By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
It was showtime this week at Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company, a new restaurant in the old Dreamland building in Oak Bluffs. The space is across the street from the Flying Horses. Diners will remember the spot as formerly the Ocean Club, formerly Balance and at one time Danny Quinn’s, at 9 Oak Bluffs avenue. As of Tuesday night, after much preparation and waiting, it is officially the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company.
The restaurant has been reinvented by one of the Island’s star restaurateurs, JB Blau, the owner of two Sharky’s Cantina restaurants on the Island. He has teamed up with a longtime friend and colleague, chef Alex Nagi, to offer the seafood lover a restaurant devoted to chowder and other fine seafood dining.
“It’s the perfect marriage. Alex is a fine dining, quality chef,” Mr. Blau said. “Our goal is to get the chowder out and to redefine what Martha’s Vineyard and seafood chowder mean. Very few people are making fresh homemade chowder and everyone’s looking for it.”
The restaurant owner and chef promise to make a fresh batch of chowder every day with the authentic ingredients. No short cuts. Nothing comes out of a can, a bag, or is prepared far in advance. “We are making the chowder from scratch,” Mr. Blau said.
The idea of a chowder restaurant arose from the conversation Mr. Blau had with the chef about their mutual love of putting out a prize-winning clam chowder. Last winter, Sharky’s Cantina won a first place in the Christmas in Edgartown annual chowder contest, a contest to raise money for the Red Stocking Fund.
The idea of a fine dining chowder restaurant kept simmering.
Meanwhile, earlier this year Mr. Blau was exploring the possibility of opening a third Sharky’s Cantina restaurant in Falmouth. “When the Falmouth idea fell through, I met with the [Mike and Mark] Wallace brothers,” Mr. Blau said. The brothers own the building. That’s when the heat was turned up on the chowder restaurant, and only a few weeks after the start of the summer season it opened its doors.
The Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company’s traditional chowder is not only white and creamy, like everyone else’s, but there are large, tasty morsels of quahaugs in every spoonful. And the potato tasted like potato. The chef goes back to basics to restore the high bar of what chowder should taste like on the Island.
This reporter also tried something for the first time, called ChoCos. It is a fried clam ball. Katie Brewer, restaurant manager, explained that it is made by dropping spoonfuls of chowder, free-fall, into hot oil. The ChoCo critters have a taste and consistency similar to a well-made stuffed quahaug. Add tartar sauce.
While Chef Nagi knows how to cook, the staff of the restaurant were provided a little practice for Tuesday night’s opening. They had what bartender Jenn Coolbrith called a couple of “soft openings” to prepare. She said last Saturday night it was family and friends of the restaurant staff who were waited on. There was a lot of food sampling, with patrons’ feedback helping to formalize this week’s menu.
“We had six days to get ready,” said Ms. Coolbrith. It wasn’t just work, it was fun.
While the menu is subject to change any day, right now there are four clam chowders available: the traditional; the light, gluten-free chowder that won the Edgartown contest; a corn and crab chowder; and a Manhattan chowder. There is a main course menu that ranges from chicken braised with sweet and sour sauce to grilled swordfish and steak.
“We want to give people an experience,” Mr. Blau said. The walls of the restaurant are lined with sepia-toned photographs of maritime scenes, and there is a traditional whaler’s harpoon on display.
The 39-foot long mahogany bar hasn’t moved an inch. The beers are served in half-yard ale glasses. It takes some practice to drink from the glass, but it shows off the beer’s color nicely.
Mr. Blau would like to see the restaurant continue through the year. Plans are underway to stay open to the last day of the year, but he is hoping it will stay open even longer. More and more emphasis will be put into luring in the community to make it a familiar and friendly place, as his other restaurants have become. Nothing would make Mr. Blau happier than to see the Island year-round community make this restaurant their own. That would be the true mark of authenticity.