Restaurant Review: Carmen Anthony Fishhouse, Woodbury
★★ [Very Good]
The nine-foot sculptured bronze mermaid still dives into a curling ocean wave in the dining room. The translucent marble ceiling lights that look like upside-down water lillies still cast a golden glow. Dark wood paneling. White tablecloths. Floor-to-ceiling wine racks in the bar, walls lined with culinary awards . . . .
Change has come to Carmen Anthony Fishhouse of Woodbury since it opened seventeen years ago. The menu is more farm-to-table and nutritionally savvy, the cocktail list is more creative, the decor refreshed, but the fundamental thing remains — an alluring blend of Old World elegance and old shoe comfort.
Some get it. Some don’t. “This place is for the sixties,” a blogger writes and goes on to suggest an extreme makeover. Perish the thought, the regulars scream. Both have a point.
Hip, cutting-edge restaurants are fun. I enjoy them but they’re a whole different kettle of fish. Carmen Anthony Fishhouse was and is a classic as soothing and satisfying as its award-winning New England-style chowder—which was the first dish we ordered. Rich, smooth, elusively flavorful and thick with tender sweet clams, it lived up to its reputation.
A salad comes with the meal, a pleasing old-fashioned touch; it’s a really good salad, a mix of fresh greens and arugula with a not-too-sweet balsamic dressing and a sprinkle of Gorgonzola. In addition, I ordered the restaurant’s “signature chop salad,” which was new to me. A bountiful array of chopped vegetables sailed in with a fantail shrimp on top. The vegetables, jewel-bright, were too finely chopped to identify by sight, but one bite and I found out— cherry peppers, hot as firecrackers. A nice interplay of fire and ice with the peppers playing off the chilled cucumber and tomato bits, if you like it hot. Wimps be warned.
The menu covers the waterfront when it comes to variety, but don’t overlook the specials. Oysters Rockefeller, for instance, were a don’t-miss dish, lovely to look at in mother-of-pearl lined shells. Rich as its namesake, it was a medley of oysters, cream, spinach, herbs and butter lightly broiled. There may have been a traditional touch of Pernot in there, too—I’d have liked a tad more but it’s a matter of taste.
Conch fritters were also commendable. Freshly made, piping hot and tender (as conch often is not), the fritters were served with a “classic remoulade” and sweet chili sauce. Luckily we ordered the sauces on the side. Both were too strident, one cloyingly sweet, the other with too much bite. Either one would have overpowered the mild flavor of the conch. We asked for a simple tartar sauce, which our waitress said they didn’t have. No worries — a wedge of lemon saved the day.
And our entrées got everything right.
Sesame seeds, wasabi and Asian slaw embellished seared tuna, itself a sparkling fresh delight. Pan-roasted sea bass was served with risotto. Slow cooked with snippets of fresh asparagus and leek, this was a risotto to do anybody’s Italian Nana chef proud.
Having sworn off sea scallops for a while because I’d been having them so often, I managed (just barely) to resist Carmen Anthony’s “Scallops Martinique,” an elaborate creation involving artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, lemon shallot basil butter sauce and angel hair pasta.
Spoiled by buying swordfish on the pier fresh off the boat in Chatham and cooking it myself, I’m leery of ordering it in a restaurant. But Carmen Anthony’s Swordfish Maitre D’Hotel turned out to be one gorgeous piece of fish: firm, fresh, perfectly cooked and served unadorned but for a glisten of herb butter and a few stalks of asparagus alongside. Fit for King Neptune. I shall return.
Filet Aragosta, slightly more complex, was equally outstanding, featuring as it did the most wonderful filet mignon I’ve had in years. Big, thick, juicy and, for a filet, rich-tasting. Tender? Aside from the seared edges you could have cut it with a butter knife. Topped with shelled lobster meat and Gorgonzola—forget surf ’n turf. I’ll take Filet Aragosta, unless I’m in the mood to splurge with one of Carmen Anthony’s gigantic whole lobsters in the shell (3- to 5-pounders), which are worth a trip from anywhere.
Desserts continued the more-is-better theme. Tropical carrot cake, made with pineapple and coconut, was high as it was wide, but fluffy and moist at the same time. White chocolate cheesecake with strawberry drizzle was rich and tasty on its own but if you’re up to it, you can have it rolled and deep-fat-fried like a cross between a big spring roll and a profiterole.
Over the top, yes, but the Carmello Anthony Torte with an Oreo crust, bananas, vanilla custard, walnuts, chocolate ganache and vanilla ice cream took the cake.
On a weekday night, the service was excellent. On holidays or when several private parties are going on, there can be mistakes and overly long waits. But the vibe, blessedly sans attitude, is cheerful, helpful and genuinely friendly. And in a frantic demanding world isn’t it, well, nice to enjoy the peace and grace of a bygone era when dining out was a time to share a leisurely meal with family and friends, not cut a deal or grab a bite.
Carmen Anthony Fishhouse of Woodbury
757 S. Main St., Woodbury, (203) 266-011, carmenanthony.com
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thurs.-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sun. noon to 9 p.m. Appetizers: $4.95 to $15.95; entrées $26.95 to $41.95; desserts $8.95 to $10.95. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.