Mansion Clam House, Westport
★★ (Very Good)
Housed in a barn-red sea shanty almost too small to swing an anchor in, the Mansion Clam House is everything its tongue-in-cheek moniker implies. Funky-refined, raffish but not really. A clam shack with class and the elusive feeling that it’s an old New England landmark—which, if you count decades instead of centuries, it is.
For 60 years a loyal band of seafood lovers have washed up here so regularly it might have been their club—until it closed in 2006. It reopened a year later but all was not well; customers complained and stayed away.
Now, that rough patch weathered, the Mansion Clam House again sails happy seas. Chef Rigo Lino has become an owner, the staff, some re-recruited from the old days, is friendly and accommodating, and the interior has been spiffed up a bit. Not to fear, we’re not talking extreme makeover here. Just paint, varnish, good taste and a dash of whimsy does the trick—slipshod becomes shipshape.
Prices, too, are back in line; in fact, when it comes to seafood, they’re hard to beat. The $25 prix fixe dinner including lobster bisque or house salad, an entrée with vegetables, a side dish and a glass of house wine is an especially good deal because the entrées included are no el cheapo throwaways but exciting chef’s specials. Recently I enjoyed sesame-encrusted yellowfin tuna topped with smashed avocado, lump crabmeat and soy ginger glaze—delicious enough to pay more for at lots more upscale places.
I’m not a member of the Mansion’s original old guard, so when I decided to review it I rounded up three bona fides to go with me. Before we got menus, Rachel said, “Fried clams.” And off we went down memory lane with Rachel remembering her high school days, when summer meant picking up huge bags of the Mansion’s fried clams to eat at Compo Beach; then all of us, including our waiter, chimed in with food memories so golden they’d be a hard act to follow.
We began by trying almost everything on the fried seafood list. Rachel swore the whole-belly clams were the swoon food they used to be. Light, not greasy, tasty and crunchy outside, sweet and creamy within, they were also tiny so there was more crunch than creaminess—which I minded but nobody else did. But if you like fried, this was good fried and worked just fine with shrimp and sea scallops large enough to hold their own.
But Hail Britannia, look to your laurels when it comes to the fish-and-chips. The Mansion’s center-cut cod dipped in Ernie’s Original Recipe beer batter, served with soft-center six-inch skinny-strip fries, will blow you out of the water.
Order clam chowder and you’ll be asked which one. “Rhode Island,” our table sang out in unison, “it’s the best.” How right we were. How could a clear broth be so, so deep-down redolent with heady nuances of the sea?
Oysters Rockefeller posed no such mystery. Departing from New Orleans authenticity, they were what they were: four oysters broiled with red pepper, spinach, garlic, shallots and anisette (very little), topped with melted Swiss. If they lacked finesse, they were bold and filling, and if the Mansion wasn’t trying to channel Antoine’s, why should we?
Saugatuck Gorgonzola Salad has been on the Mansion’s menu forever. We remembered garden greens, radishes and such in fake-wood salad bowls, dressing pooling in the bottom, insanely rich and creamy Gorgonzola in a thick layer on top. Alas, Saugatuck Gorgonzola Salad circa 2011 was a pale shadow of its former self—lackluster greens, dauntingly thick slices of onion, Gorgonzola conspicuously skimpy and dry. We took a polite taste, gave it a pass and were bountifully consoled with two seafood medleys. One was made with shrimp, lobster and sea scallops sautéed with scallions and fresh tomato over capellini, the other with shrimp, salmon, lobster and mushrooms in pink vodka sauce baked in a casserole. Remember casseroles? It’s easy to forget how good they can be.
Of course, newness is nice, too, so when it came to choosing soft-shell crab either classically prepared with lemon, capers and white wine, or on a bed of spring greens, avocado and mango salad with pomegranate vinaigrette, we chose the latter and loved it.
But Rachel’s father knew what he wanted when he walked in: rainbow trout. Tonight it was baked with crabmeat, shrimp and scallop stuffing. He liked it well enough but preferred it pan-seared. I do, too. With a beautiful fresh fish, fast and simple can taste like genius.
The dessert list was short and unremarkable: chocolate cake, cheesecake and tiramisu. None were house-made or pretended to be. Sometimes there’s carrot cake, sometimes Key lime pie.
But there’s more to the Mansion than meets the eye. Among its blandishments is a roof deck with an up-close view of the famous iron bridge over the Saugatuck River. Happy Hour every night features $2 Bud or Bud Lite and free hot appetizers. A tank of live lobsters outside the kitchen door is proof positive that the lobster you order steamed, broiled or in a casserole is really fresh.
The Mansion Clam House is too small and obstreperous to be called an institution, but Paul Newman ate there, the Rolling Stones raved about the fish-and-chips, and a life-size mannequin in fisherman’s gear used to hang out on the roof. On our way to the car, we turned and looked up. Yep, he’s still there.
Mansion Clam House
541 Riverside Ave., Westport (203/557-4811)
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 2:30, Saturday 12 to 3. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10. Brunch Sunday 12 to 3. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access (one step). Price range: appetizers $2 to $12, entrées $18 to $29, desserts $7.