Some chefs find inspiration in a certain cuisine or culture; for others, a particular class of ingredients stokes creativity. For chef Michael Cimarusti, seafood has long been the medium of choice, his passion and his muse.
A lifelong fisherman, Cimarusti has always been slightly in awe of the gifts of the ocean, an awe that became the focus of his career when he took over as executive chef at Water Grill. Before that, he mastered seafood as a line cook at Le Cirque in New York and then as sous chef at Spago. But it was his time at Water Grill that eventually led him to strike out on his own with Providence, a temple of sustainable seafood that is considered among the very best of our city's fine-dining establishments.
Now, eight years later, Cimarusti has come full circle. Connie & Ted's, named for the grandparents who took him fishing as a kid in Rhode Island, is a tribute to the food of his childhood: the chowders and crabcakes, the boiled seafood dinners and fisherman's stews of the Northeast.
Connie & Ted's is not the first East Coast–style seafood joint to open in L.A. — not this year, and not even from an ex–Water Grill chef: David LeFevre, who was also a chef there, opened Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach in April. Before that, Littlefork, which also claims New England as an inspiration, opened in Hollywood. Perched as we are on the edge of the Pacific, it's an odd trend — and yet the truth is that L.A. needed more serious seafood destinations. If they must come with an Atlantic theme, so be it.
Of these upscale chowder houses, Connie & Ted's does by far the best job of re-creating the pleasures of that other coast. The 160-seat space on Santa Monica feels right at home in West Hollywood, a huge swoosh of a building with a glassed-in front behind a large red-and-wood patio, and a dining room that nods to the nautical rather than screaming about it.
A bustling, open kitchen takes up the back of the restaurant, with an army of cooks twirling and laboring along the line. Against one wall, both a bar and a raw bar offer views of oyster shucking and cocktail mixing, as well as a number of flat-screen televisions tuned to sports channels. At capacity (which Connie & Ted's almost always is), the room feels vital and bustling, casual and classy.
Cimarusti gives most of the credit for the menu and operation to executive chef Sam Baxter, who's been with him for 10 years, first at Water Grill and then at Providence, where Baxter worked his way up to chef de cuisine. With Cimarusti's guidance, he has created a menu of incredibly straightforward, classic American seafood dishes. This is food that is devotional rather than ego-driven, and as such it relies mainly on the quality of product rather than flashy cooking. All the seafood is sustainable, and apart from the possibility of a New Zealand or Canadian oyster, or white shrimp from Mexico, everything is harvested in the United States.
So you can get chowder three ways: Manhattan, New England or Rhode Island, or a sampling of all three in a line of small cups, each a faithful rendition of the original. The most interesting is the Rhode Island, with its saline-funk clear broth. I wasn't expecting to be reminded in West Hollywood of my teen summers on Block Island, R.I., but this chowder delivered just that memory.
There's a lobster roll, served hot or cold on an excellent brioche roll, made with giant chunks of tender lobster meat, the sandwich relying on barely anything other than the quality of the seafood and the bread, and the skill with which both are cooked, to make its sweet, bouncy point. Steamers arrive, as they should, with clam broth and drawn butter for dunking, and aside from an occasional gritty clam (par for the course with steamers), they're pure, messy fun.
A daily-changing roster of fish is available simply grilled, and sometimes rarely served varieties like bluefish can be had, pungent and funky and delicious. Portuguese fisherman's stew is spiced up just a little with linguiça sausage but relies mainly on garlic and sweet tomato to give its broth its beguiling characteristics. The same is true for mussels marinara — there's nothing mind-blowing here; it's just conceived and executed pretty much perfectly.
And then there are the oysters: oysters Rockefeller and deviled oysters, fried oysters (in a sandwich) and raw oysters. Connie & Ted's may currently have the widest variety of raw oysters in town — an incredible treat.
If there's one downer about the oysters at Connie & Ted's, it's the lack of wine worth pairing them with. Cocktails go well with grilled calamari, and beer is a great accompaniment to that oyster sandwich. But a platter of oysters demands a great glass of wine.
And this wine list is passable but not special in any way, and almost 100 percent domestic but for no real reason I can fathom. While all-domestic lists can sometimes be a thrill — a place to showcase America's lesser-known, more exciting producers — that's not the case here. There are a few random exceptions (a Tatomer Gruner Veltliner from Santa Barbara, for instance), but mostly the wine is safe, and a little boring. Where's the Champagne? Where are the saline-friendly, crisp, minerally whites? I get that this is basic cooking, and seafood shacks aren't known for their fantastic cellars. But the most successful restaurants that pay tribute to a genre also take into consideration the proclivities of their customers, and, honestly, food this good deserves better, winewise.
Beer, on the other hand, is taken seriously, with a fantastic list and different glasses for different brews. I can particularly recommend the Lost Abbey Inferno Ale to pair with your mussels or fish and chips. Its balanced malty heft is a gorgeous match for Connie & Ted's very good french fries.
Cimarusti has brought in Providence's pastry chef, David Rodriguez, to make classic American desserts that just may restore your faith in things like brownies à la mode and whoopie pies. OK, maybe not whoopie pies (a nostalgia I could do without, no matter how well-prepared), but Rodriguez makes a damn fine rocky road brownie and an even better strawberry-rhubarb pie.
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After originally planning to incorporate lunch service, Cimarusti and service guru Donato Poto (who has long run the floor at Providence and is also a partner at Connie & Ted's) have decided to stick to dinner for now, with lunch served only Friday through Sunday. After the hushed room and relative calm of years at Providence, the 330 or so people coming though the door daily at Connie & Ted's must feel like a punch in the face every night. Still, they're handling it incredibly well, and though I get the impression that no one in the management team is sleeping much, quality and service have yet to suffer due to the mayhem.
Which is what we might expect from professionals at this level. Connie & Ted's is not the most exciting opening of the year, nor is it the most creative food in town. For that, try Cimarusti's other restaurant. This, rather, is a tribute to a set of ingredients, a style of cooking and an ocean far away that first inspired many of L.A.'s great chefs.
CONNIE & TED'S | Three stars | 8171 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | (323) 848-2722 | connieandteds.com | Mon.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.- 11 p.m. | Entrees, $15-$44 | Full bar | Valet parking