Hitting the road for fried clams in the Merrimack Valley
LIKE MOST FOLKS who love the Seacoast, we've got favorite spots for fried seafood. There are probably dozens of places to choose from, but when we're at the beach, we have a short list of three or four where we know we'll be satisfied, and we'll hit any one of them depending on where we are or how big the crowds are.
But we've never really put much thought into where to find the best fried seafood away from the coast. After all, looking out over at an asphalt parking lot with no sign of ocean or salt marsh doesn't conjure up the same state of mind... at least for us.
On a recent warm Saturday night, we were ready for some fried clams, but our schedule did not permit a trip to the beach. So we decided to do a little research, and sample a few fried-clam hot spots between Nashua and Manchester. Just as at the beach, there are probably dozens of places we could go, but the most we could cover on our trip was three.
We started in Litchfield, where the Cape Ann restaurant that claims to have invented fried clams — Woodman's of Essex — opened a small branch office a few years ago at Mel's Funway Park. We next visited two local institutions: the Lobster Boat in Merrimack, and the Goldenrod in Manchester.
To keep the playing field even, we ordered a clam dinner or plate at each spot (belly clams, of course — we don't know why people who order clam strips even bother.) In all cases, the servings included clams, fries and cole slaw.
At two places, we ordered take-out in the interest of time and summer picnicking. Packing fried food in closed containers doesn't do much to maintain crunch, so we decided not to rate them for crispiness. Goldenrod packed their to-go plate in a flat paper bag, which seems like it would travel better than foam, though probably not as neatly.
Woodman's large clam plate was the biggest, and at $23.95, the most expensive. A small clam "boat" was $18.20 on the chalkboard menu, and clams-only boxes ranged from $16.95 to $42.95.
But for the price, you get a heaping helping of clams. Woodman's doesn't add volume by piling on the french fries; we estimated the clam-to-fries ratio at about 2 to 1. And they were very good clams. Fried to a light golden brown, they were plump and delicious, with a robust clam flavor that was a source of disagreement between your reviewers.
I'm a child of the Seacoast, and Woodman's clams reminded me of home. To me, there's a close connection between the flavor of clams and and the smell of the salt marshes and flats where they come from. Woodman's were spot on with that briny flavor, telling me they were fresh and local. For The Dining Companion, the flavor was a little too strong. Then again, she doesn't get it when we're walking around Portsmouth and I'm sucking in the low-tide air and sighing, either.
The Lobster Boat, the tiny landmark restaurant in the center of Merrimack, produced a generous sized plate for $17.99 ($15.99 for small). We judged the clams-to-fries ratio at about 1:1. The clams were cooked a bit darker than Woodman's, more brown than golden. The coating was heavier, and the clam flavor was fairly strong, but we found the clams to be rather chewy. They were long and skinny, in some cases looking suspiciously like clam strips. There were bellies, to be sure, but those clams must have been working out back home in the flats, because those bellies were pretty lean.
Goldenrod's clam plate was the smallest of the three (still a sufficient serving by any measure), but also the least expensive at $13.99. Clam-to-fries ratio was good at about 2:1. The clams were plump, golden brown and flavorful, with just the right amount of briny flavor to make us both happy. We gauged these clams to be on par with Woodman's for texture, preparation and flavor. For the price, Goldenrod gets our vote as the best fried-clam value of the three. Of the accoutrements that accompanied each plate, the french fries were comparable at each spot. Cole slaw ranged from finely ground and cloyingly sweet at Goldenrod to rough-chopped and tangy at Woodman's, which we liked the best. (Apparently we're not alone, since Woodman's also offers "Aunt Alice's Cole Slaw" as a standalone side item.) Lobster Boat was in the middle, chopped like Woodman's, but a bit too sweet, like Goldenrod.
We've got a lot more work to do to fully cover the fried-clam scene in New Hampshire. Luckily, the summer has just begun, and we've established an efficient system for sampling more than one place at a sitting.