288 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (b/n Carroll and President; map); 718-522-1921 littleneckbrooklyn.com
Service: Busy but attentive
Setting: Cozy, dark, clam-shack paraphernalia
Must-Haves: Clam chowder, clam roll, Polish bacon
Cost: $5 to $18
Grade: A- Notes: Cash only, dinner only
As a native New Englander, I'd be wicked remiss if I were to ever suggest that anybody in the world knows their way around a bivalve or an ichthyoid better than a fellow New Englander. But at the same time, I've always wondered why New England-style seafood preparations have never made it far beyond the New England borders.
I mean, there are the obvious answers: nobody has the cold, clean, briny waters necessary to support the world's best clams, mussels, oysters, lobsters, and white fish (am I doing well, fellow Yanks?). New Englanders have been cooking North American seafood longer than anyone else in the area (unless you believe the stories about the Vikings and Spanish coming across for their cod). And of course, some would argue that New England seafood has broken free, if you're willing to classify lumpy, overthickened, underclammed chowder or lobster rolls made with too much mayo on (gasp!) side-split buns to be real New England recipes (they aren't).
But a good, large clam, whole-belly, clam roll with crisp, light batter or perfectly steamed, gritty steamers served with nothing but broth and a tub of drawn butter? Why can't we find a good version in New York?
Well, that's precisely what Aaron Lefkove and Andy Curtin, a couple of Brooklyn bandmates with—get this—no restaurant experience thought to themselves before they opened Littleneck, named after the second-smallest size classification of the sweet and tender hard shell clams. Why not, indeed?
The big-bearded Curtin, who looks like he'd be equally at home in a Brooklyn band or a Maine lobster boat, claims Kelly's Roast Beef, a fried clam and roast beef sandwich institution on Revere Beach in Massachusetts as inspiration for the heavily New England-themed restaurant. White, bleached wood that looks like it's been around for ages forms the base of the decor while simple, sans-serif bold signage, hand-written menus, and a few thick ropes and buoys on the walls round it out.
The place is casual but friendly feeling with great energy and the feel of, well, of a clam shack.
Despite their lack of experience, the team still manages to throw together a good concept with service that's attentive, friendly, and earnest despite a completely packed house (we had to wait 15 minutes just to squeeze into the bar).
The kitchen duties are wisely left to one with more experience: Alan Harding, a seminal figure in the Brooklyn bistro scene with his Patois in Cobble Hill.
Like any true New England clam shack, Harding starts your meals by ladling up an extraordinary version of New England Clam Chowder ($7) (my favorite soup in the world), featuring diminutive chunks of two types of potato, plenty of tender chopped clams and white pepper, and a handful of dill and pork belly. Thankfully, there's just a touch of flour to bind the briny, creamy broth, which instead relies on crushed oyster crackers for texture—a more traditional (and frankly, much better) way to thicken your soup. You won't find a better clam chowder even in Boston.
Likewise, gigantic whole belly clams are fried as expertly as at any New England clam shack—that is, greaseless, tender, crisp, and hot—then stuffed into a buttered toasted top-split hot dog bun for their Whole Belly Clam Roll ($16). Even my mom, a self-proclaimed fried clam perfectionist, gave the roll her stamp of approval, and let me tell you, she rarely approves of anything (Tiger mom ain't got nothing on mine).
The same top-split buttered roll is put to good use with their simple Lobster Roll ($18). Minimally dressed with just a thin coat of mayo and a bit of diced celery, it could have used a bit more salt (to my taste) and perhaps a squeeze of lemon, but there was no faulting the perfectly cooked, sweet, hard-shell lobster meat, nor the price. Even the ricketiest of New England lobster shacks charges upwards of $15 a pop these days (paper plate or plastic basket included).
Some folks like massive chunks of whole lobster in their rolls. I prefer my lobster chopped so that it can be eaten without dragging out of the roll with each bite.
Both rolls come a la carte with nothing but a few obligatory house-made pickles (I preferred the fresh brined cucumber to the somewhat mushy bread and butter chips), so you'll want to pick up an order of their light, fluffy, and darkly cooked French Fries ($5). Thick and robust, they're fries for the true potato lover.
There are a few confusing bits to the menu as well. It's not clear what a dish of Glazed Polish Bacon ($7) is doing here, and when I inquired with co-owner Andy Curtin (who was busy working the floor that night), he didn't exactly seem to know either, offering only that, "it comes from the neighborhood and it's delicious."
Frankly, those are good enough reasons for me, and he's right. The pork is fatty and salty with a sweet, umami-rich tomato reduction and a heavy sprinkling of a whole toasted spices leaning heavily on coriander. In this way, it's reminiscent of pastrami in its charred, vaguely soapy spiciness, but with a distinct, porky finish. This is the same stuff they use for the chowder, I was told.
As I've said, I'm content to eat my Steamers (P/A)—otherwise known as siphon or soft-shell clams—on a paper plate with nothing but a cup of briny juices for rinsing off the grit and a tub of drawn butter to drown them in. Indeed, I'd never even considered that they could be prepared any other way. That said, beer, garlic, chili, and parsley might actually improve what I always thought was a near-perfect food. (Don't worry, there's still brine and butter served on the side).
The rest of the still-developing menu is made up of raw oysters—I don't know why anyone would spend $3 on West Coast oysters when you can get superior East Coast oysters for only $2 (the best price I've seen at any restaurant in the city)—and nightly specials that range from roasted vegetables to lobster consommé. And if cheap New England beers are your thing, you can't beat a $3 tall boy of Narragansett. It's cheap, ice cold, watery, and refreshing, perfect for washing down hot, crisp seafood. Once the private domain of old-timey New Englanders, it seems well on its way to replacing PBR as the ironic hipster brew of choice, which is fine by me so long as it remains cheap and available.
Indeed, the only downside I've found in Littleneck is its location. Gowanus is a healthy drive from Manhattan and not an easy subway ride either, though perhaps this is a good thing. Once excellent clam rolls become an everyday affair, they run the risk of losing their special stature, and I'd hate for that to happen.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.