To match a décor reminiscent of the classic English pub, Chef Patrick Duffy oversees a menu that is custom designed to warm the soul.
When considering a small town like Rockport, it seems of utmost importance that there be a neighborhood-style tavern at its heart. Shepherd’s Pie is just that. The restaurants dark wood interior is slightly worn around the edges, giving it a reassuringly lived-in feel. There are several nooks and corners that one could hide away in while savoring the intoxicating aroma of roasted garlic that wafts through the air.
Shepherd’s Pie is the sister restaurant to chef/owner Brian Hill’s Francine Bistro, and although the two share similarities in their unapologetically bold menus, chef Patrick Duffy, whom Hill refers to as ”the master of the grill,” has a style all his own. I hesitate to use the term updated comfort food, because that would group Duffy into a category that is all too often played-out, but at the same time it’s hard to refer to his PB&J with grilled duck, spicy peanut butter, and hot pepper jelly as anything but. There is skill involved with elevating dishes so firmly ingrained with nostalgia, and it requires finesse, not just adding overpoweringly decadent ingredients.
As I stare down a menu that contains not a single dish that I would not want to order, I put the reins in Duffys steady hands, who in turn mans a full-on assault that begins with fried clam tacos. I am immediately impressed with the structural integrity of the single griddled corn tortilla, which bears the weight of an entire pile of crispy fried clams, cabbage, green tomato salsa verde, and a spicy avocado puree that I would put on damn near anything. This is one of those moments when, despite the fact that I know this is just the beginning and I should pace myself, I cannot help but devour every last bite. Just the thought of them alone is making my mouth water as I write this.
Although I have joined the masses in mostly abstaining through January, it would be heresy not to have at least of few sips from bar manager Dennis Carey. First up is the Martinez, a martini hybrid consisting of Bombay Sapphire, Luxardo, Dolin sweet vermouth, and Moxie bitters. The aromatics in the drink make it pair surprisingly well with their silky parsnip soup with seared scallops, chili oil, and scallion. The texture of this soup, which contains only puree boosted by a little bit of cream, can only be described as lurid, while the sweet, delicate flavors of the parsnip give way to the buttery richness of the scallops.
Up until this point, I had been eyeballing large stacks of napkins carefully placed on each tabledefinitely a welcome luxury, but I was curious as to the reasoning behind it. Then I am presented with a bowl of fried chicken, and I start to understand (and I am thankful). Personally, I believe that the best examples of this dish should contain a touch of fast-food style in the batter, that being very well seasoned, in this case with a touch of herbs de Provence, and slightly separating from the meat, which should also be equally salty and tender, the result of a proper brine. Fried chicken is not something you eat to be healthy, so it should be embraced for every element that makes it the opposite. The final element of Shepherds’ Pie’s version comes in the form of tangy, garlicky vinegar and adequately spicy Serrano peppers.
In addition to the cocktails, Shepherd’s Pie boasts a concise beer selection, which ranges from Belgian Saison to PBR 40s, as well as a thoughtful, user-friendly wine list. A lion’s share of the whites are light and acidity driven, such as Txakolina and Riesling, keeping the big, high-alcohol Chardonnay to a minimum, favoring aromatic varietals like Viognier for those desiring a bit more heft. Reds, in keeping with the bold, spice-driven flavors of Duffys menu, err on rich, intense, and structured for the most part, with single vineyard Zinfandels and voluptuous, brooding proprietary blends that beautifully mirror the flavors of the wood-fired grill.
The Zinfandel pairs perfectly with their interpretation of classic poutine, in this case crisp, golden skinny fries with a liberal dollop of bone marrow gravy, fresh cheese curds, and porcini mushroom. It is as ludicrous as it sounds, and plenty of reason to push the fries aside when I am served a formidable burger with pickled shitake, pungent English cheese, and tomato confit, finished with purple mustard, the result of reducing sugar, port, and red wine before mixing with creamy Dijon. What is most pleasantly surprising is the manner in which the taste of the beef itself is still quite pronounced, even amidst the array of toppings. My pile of napkins is beginning to diminish at this point.
My appetite is beginning to ebb; however, I would be remiss to leave without tasting their namesake, shepherds pie. The dish is served in a cast-iron skillet with lamb shank, velvety mashed potatoes, mushrooms, and the ultra-concentrated braising liquid from the lamb. To brighten things up, Duffy employs lemon zest, anchovy, tomato, and parsley, giving the dish a very Osso Bucco-like feel (sans the marrow, which I got plenty of in the poutine) with a gremolata of sorts.
While contemplating all that I have done, Carey materializes with a hot-buttered rum, a drink that is steeped in New England. This version is definitely more of a dessert, combining Nicaraguan rum with vanilla ice cream, spices, and butter. Interesting fact: apparently the butter was initially added to the beverage to lubricate ones mustache. Regardless of the state of your facial hair, this drink is utterly delicious.
The finish comes in the form of white chocolate bread pudding topped with my personal dessert kryptonite, dulce de leche, as well as brandied cherries, slivered almonds, and a healthy topping of fresh whipped cream. You know a dessert is good when you can still find the willpower to dig in despite the savory offensive that I withstood only moments prior. Moderation, for now, seems to be an act of futility, and in regards to Shepherd’s Pie I’m completely fine with that.
18 Central Street | Rockport | (207) 236-8500 | shepherdspierockport.com