‘Show, don’t tell” is one of the cardinal rules of fiction writing. A good story, whether long or short, should immerse you in an imagined world, sharing it in a way that lets you comprehend it intuitively, like the story’s characters do.

The same guideline could apply to restaurants, where eating a meal is its own kind of experiential immersion of tastes, sounds and smells – and where the success of a dinner is not determined by what you hear or read, but by the flavors on your tongue.

I started thinking about telling and showing just a few minutes after being seated at a table in the industrial-modern, glass-walled dining room at Row 34 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – the sister to a nearly identical Row 34 in Boston. Against the backdrop of 1980s synth-pop hits playing overhead, our server asked if we had visited before (we hadn’t), then gave us a well-rehearsed synopsis of the restaurant’s seafood-forward philosophy, emphasizing that it was, at heart, an oyster bar with ties to lobstermen in York, Maine, as well as to Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Just the right amount of detail and scene-setting, I thought to myself.

And then the paper started appearing.

First came the list of beers: nearly 30 by the bottle and 20 on draft (half of which come from New England), listed in skinny columns on two sides of a square piece of thick, white-and-gray card stock. Then, a sheet with cocktails. Then, the menu (with a full wine list, verso). “Oh no! I’ll be right back,” our server said, as she ran off to retrieve yet another document for us. This time, the raw bar and smoked seafood menu. “I can give you the dessert menu now, too, if you want it,” she offered. I looked at my dinner guest, then down at the small, two-top table, covered by a mortgage’s worth of paperwork, and politely declined.

When she set down our tart and gently bitter, cranberry gin-based Isle of Shoals ($10) and bourbon-smoky Buzz ($11) cocktails, I noticed that even the coasters, printed with slogans like “Professionals only” and “No nozzles,” were trying to tell us something – although I could not decipher what. “A nozzle is a guy who wears a suit and comes to our oyster farm, acting like he knows everything. And nobody really knows what the other one means. It’s on a sign at the floating garage at the farm,” our server explained, laughing. “They’re just private in-jokes that nobody but the staff gets.”

Apparently everything at Row 34, down to the shibboleths inscribed on the table settings, involves some kind of explanation. It’s a lot of “telling, not showing,” and it makes the restaurant feel overcomplicated and distancing – a graduate seminar on postmodernism come to life as an oyster bar.

But let’s say you ignore the setting and just pay attention to the food. Does that help? Only a bit, as it turns out. Row 34’s very traditional-seeming clam chowder ($9) was admittedly excellent: thickened to exactly the right consistency and loaded with skin-on potato chunks and clam meat.

“When you’re in New England, everyone has a point of reference for clam chowder, so you have to stick with the core of what it is,” chef/partner Jeremy Sewall said. Yet he and his team manage to put their own stamp on a classic by tamping down some flavors while amplifying others. They start their broth with mild leeks in place of onions, then add clam juice from freshly steamed clams. At the same time, they introduce an extra dimension of concentrated pork flavor by simmering the chowder with both their own house-smoked bacon and something Sewall calls “bacon skin.” Tucking into a bowl was a little like discovering another room in a house where you have lived for years.

Row 34’s menu also features several generally solid dishes, like soft fish tacos ($13), with crisp nuggets of slightly undersalted, flaky, deep-fried pollock, drizzled with a lush and evocative toasted cumin crema. Or a citrus angel food cake ($6) – teetering on the edge of dryness – served with an orange-and-grapefruit reduction, supremed Cara Cara orange slices and a generous mound of unsweetened, vanilla whipped cream.

Similarly, the smoked & cured board ($21 per person, but easily large enough to share) was mostly enjoyable, with vibrant, oniony smoked mussels escabeche, served on toast triangles; a slow-cured and smoked salmon pastrami flavored with coriander, cumin and thyme; and a delightfully simple smoked lobster tail, sprinkled with sea salt. Only the spicy shrimp, seasoned hesitantly with a homeopathic quantity of pequin pepper, lacked the flavor promised in their name.

Then, a few unalloyed disasters, like a salt lick of a pickled beet salad with bleu cheese dressing, arugula and pickled pearl onions ($12). Or lettuce cups containing extraordinarily crisp, buttermilk fried oysters ($12), where each Bibb-wrapped parcel had to be dismantled carefully – like a live bomb – rather than eaten together, in order to avoid total palate annihilation from a caustic, vinegary cabbage-and-onion hot pickle.

The most expensive item on the menu, hand-rolled egg pappardelle with lobster, oyster mushrooms and Osetra caviar ($32) could have been a decadent home-run, with its surprisingly light, almost brothy sauce and thin shavings of savory parmesan. But spinach sauteed into the mix gave it some off-key, mineral notes, and worst of all, ours had no caviar – not even a single pin-head of sturgeon roe anywhere on the plate.

I might have complained, but at that point in the meal, I was a little sore from sitting for more than an hour in what looked and felt like a cold, black patio chair. A man at a neighboring table had folded his coat into quarters and sat for his entire meal, perched atop his makeshift cushion. We nodded to each other in solidarity as I walked toward the exit.

“Oh, don’t forget this!” I heard our server call from behind me. Figuring I had left my gloves behind, I turned and watched in slow motion as an advertisement for Row 34’s brunch service was handed to me on one final piece of paper – the sixth of the night – this one with a box containing the phrase “technical specifications” printed at the bottom. Your guess is as good as mine.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: AndrewRossME