Two Bellies full of Fried Bellies
- Coyote Aug 18, 2002 08:31 PM
Big thanks to C. Fox for her superlative organizational and research skills in putting together a GREAT clam crawl! Interested to see tonight that the Phantom Gourmet seconded the opinion of C. Fox that the clams at Essex Seafood are exceptional! Bailed out (too full!) before the Clam Box. However, have "dined" there before, and as Chowhound Paul says, I too am betting on the Box as the best! Looking forward to the next culinary event!
It was quite a coincidence that Phantom was about fried clams tonite. Altho he only gave Essex a 7 in entrees and listed Woodmans, Clam Box, No Name and a place called Dube's in Salem in the "Great 8".
A friend and I hit Choate's after the Rowley Flea Market (WAY too hot to be there today) and $10.50 got us a huge overflowing clam roll w/ decent fries and cole slaw. And all the Harleys parked out front. Got ice cream at White Farms (is that the name on 133?) which was very good, huge kiddy size cone for $2.25 that they'd break up into 2 flavors (great grapenut and ginger). Splitting that one clam dish was all we could do, how did everyone manage hitting so many places? Just a handful of clams at each?
While I am sure a full report will be coming forth from the crawler who ate at all the places, I'll give a little preview. There were 17 hounds in all, and at each of the 4 places I managed, we ordered a large clam and a steamer or two between us. This netted out to a few bites at each place, but surely enough to test the merits of each. Abbylovi (from the NY board), galleygirl, Limster and I also shared some lobster rolls which were sampled by other hounds as well. My vote goes to Essex, where the clams were sweet, the steamers perfectly steamed, and the lob. roll was chock full o' meat. I'm sure other hounds will have more to say about the Big Bellies at the Clam Box. I didn't stay for the ice cream, but I bet there are some hounds still out there sampling....
Aloha. Just back from my vacation. Too late for the clam crawl but did lots of mahi mahi swims. Glad to hear that people liked Essex Seafood. Lets hope that the lines don't get like those at Woodman's.
Well, Coyote, if you had bet money, you'd be a rich woman now. Consensus among the crawlers was that the Clam Box simply blew away the competition. It was the big bellies (available upon request at no extra charge!) that gave the Box the edge. When we left Essex Seafood, it didn't seem as if anything could beat their superlative entry, but I am now forced to relegate my erstwhile fave to second place. A close second, certainly; I'll still go there to beat the crowds (keep those fingers crossed, Chuck S!); but now I see an occasional pilgrimage to the Box in my future. I'll just have to bring a book to while away the long wait in line.
The Crawl didn't take as long or cost as much as I had feared (this may be the only project I ever bring in on time and under budget!) partly because we skipped a couple of stops, and partly because everybody was so eager to move on to the next taste o' clams! I have to say, I just didn't anticipate the efficiency and mobility of my fellow hound on the scent of chow! The decisive fleetness of 18 hounds in 9 vehicles was a beautiful thing to watch.
Although we did mess with the original schedule somewhat, we ended up sampling the fried clams at five different places, and steamers at two of them. (Several hounds conducted a lobster roll comparison on the side, and I hope they'll report; likewise, I hope to hear from those who continued their bivalve research into the evening at the raw bar at Woodman's.) Here's my assessment, in order of deliciousness:
1. The Clam Box in Ipswich: Everything one dreams of in a box of clams -- fresh clams, big bellies, sweet and briny, batter crunchy (without breaking teeth) and not greasy.
2. Essex Seafood in Essex: The same, only without those extra-large bellies. Steamers here were large, perfectly cooked, and full of flavor -- definitely the winner in that category.
3. Choate Bridge Pub in Ipswich: A very competent entry. My tastebuds may have been dulled a bit, since this was our final stop and we were pretty clammed out by then; but FWIW, I rated these clams unexceptionable but unexceptional.
4. The Lobster Pool in Rockport. This was our first stop, and we were primed to enjoy. However, we found their clams mediocre -- a little on the greasy side and just a tad rubbery. The flavor didn't come through as well. Not bad, exactly, just not the taste treat we'd all set our mouths for. Steamers here were just OK also.
5. Farnham's in Essex. Sadly, this favorite destination of many a hound was having a bad clam day. The clams had a fishy taste to them. An order of fried cod cheeks was bland. We did enjoy a tomato-ey, mildly spicy scallop chowder there.
Gratuitous tip: In the course of the afternoon, we sent a delegation to the peach festival they were having at Russell Orchards in Ipswich. They came back raving about Richardson's peach ice cream.
Speaking of ice cream, four of us found room at the end of the day to check out White Farms in Ipswich. Others can comment on their cones; mine had Double Chocolate, which was excellent, and Peppermint Stick, which was creamy but not particularly minty. I tasted Mr. Fox's Outrageous (triple chocolate with choc. chips, brownie bits, and so on) and found it way too sweet for my taste.
(Missed Opportunities Dept.: we agreed that it was too hot for the Halibut Point walk; sorry, 9Lives, but Woodman's was unanimously voted down; and White Cap turned out to be a sit-down restaurant, not the casual sort of place we were aiming for, so we skipped it.)
All told, I'd say the day was a success. Galleygirl regaled us with alcoholic refreshment, Abbylovi came all the way from New York, we got to meet several "new" hounds who had never dined with us before, and everyone chipped in to ensure that a good time was had by all. AND we raised at least $120 for Chowhound.com! My thanks to all who participated.
By the end of the day, I was glad I'd visited the Topsfield farmers' market on Saturday. Dinner later that evening consisted of steamed green beans!
re: C. Fox
IMHO, although the native clams (not to be confused with the huge bellies - origin still unknown) were perfect at the Clam Box (excellent balance between tender clams, delicately crunchy batter), Essex's just edged them out on flavor. Perhaps it was the cinnamon or clove (?) in the batter - or was it in the tartar sauce?
I think I'll need a few more days to sort out my preferences regarding the other places on the list (Lobster Pool was a bit dry, Farnham's had very good tartar sauce, Choate Bridge Pub's clams were good bar food - and the place was air-conditioned).
At the moment, I think my dream combination would be Essex's clams with Farnham's tartar sauce. The lobster roll would be tougher to make: Essex's lobster on Farnham's roll (toasted and buttered).
One last note: I inadvertantly tried out a bunch of peaches along the way. Even though the Lobster Pool was the first stop, I couldn't resist the peach & rhubarb cobbler. The cake part was yummy, but the cobbler was "warmed" in a microwave and the whipped cream was too sweet. At the peach festival in Russell Orchards, I had the peach shortcake which must have had about three or four peaches on top (it was towards the end of the day). The peaches were not at their peak yet, but the real whipped cream was heavenly. The shortcake was quite good once it had soaked in some of the juice from the peaches; Paul mentioned he would've soaked them first. In brandy, perhaps? I had a taste of Richardson's peach ice-cream also; it was incredible.
I was bummed that I couldn't compare Richardson's peach with White Farms' version because none was available at White Farms. Instead I had the coffee ice-cream which was really creamy, though the coffee taste was not very strong. But what a deal - $2.25 for a huge kiddie scoop!
Thanks so much for organizing this trip, C. Fox. I had a wonderful time checking out all these places, and meeting everyone. I look forward to future crawls and other Chowhound outings!
Yep! Exactly what I thought, SeriousPig... if you could have the bellies from ClamBox battered and cooked by the folks at Essex and served with the tartar sauce from Farnhams, you'd have the best -- hands down. I REALLY enjoyed the steamers at Essex and I thought their lobster roll meat was the best. Now if only they'd toasted the bun....
This was also my first time eating cod cheeks and the piece I got was juicy and flavorful. I'll definitely keep my eye out for this "trash fish" in the future.
Nice one C.Fox and great to meet more hounds!
I hope you DID try the Key Lime Pie ice cream. Richardson's makes all the White Farm's flavors at their Middleton plant. Just a morsel for you 'hounds. Glad your crawl was a good one and I do agree that Essex Seafood has the best fried stuff around. Clams Box a close 2nd with Farnhams sniffing at their heels. Choate Bridge pub is pretty good and Woodmans is in the dust. The best sit-down place for fried clams is The Village in Essex.
I have to say, one of the hilights of my day was ice-cream with Beetlebug, Limster and Abbylovi...No, I didn't eat any(well, I had _tastes_ of everything!), but watching the three of them was worth the price of admission, and the ankles covered with mosquito bites.
We pull up; Abby gets into one line, BB and Limster into the other...Abby is calm, she does not seem overly excited...BB and Limster are squealing with joy, clapping their hands in anticipation, (I am not making this up...). Pointing to various flavors, clasping their hands in joy once more. I'm thinking the feelings various boy-bands elicit among pre-pubescent teenagers...They are paralyzed with indecision...Finally, BB steps up, asks for explanations of various flavors,hunkers down and orders two...
Abby strolls over.. She is calmly carrying a sundae..(!) Well, no one had thought of THAT!
Limster steps up..He asks more questions..he orders two flavors..We sit. They share. They ooh, they ahh, they generously provide me with spoonsful...(My take? Maple walnut, too strong. Outragous? Outragous! Purple cow? MOOOOO!!!!) They sample, they coo...They finish their ice-cream. They are content..
There is a pause...In an eerie moment, BB and Limster look at each other, and each says, "I think some of those soft-serve fruit flavors would really cleanse my palate!" ("OH, they're so LIGHT!" protested BB...) So, they each got up, and each ordered another double of the soft-serve flavors...Yes, yes, we all sampled, some,(like the cantaloupe) had too much artificial flavoring; some, like the apricot and peach, were delicate and sublime..
I bring this up not to tease them (what, me???) but to draw attention to two hounds who were willing to go the distance, who were good to the last bite, left no flavor untasted, no dessert unfinished...For those about to eat; WE SALUTE YOU!!!!
No one told me there was an ICE CREAM CRAWL!! I would have gone on the clam crawl and not eaten the clams, just to sample loads and loads of ICE CREAM! (That should really be my screen name...note to self, think before you pick name) I am so jealous reading your funny, and ice-cream-laden post. Yum!
It wasn't really an ice cream crawl...we only went to one place. :)
Actually there was some talk about the next CH event and one of the many ideas that I overheard was an ice cream crawl. I think pizza and chowder were other oft mentioned possibilities.
I'm voting for the ice cream crawl myself. With something like 15 hounds, we can try at least 30 flavors in each place without filling up. (Just have to remember to bring lots of water for palate cleansing between flavors.)
I had a great time at the clam crawl. Thanks to C. Fox for such great planning and execution! I'm not into the "big belly clams", but I do like the Clam Boxes small ones. I really liked the clams at Essex Seafood, plus they have steamers, the wait is shorter, and it was cooler there near the water, all making for a better atmosphere in general. I wasn't thrilled with the Lobster Pool's fried, their steamers were good, but the little packets of "keeps forever" tarter sauce scared me! Farnham's was best for the tarter sauce and the scallop chowder. I enjoyed the cod cheeks, something I'd never tried. (Unlike some of the others, the one I tried was was sweet and moist.) Now if we had only stopped at Woodman's, just for onion rings, my day would have been perfect! We dropped out before Choate Bridge Pub to detour to Marini's Farm to stock up on fresh corn. We finished at White Farms. I'm so surprised to hear that Richardson's makes their ice cream. I like Richardson's but always thought White Farms was a little richer and creamier. After all those clams I needed something plainer than the "fun flavors". I had french vanilla and ginger, my friend had key lime pie (with graham cracker crumbs!) and ginger. The vanilla was perfectly creamy, smooth and not overly "vanilla-y" (I hate Ben & Jerry's supposedly "world's best vanilla" if that is any comparison). I though the ginger could have used a bit more ginger flavor, but it was ok. We then took it one level higher and stopped at Winfrey's on Rt 1. for some take home fudge just to end the day on the sweetest note possible! It was great to meet the other Boston hounds. They all made us newcomers feel very welcome. I'm looking forward to the next adventure. Ice cream, pizza, maybe cider donuts in the Fall? Anyone?
I must say I enjoyed the clam crawl -- it was a great education for me in the ways of clammish. From my uneducated palate I think I favored Essex slightly more than Clam Box. While I did not care for the Farnham's clams (very strong flavor and not from the oil, since the cod cheeks were virtually flavorless), I will speak up for their spicy red scallop chowder. Very nicely balanced with fresh tasting scallops that were neither undercooked or too tough.
The peach ice cream at the festival was good, though I thought the intensity was a little pale for what I wanted. It could have been too that my palate was just awash in clams by that point, too.
Thanks to C. Fox for organizing and Galleygirl from thoughtfully remembering refreshments!
David "Zeb" Cook
re: C. Fox
Since I knew I wouldn't be able to join the clam crawl, I've been doing my own North Shore clam evaluations this season. Amusingly enough I had an order of the Clam Box's big bellies earlier today, just before I read the clam crawl review. This was my third trip to the Clam Box, and I agree that the big bellies there are the way to go; definitely better than their regular clams. However, my order wasn't cooked quite right; the clams were very greasy and the non-belly parts were rubbery and hard to chew.
This has been a consistent problem for me at the Clam Box; maybe I'm under some kind of a curse. It's always seemed to me as if their clams could be cooked just a bit better. Also, the Box is kinda stingy with their tartar, which matters to a tartar sauce fiend like me. And then there's the wait...
It sounds as if they got it right for you guys on Sunday, but I'll probably stick to Essex since they've always done a consistently good job for me, not to mention that they're open all year and their tartar sauce is decent and abundant. Sure, I wish they had bigger bellies, but the "regular" bellies there are just fine.
I also tried Farnham's on Saturday, and the clams were OK, not extra-fishy but not spectacular either. Their tartar sauce does kick ass, though, and the salt-marsh views are nice. I won't argue if someone ever decides to buy me clams there, but otherwise I'll go to Essex. I do agree that the big bellies from the Clam Box cooked at Essex with Farnham's tartar sauce would probably be clam nirvana.
The Lobster Pool this year has not been as good as I remember it in the past. Either they've gone downhill or my tastes have changed. The view is still nice, but not enough to make up for the uninspiring chow. It was a good place to take my parents a few years ago, and is convenient to Halibut Point, but I probably won't be back unless I hear they've improved.
Haven't tried Woodman's yet. At some point I will, just for the sake of completeness, but I'm not looking forward to it.
I have to say I'm surprised at the places serving tartar sauce out of packets. Both Lobster Pool and Choate's did this, doesn't seem right. Surprised Farnham's was so far behind in everyone's list cuz it was very tasty a few weeks ago.
White Farms ice cream *was* quite good, at least the ginger and grapenut were. And too bad about the LP peach cobbler not being that great, glad I didn't waste calories.
re: C. Fox
"It was the big bellies (available upon request at no extra charge!) that gave the Box the edge. "
You liked the BIG ones best? But...but....sputter...grimace...that's heretical! Most of those places actually post warnings when the clams are running big....totally apologetic tone, etc.
This is completely upsetting my assumptions about fried clams! Or am I misunderstanding the vocabulary you're using?
Confused in Queens
re: Jim Leff
Jim, they're not letting the ones with big bellies out of the local area(g)..
This is one of those questions as hotly debated as "What's the best pizza in NY?", and everyone has a POV..Howard Johnson's made millions underestimating the taste of clam lovers with marketing that abomination, "clam strips".
But to a true clam-lover, there is nothing better than biting down, thru the lightly crispy coating to a mouthful of the custardy essence of the sea, deep and mysterious as the taste of lobster tomalley, mingling with the slight residual oiliness from the fryer..these wre so luscious, it made me blush to bite into them in public...(I posted my clam list earlier, but my post got lost; suffice to say until I repost, these were the real deal!)
A link to some previous airing of the big-belly question is below...
"...mouthful of the custardy essence of the sea, deep and mysterious as the taste of lobster tomalley, mingling with the slight residual oiliness from the fryer..these wre so luscious, it made me blush to bite into them in public..."
Yes, yes, YES. Perfect description of what (to me) a clam should be. Clam Box was far and away the best with those obscenely huge bellies.
Now to dissent: I found the Essex clams to be low on my list. Why? I could not detect any of the aforementioned taste of the sea. The batter completely overwhelmed the clam, with this heavily spiced and goopy batter. When I bit down, I was eating fried batter. No clam taste.
I think I'm completely alone in thinking that the Lobster Pool had the second place clam. I felt the batter taste to clam taste ratio was what it should be. The batter serving as a vehicle for the clam and not becoming the dominant taste. Lobster Pool clams had that I-ate-a being-that-spent-its-life-in-the-sea essence. I was eating the sea, I tasted summertime.
Essex did score highest Lobster Roll, with huge chunks of very fresh lobster (hand torn, as noted by GG)and enough mayo to just further enhance (and not overwhelm) the sweet lobster taste. We all agreed that this would be made the PERFECT lobster roll if you requested the roll to be toasted.
Farnhams spicy scallop chowder was fantastic. How good was it: when it appeared, I thought to myself, "what nutcase would order hot soup on this beastly hot day? I'm just going to have a bite to be polite." Well, I could've easily eaten an entire bowl myself in the 100 degree heat.
Thanks to C. Fox for organizing this absolutely wonderful North Shore tour. It was great to meet some of the Boston Hounds and see them in action. Humongous thanks to Galley Girl for being THE BEST host, toting me around and showing me the best seafood that the Boston area has to offer.
re: C. Fox
Thanks to Cfox for planning a great crawl, and the hounds who attended for making it such a success!
I think the reason it came out on time, and under budget, and, (as some hounds like Joanie had feared,) not overwhelming stomaches, was that everyone REALLY stuck to the spirit of the event..Arriving hungry,sharing a large serving, passing it around for just a small tasting, and then high-tailing it to the next place...Those 3 or 4 clams really whet our appetites each time, but they only tickled our palates, and made us hop back into our cars and drive like the hounds from hell on the scent of game, for the next "tease"...An amazing sense of cooperation among 18 people, with no one bogging down to eat whole meals(altho those big bellies at the Clam Box had me tempted!), or deciding they wanted the scallop plate instead, really made it work out well.
Ah, but the clams; my particular ratings diverged only slightly from the norm...Your mileage may vary; just remember, one of the pack leaders was very good last week, but rose to greatness this weekend..NB; I am a purist...All fried clams consumed w/NO tartar sauce, all steamers eschewed butter...Loster Roll report under seperate cover.
1. The Clam Box....#1 for fried clams...Yep, those big bellies were what we're searching for, 9lives...Huge mouthsful of mousselike juicyness, tasting of the sea and all things in it...I blushed eating them in public, and my mouth is watering now...The coating was so light, it didn't interfere at all, but just added a hint of earthiness to the whole package..I thought the surrounding muscle, which some hounds found too tough, was just the perfect amount of resistance to remind you that it was a living thing.. Their small belly clams were also fresh, sweet and clammy...
2. Essex Seafood.....#2 for fried clams, #1 for all-purpose shack. Just fresh, sweet clams, with average sized-bellies, cooked just _BARELY_ right, with a slightly sweet batter, and I mean just a hint...Sweet, juicy, clean steamers, again, perfectly understeamed...Losters looked great. Lobster rolls were. (more on that later...)
3. Lobster Pool...#3 for fried clams, a non-contender for anything else...Widly inconsistant. The second smaller order we got was better than the large from 5 minutes earlier...Bellies okay size, juicier on the second batch...Nothing exciting, but nothing too strong tasting....And three words, "Packaged tartar sauce".. Not that I eat it, but it shows a lack of respect to the bi-valves....Steamers acceptable.
4. Farnhams'...#4 for clams...A little strong tasting, and their oil needed a good cleaning by 12:30...Hmmmm. However, there WAS some taste...No steamers available, so plan B, the offering of fried cod chheks sufficed...The ones I got were about the size of scallops, a little firmer, and very juicy. And what a BAH-gain, at $5.95!. I thought they were great, but after eating those strong-flavored clams, I can see how it would be easy to miss the more subtle flavor of the cod...And we loved the spicy scallop chowder. these guys weren't afraid of hot pepper, and the scallops were perfectly underdone...
5. Choate Bridge Pub....I love a divey bar as much (well, maybe more ) than the next galleygirl, but the clams? The same as you'd find in a divey pub in Boston, or anywhere else...Fairly tasteless clams, fairly tasteless breading, they needed SALT and ketchup, along with that packaged Kraft tartar Sauce...Great bar, nice spot to relax in the AC,have an Ipswich Ale, and eat popcorn...Get your clams down the road...
Like the ones below, from the Clam Box!
Abbylovi plaintively wrote, "I've never HAD a lobster roll," when she was planning her trip up here, so what else could we do, but run a little lobster-roll tasting side-bar? Herewith, our extensively debated decisions...All lobster rolls were $12.95, and served a la carte. All were New England style, i.e., mixed with mayo.
1. Essex Seafood...You could tell from 10 feet away that these were the winners. The rosy tint of the bare-glistening of mayonaise came from mixing it with just-cooked lobster meat, letting the pigmentation(and juices!) of the flesh infuse the mayo. Lots of fresh hunks of hand-torn meat packed into an (unfortunately) ungrilled bun..But, as Abby pointed out, it's all in the special requests..Since these folks have a grill for burgers and dogs, you can ask for the roll to be grilled..Insider knowledge for hounds!
2. Farnhams'....#2. The lobster was probably as freshly cooked, but after being chopped into way-too-small sized pieces and mixed with way-too-much mayonaise, it was sadly wasted. Tasted sweet, a real shame..Esp. since the roll was perfectly grilled in butter!
3. Lobster Pool...Poor Abby. This was the first one she tasted, and she didn't know it would get better from there! We thought that this place was all about the lobster. We were wrong. The chopped lobster was fairly tasteless, ensconced in it's throne of lettuce, after being ensconced in the fridge, in mayo, from the day before... The roll was sweeter than the lobster, like challah, and broiled dry, to a char...Huh? You can get the same at McD's without leaving town, for $4.95..
I lucked out too, since I've never had fried clam nor lobster rolls before, so this was a great educational opportunity for me.
The buttery roll at Farmham's pushed a couple of buttons for me -- butter didn't seem as visible on the one from Essex even though their lobster was superior. Short of the pricey maneuver of swapping lobster and rolls, I'd ask for a bit of buttering with the grilling at Essex.
Had a great time on the crawl. Good food and getting to meet some of the Boston hounds ..what could be better. I pretty much agree with the other hounds on the ratings. I do think both types of clams at the Box were best. They also have very good onion rings and cold slaw. The Peach Festival detour was a good thing (peach ice cream :)). I was one of a small group that wound up at Woodmans for raw bar. Galleygirl decided to get some Steamers ..Good Move!!. The oysters and cherrystones were OK but the steamers were great. Voted best of the day by all in attendance. All in all a very nice day. Thanks C. Fox for putting it together. I will be anxiously awaiting the next event.
Argh! Missed the best steamers of the day?! I am bummed, especially since I prefer steamers (more pure clammy goodness). Were they those big bellied Venezuelan clams, or our pure northern jobbies with the slender waistlines?
Anyway, glad to hear that Woodman's is still good for something.
Ahh, the Woodman's report! I have THIS to say about THAT.....Jim Leff may say that chow-nirvana is a taste that makes you close your eyes and pound your fist on the table; but what's even better is when you've been sharing those tastes all day with a bunch of appreciative friends, and there comes a moment where the shellfish, the companions, and the alchohol level(g) all peak at the same time, and they're still all in their pitching for _one_last_taste!!
So, we went for the oysters and steamers at the raw bar at Woodman's...Yup, I know, I still hate Woodman's, but we hadn't had anything raw (none of the others on the crawl did raw!), Abbylovi had never had a cherrystone (!), and I was still hungry...There is no wait to do the upatairs raw bar...But, as we cruised in, I noticed by some fluke of nature that there was no line for fried or steamers...I took advantage of the situation, since we hadn't had our fill of steamers..
Yup, they were very good, probably the best of the day...BUT, at $18.65 for the 2 lb. size (the large), they were almost twice the price of the second place contender, Essex Seafood, where the same quantity was $9.95...These guys are a mile apart, and they're buying from the same vendors; seems like unabashed profiteering to me...Basically, the steamers were the same size, and a similar sweetness and juicyness...The thing that gave them the edge was that they semed to have been steamed in saltwater, adding a little more essential brininess to the clam taste..It was good, but I wouldn't wait on the typical Woodman's line, all the way down the building when we left, for that slight difference...And if all I wanted were steamers, I would go to Essex...
Oysters were only OK, but the cherrystones were great, I thought, right up there with the brininess of the best..Also at the same price point as high-end Boston places, at $2 a pop...Hey folks, repeat after me, "It's a clam shack!"
We didn't have the fried clams, but based on the steamers, it's just not that much better than the closest competition to be worth it..And unless you're sitting up at the raw bar, the place is a pigsty; always lots of unemptied trash-cans, etc....
Ahhhhh, but shellfish with a mellow group of hounds on a hot August evening; PRICELESS!
We just got back from a vacation that included 4 and 1/2 days on Cape Ann -- staying on Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, and driving around to eat. Thanks to all who had previously posted on clams, lobster, etc.
We had 2 meals at Essex Seafood, and agree that the steamers were THE BEST we've ever had. Also loved the clam chowder, the steamed lobster, everything on the Seafood Plate (clams, shrimp, scallops, fish, french fries -- even though they seemed like the frozen covered-in-spiced-batter kind -- and onion rings) and the lobster roll. I also can't believe that they were APOLOGIZING for having huge clams; they were so good!!!!!
Somewhat perversely, I had to see if Woodman's was as awful as folks here said; I didn't think it was all that bad, but nothing could compare to Essex. The lobster roll at Essex was much more lobstery, less dressed, and considerably less expensive. Woodman's fried clams were okay, nicely fried (not greasy), but not as ethereal as the ones at Essex.
Madfish Grille (at Rocky Neck in Gloucester), which my husband loves but I think is too busy (that is, too much going on in each dish). Good ingredients, though. But horrible, horrible service.
Oceanview (Gloucester) -- we stuck to the Portuguese dishes, and were again very satisfied. Even with everything left in them, the grilled sardines were so fresh they were still sweet.
Ithaki (Ipswich) -- wow, is that place expensive! But everything was wonderful: the grilled octopus (a real draw for my husband); the special scallop with shrimp and ham and cheese and onions and I-forget-what-all-else (busy, but delicious); a huge slab of halibut with feta mashed potatoes; perfectly grilled swordfish steak with squid-ink cappelini; "ek-mak" which was like a flat kataifa; and the Greek coffee with exactly the amount of sugar we wanted. The only disappointment was the grilled figs -- tasteless -- but the yogurt and honey with them more than made up for the lack.
Finally: Stone Soup (Ipswich). We went for lunch, not knowing that it was good but entirely different from the highly-touted dinners. And we past it about three times before noticing it on the corner, surrounded by Cafe Zabaglione. So it was not anywhere near the orgasmic experience we had hoped for.
We plan on returning to the area next summer, and look forward to trying more of the places we didn't get to this time. Thanks for all the recs!!