restaurant closes Feb. 2-28. Reopens March 1.
Credit Cards: Yes
Reservations: None accepted
Handicapped access: No steps to enter, dining room and restrooms are all on one level.