When Shepherd’s Pie opened in Rockport Harbor, it received a near-immediate “Best New Restaurant” nomination from the James Beard Foundation.
With all the speedy attention, this location became the area’s “it” place, and the menu — a peculiar blend of Asian-inspired traditional pub fare and upscale comfort food — represented yet another kitchen capitalizing on the gastro pub trend.
But while this “gastro pub” designation applies to Shepherd’s Pie, it does not encompass it.
We know chef/owner Brian Hill creates excellent cuisine, and we know manager Jim Haines is that rare find of career front-of-the-house professional — equal parts aware, attuned and attentive. The bigger question, it seems, is whether a restaurant bestowed with immediate “it” status can sustain itself over time. My answer is, “I hope so.”
Ornate metal ceilings and dark wood accents give the space a broody, masculine sensibility. (Arguably, the rainy day and gray harbor view assisted this assessment.) The physical menu, with the night’s specials listed on a torn-in-half piece of paper, feels casual, if not indifferent.
And, for a location whose eponym includes cultural variants from across the world — cottage pie, hachis Parmentier, Cumberland Pie, pastel de papa — it evokes a much simpler sort of cuisine than it offers.
Even with a humble name and a “no reservations” policy, Shepherd’s Pie is not necessarily meant for the working class. With a menu divided by “Bar Snacks,” “Plates,” “From the Grill” and “Sides,” Hill has established a variety of options at a variety of (somewhat confusing) price points.
For instance, the Chicken Liver Toast and its very generous serving of pate is priced at just $7. The Macaroni and Cheese, billed as a $10 side, contained enough for a full meal. But the five nickel-sized wood roast oysters? No matter how aromatic the chimi churri, $17 seemed excessive.
This fluid sort of identity is the restaurant’s biggest issue, because even if it’s a little randomly inspired, the food itself is terrific.
I asked our server for a Bar Snack recommendation on the adventure level somewhere between the Spicy Peanuts ($4) and the Curried Pickled Eggs ($5). He suggested the above-mentioned Chicken Liver Toast.
This pate is meant to seduce pate haters and inspire pate lovers. With a creme brulee-style torching of the top, the large ramekin is served alongside three spoonfuls of housemade mustard: Purple, Red Pepper and Apple Rosemary. Spread the smooth pate along the oblong crispy bread, dip into the mustard and enjoy. At just $7, it’s also one of the menu’s best value propositions. There was plenty to share.
Nick, the server, was engaging and aware of the menu. He made the people at my table laugh, and his wine recommendations (the Pinot Project’s 2011 Pinot Noir and a 2011 Tomero Malbec, each $12 per glass and $44 per bottle) were satisfying — not exciting, but fine.
Nick also suggested the apparently wildly popular Fried Clam Tacos (market price). In addition to lightly breaded and crispy-fried whole clams, these three soft corn tortillas overflowed with avocado, cabbage and green tomato. We toasted Nick’s suggestion.
From the grill, it was a battle between the pork belly sandwich with apple rosemary mustard ($14) or Grilled Duck PB&J ($18). The grilled duck peanut butter and jelly sandwich won, mostly from a curiosity standpoint. (Duck in peanut butter?)
Once I thought about the flavor profile, it made sense. This spicy peanut butter — layered with sweet chili jelly, grilled onion and cilantro, and augmented by the texture of duck — seems like a PB&J sandwich meant for Asian flavor-loving grown-ups.
And the side of fries served with the sandwich? If there was a trophy for fries, Shepherd’s Pie would win. Petite shoestrings are impossibly crisp because they are narrow in circumference, and this allows for maximum “crisp to soft” ratio.
“Smoked Alewives in Grass” Caesar ($9), with garlic croutons and fried capers, can be misleading. Those expecting a traditional Caesar salad will have expectations redefined — and not just redefined, but blown away.
There is no dairy in this salad, and the flavor originates from the smoked alewives themselves. Add massive fried capers and some cucumber crunch to the large bowl of finely shredded lettuce, and the experience is more Caesar-inspired than strictly interpreted.
Most food historians agree that the “Caesar” in question was Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini in the 1920s, not B.C.’s Julius, so inspiration is a pretty relative concept. If you enjoy big, smoky, briny flavors, I suspect you will embrace this dish. If you are expecting a more traditional, sedate approach, perhaps not.
The Wood Roast Oysters ($17) from the Plate section were my least-favorite item because, as noted earlier, even with the chimi churri butter, $17 seemed like a lot to pay for five nickel-sized oysters, no matter how aromatic and flavorful. But I will allow for the law of diminishing returns and suggest that my palate might not be attuned enough to taste the subtleties.
Shepherd’s Pie ($21) came next because, really, how could I not order it? Made with braised lamb (cooked in chicken stock, I was told) and buttermilk mashed potatoes, there are no surprises here. Meat and vegetables, topped with mashed potatoes. It is as tender, as layered with subtle and simple flavors, and as rainy-day satisfying as comfort food should be.
The Broccoli Rabe ($7), billed as a side, was plenty for two to share, and this should be highlighted on the menu more prominently. This vegetable dish balanced tender and crisp, and the color of the tomato, olives and sheep’s milk feta brightened the dull day.
For dessert, the Lime Tart ($7) arrived, and its purple-pink color confused me. Turns out, the lime tart has a grapefruit cream topping. This is not a bad thing, but because grapefruit is among the few flavors I avoid, I had to trust my tablemate, who described the dish as “smooth, light and refreshing.”
I gobbled up the almond shortbread crust, however. The crust showed a skilled pastry hand, and I would have happily eaten just that had it been offered in cookie form.
Overall, I think Shepherd’s Pie is a great spot for Rockport, but I wish it was more descriptive in its labeling. That noted, I am imagining one of those times when mental algebra is needed to accommodate, say, vegetarian, homestyle, haute cuisine and gluten-free sensibilities in a mid-coast area that also has a variety of price ranges, a full bar and availability on a Monday night.
Or a place to stop for a drink and feel like the food is worth the money spent. Or just to try something new, like duck in a spicy PB&J.
When asked to recommend a restaurant in the Rockport area, I find myself suggesting Shepherd’s Pie to all manner of diners, over and over again. That, I think, helps define a restaurant’s long-range success.
At least, I hope so.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”