Michael Cimarusti is the chef of Providence, the modernist French-Asian restaurant that is often considered the finest kitchen in L.A. He can do things with sea urchin, Santa Barbara spot prawns and Japanese sea bream that occasionally cause reactions I probably can’t describe in a family newspaper. So it is important to note that Connie and Ted’s, already one of the toughest reservations in town, is neither a chefly interpretation of a Rhode Island clam shack nor a fantasia on the theme of New England seafood.
The dining room, which occupies whatever Postmodernist niche may lie between Googie and Taliesin, may be nice, and the kitchen is informed both by a great chef’s attention to detail and his hard-won connections with the better New England seafood suppliers, but the restaurant is a clam shack nonetheless, engineered for great volume. The patio even feels like a clam shack, if you are flexible enough to equate the flow of Santa Monica Boulevard with the sea.
The light fixtures are made out of repurposed lobster traps, and an elaborate sculpture of lobster buoys hangs from the ceiling. A retaining wall is papered with tracking tags from oyster shipments, the shellfish equivalent of those tags on mattresses that are not to be removed. Cheap signboards list the oysters available on any given day, and you are likely to see varieties you have only read about in magazines. Connie and Ted’s is more serious about seafood than you will ever know, the surroundings suggest.
So if your idea of a fried clam plate was formed in Ipswich, Mass., rather than on Point Judith, R.I., your argument with Cimarusti will play out on that basis. If your shore dinners included biscuits rather than fluffy dinner rolls baked to order in a cast-iron pan, you are out of luck. If your idea of a lobster roll was formed at Pearl Oyster Bar in New York or at Hinoki & the Bird in Century City, you may even find Connie and Ted’s version rather plain: It is essentially lobster and mayo on a bun, and you are going to spend more time plowing through the fries than you are hunting for elusive notes of chervil.
Cimarusti knows how to buy a lobster, how to cook a lobster and how to serve a lobster. Any disagreement with the style of the lobster roll tends to play out as a regional bias — Connie and Ted’s is pretty much a Rhode Island restaurant — in the way that a lifetime Chengdu resident may travel to Chongqing, taste the kung pao chicken and make a mental note to pack a lunch the next time he makes the trip.
As there would be at any respectable Rhode Island clambake, there are clam cakes, rough and ready fritters studded with the tougher bits of the clam, moist but not gooey under their sturdy crusts, with some tartar sauce to dip them in if you are in the mood. (You are in the mood.) Clam fritters expand to 10 times their original size in your stomach, so you may want to limit yourself to a couple if you want to save room for more clams.
Of the three clam chowders, one New England style with cream and one New York style with tomato, the one you want is the Rhode Island style, which is essentially clear but tastes like a salty distillation of the sea. The desserts include molasses-intensive Indian pudding, and ice cream topped with wet nuts, a confection of walnuts in light syrup that rarely makes it out of the state. The cocktail list includes a drink made with coffee milk, Rhode Island’s favorite refreshment.
And if you are doing it right, there are clams, vast mountains of them: steamed soft-shell clams, siphons protruding, served with melted butter; plates of crisp fried clams served either with or without their tender, juicy bellies; clam rolls stuffed with those fried clams; or the miracle known as stuffies, chopped quahogs mixed with bread crumbs, sausage and minced, sautéed sweet peppers, then stuffed back into their shells and baked until they become crusty and hot. A plate of stuffies is the kind of desert-island dish you might dream about because it seems like something you might plausibly throw together on a desert island, at least if said island happened to have a vegetable patch and a reliable baker. If not the stuffies, or perhaps in addition to the stuffies, try the fist-sized New Bedford scallop, basted with lemon and butter, and grilled in its shell to a solid cook’s medium firmness rather than to a chef’s medium-rare.
You will probably want to know that Portuguese fish stew and the New England boiled dinner are basically the same thing, except that the clams, mussels and chunks of linguica sausage are joined by hake in the stew and by lobster and sweet corn in the boiled dinner, and the stew has a spicier broth. (The shellfish marinara has the clams and mussels in a garlicky tomato sauce, as is proper.)
Oddly, the weakest part of the menu here is the grilled catch of the day: bluefish or halibut or king salmon that has generally spent a bit too long on the fire and whose default herb crust — you can also ask for it to be grilled plain — tends to overpower the fish, although it is great with the carefully grilled calamari. The crunchy fish and chips, made with fried true cod, is delicious, but it will not be the lightest version you have ever tasted. Crab cakes have been slightly undercooked.
But there may be no restaurant in Los Angeles that treats its oysters with more reverence, utterly fresh Sweet Petites, Naked Cowboys, Kumamotos and a dozen other kinds, opened skillfully and served brimming with their sweet, briny essence. I have never had a meal here without ordering some, and I have never been sorry I did. (If you prefer your oysters in a mustardy cream or wrapped in bacon and broiled, you can go that way too.) It is hard to think of a better place to stop in after a movie for a platter of oysters and beer. At these times, it is good to remember that Connie and Ted’s also serves at the bar.
One of Southern California’s most talented chefs opens a clam shack.
8171 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-2722, connieandteds.com
Starters, $6-$18; sandwiches, $17-$22; main dishes, $18-$45
Open 5-11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, noon to 11 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. Full bar. Valet parking. Credit cards accepted.
Oysters, stuffies, grilled New Bedford scallops, New England boiled dinner, blondies.