ROCKPORT – Casual and fantastic, Shepherd’s Pie has so much going for it.
The space is wonderful, from the far-away tin ceiling and bead-board paneling to the open kitchen bustling with exuberant and serious cooks.
The long bar is tended by attentive, patient souls who work like fiends — just like everyone else on the staff — at least, on a busy Saturday night. That’s when the wait for a table might lengthen from the promised 40 minutes to an hour and a half as folks enjoy themselves and linger. “I hate it when they do that,” the maitre d’ remarked, possibly joking.
With that wait in mind, it would be a good idea to order a bar snack such as chicken liver toast ($5). The ramekin of buttery pureed chicken liver and crunchy toasted slices of baguette make a generous snack indeed, enough to pass around a table of five twice one recent night. A red bell pepper mustard added a lively tang to the liver.
The cocktails are worth lingering over, too. Aperol cocktail ($8) with Malvasia white wine, Aperol and orange peel is served in a martini glass, and its shimmering garnet color casts a festive glow. The Aperol, an orange liqueur far less bitter than Campari, infuses the white wine with herbal and complex flavors that are delicious.
Spicy Paloma ($8) heats up an icy glass with jalapeno-infused reposado tequila and makes it sweet and sour with agave, lime and grapefruit.
We settled into our table with a bottle of the house red, Les Violettes 2008 ($5 a glass, $20 a bottle), a dependable and earthy Cote du Rhone wine. But 13 beers — including two from Sri Lanka and one from Skowhegan called White Fox Ale — sake, sparkling wine and 16 red and white wines sold by the glass make the selection expansive and intriguing. Clos Mimi “Petit Rousse,” a 2006 Syrah from Paso Robles ($12), is at the high end.
We just really wanted to eat, having stared too long at the stuff flying off the stove into servers’ hands. First up was the roasted Damariscotta oysters ($16), cooked a la escargots in garlic butter and those dishes with little cups for each little sea creature. Roasted in the wood-burning oven, the oysters were tender, the garlic butter was irresistible, and the crunch of a toasted slice of bread was perfect underneath.
Fried clam tacos ($14) come in a row of three on a rectangular plate, each built on a tender corn tortilla. These golden-fried clams were juicy and flavorful under a thin shell of golden crust. Avocado added buttery smoothness, while cilantro and chili flared up in each bite along with shredded cabbage that was tangy with a sharp dressing.
The clam tacos are on the Plates list, which ranges in price from $8 for a bowl of chicken noodle soup to $17 for fried local chicken.
Also on this list, the shepherd’s pie ($16) deserves attention. The restaurant is in the Shepherd Building, and the dish is an homage to that history, but the lamb shanks that form the foundation of the dish could build an appetite in any imagination. At the end of service each night, mounds of shanks are set on top of the wood-fired grill to brown, and later simmered for hours to achieve the melting tenderness that makes them so appetizing. These shanks are shredded, mixed with a savory tomato sauce and topped with a silky potato puree.
Grilled halibut ($24) showed off a knack with fish, the exterior delicately browned and the interior moist and translucent. Capers, lemon zest and juice and brown butter composed the classic sauce, working to keep an appetite inspired the way sour and bitter flavors can do so well.
Charred skirt steak with chimichurri ($19) had the same kind of theme, although it played like a salsa band instead of an Edith Piaf song. Chopped parsley and garlic and vinegar anointed the savory, strong steak, and made it simply terrific.
A duck breast special ($22) was fragrant with a port wine sauce; its crisply browned skin was delectable. A side of refried white beans with gremolata ($4) was creamy and vibrant. Swiss chard braised in chicken stock, with fresh thyme and ground pine nuts, ($6) was verging on too rich — which, considering the competition, is saying something.
But even with the luck of friends to taste so much, so much passed us by, like the organic french fries ($5), organic cheeseburger, the ribs extolled by neighbors at the bar who frequent the restaurant, and spaghetti squash with tomato, olives and sheep’s milk feta.
The short list of desserts was easier to master. Chocolate pot de creme ($7), with thick, fresh whipped cream, filled spoon after spoon from around the table with thick, smooth chocolate pudding as rich as sin. Bread pudding ($7) was even more popular, its tender white bread innards studded with currants and as easy to cut as the pot de creme. Its brown crust and whipped cream added attraction, but all was just a foil for the almond caramel sauce.
Hot coffee ($3) is good with cream, too, and the restaurant’s brew is strong and smooth.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s website, www.chowmaineguide.com.