Eating Simple While Vacationing in the Vineyard

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

What does a restaurant critic do on vacation?

For me, the big treat is not to eat in a different three-star restaurant twice a day, but to indulge in what I hardly ever get during the rest of the year: simple home cooking. I go to the farmers' market, and my husband and I cook.

This year I'm lucky enough to be doing it on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, simply because some friends serendipitously loaned us their cottage there. The season really starts the week we leave, so it's heaven here on the Vineyard, without the crowds.

I wake up. I look at the sea. My husband and I go to the market for the paper, then check the Beetlebung Farm stand in Chilmark for organic produce. It's too early in the season yet for much selection, but they do have incredibly earthy-tasting triple-washed spinach and herbs cooling their heels in a water bath. I keep hoping for peas, but no luck yet.

You buy the produce on the honor system, leaving your money in a small metal box.

Then it's on to the little fishing port of Menemsha and Larsen's Fish Market. The big decision of the day is what to cook: inch-thick swordfish steaks? Bluefish with potatoes and rosemary? Spaghetti alle vongole? Steamers with drawn butter? Cape scallops? Or lobster--which is what I vote for day after day.

Sometimes we put off the decision until after lunch and head around the bend to the Bite, a clam shack with nautical blue umbrellas and a couple of wooden picnic tables out front. Everything here is fried and everything is delicious, especially the steamers with tartar sauce and slaw. Paper plates, plastic forks and your fried clams, oysters or shrimp dished up in a paper container. They also make a world-class New England Quahog clam chowder.

Owner Karen Flynn is a talker. When she finds out we're from Los Angeles, she has to tell me she had the best time she's ever had in a restaurant at the original Spago when she visited with her sister. "I thought we'd be stuck in a corner somewhere," she says, "but they treated us like queens! It turns out Michael Dargin, the maitre d', is from Scituate, Mass., where she grew up and the bartender was from Falmouth! They gave us a table by the window and sent us over glasses of Champagne! We had a ball!" If you want to know why East Coasters are always complaining that lobster in California just doesn't taste the same, try the lobster from Larsen's Fish Market. Some people order it cooked there and enjoy an impromptu feast sitting on packing crates outside overlooking the harbor. I've had East Coast lobster before, but this is a revelation. Because Larsen's lobster tanks are filled with water pumped straight from the ocean, it's like eating lobster plucked fresh from the sea. Two 11/4 lobsters run about $18 to $20. Money couldn't buy this taste at any restaurant in America.

Two more days to fit in another dozen or two cherrystones on the half-shell at Larsen's and some fried steamers at the Bite. But I'll keep in touch. This year, the Bite has a live Web cam on the roof pointed at the harbor (you can see it at http://www.spotlife.com/users/jflynn77/webcam). And I just found out Larsen's will send out lobsters, or anything else except the soft-shell clams, which don't travel well, by next-day air. * Larsen's Fish Market, Menemsha, Mass.; (508) 645-2680. Open year round. Raw bar, cherrystones $8 dozen. For overnight shipping, call Net Result, (508) 693-6071. * The Bite, Menemsha, Mass.; (508) 645-9239. Fried seafood $7 to $29.95. Open June to September from 11 a.m. till 9 p.m. high season.

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