A great pairing elevates any experience. Wine and cheese, a cigar and whiskey, entrée and side, coffee and dessert. The success of Carlson’s Landing, the upscale riverfront restaurant that opened in October at Essex Boat Works, will depend on the pairing of restaurateur Robert Rabine and chef Kyle Bledsoe.
Rabine has four decades of experience in the industry and knows the shoreline clientele and their culinary desires. Bledsoe brings talent, creativity and drive to the kitchen. Speaking with the two separately, I notice a working relationship akin to a jockey and horse. Bledsoe, the young thoroughbred, wants to burst out of the gate and run. Rabine, sans silks, wants to set the proper pace, pick his spots and run a smart race. In food parlance, Bledsoe wants to send out an exquisite venison carpaccio, while Rabine knows that a simple fishwich ($16) is going to sell just fine. “Here on the shoreline,” Bledsoe says, “you almost have to have the usual suspects.”
Before launching, they dined together in Manhattan, Rabine using Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s The Fulton and Thomas Keller’s TAK Room as examples of the level of quality he expected from the Carlson’s Landing kitchen. “I wanted it to be like a throwback, elevated yacht club experience for the public,” Rabine says. “I don’t think we’re there, but that’s essentially where I want to wind up.”
If they’re not there yet, they’re well on their way. The new building boasts a swanky bar area with a gorgeous panorama of the Connecticut River and an elegant, intimate dining room. A relatively small space, it can accommodate 55 now, but that number will rise when the outdoor deck overlooking the marina opens in the spring.
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Bledsoe’s abilities are on full display at a complimentary tasting in November. Apps include deviled eggs ($9), housemade chips with French onion dip ($4), marinated olives ($8) and deviled crab fritters ($15), all simple and tasty with the dip and fritters leading the way.
In the next wave of plates, Bledsoe launches a three-pronged attack on our taste buds from land (beef tenderloin, $28), sea (tuna tartar, $18, chimichurri-marinated prawns, $28) and air (Carolina barbecue quail, $28). The beef is served over a potato leek purée that could double as a top-shelf soup. The tuna and prawns are wonderful water-borne fare, while the quail proves that something unique and special is happening here.
During the tasting, a member of our party goes off-script and orders steamed little necks ($18). The clams arrive in a bowl of smoky bacon broth with gigante beans, charred leeks and crostini. Like the purée from the beef dish, the broth alone could be a top-seller. More crostini is demanded, politely, to soak up every last drop.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that we’re always students of this craft,” Bledsoe says. “You’ll never master it no matter how hard you try. Perfection isn’t the goal, it’s the pursuit of perfection.”
63 Main St., Essex
Hours: Mon., Wed.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m. Closed Tue.