« June 2008 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Fish shanty goes upscale
Owner Petersiel transforms Red Rock Bistro from dive to destination
By Joan M. Lang
June 01, 2008
Paul Petersiel loves fish. "Of any protein, I think fish
presents the most opportunity to do something really
interesting on the menu."
Indeed, fish - everything from traditional fried clams and
lobster rolls to post-modern sushi-grade tuna tataki and
Florida snapper en papillote - has helped Petersiel, owner of
Red Rock Bistro in Swampscott, Mass., evolve the restaurant
from a waterfront clam shack dive into a thriving, highly
regarded destination restaurant.
"This was a fried joint when I bought it" in 1999, says
Petersiel, virtually on a whim when he and his wife took a
drive north from their new Boston home, in search of a lobster
roll and an afternoon on the water. Now it's a
multimillion-dollar full-service restaurant with a wide-ranging
menu that sustains seafood sales ranging from 50 to 60 percent
of total volume in the winter, all the way up to 80 percent in
the summer. "Now we've got a reputation for serving the best
seafood around, and whenever something new comes in season,
we've got it first."
To a very real degree, Petersiel has accomplished this by
playing with fish. Never having owned a restaurant before, he
only meant to clean the physical surroundings up a bit and keep
running the place - formerly known as Dale's - as a clam shack.
But he had lured a chef away from upscale restaurateur Todd
English, and that chef had other ideas.
Petersiel started hitting the docks, literally, and liked
what he saw: To this day, he drives into Boston as many as six
mornings a week, plastic tubs and ice in hand, to buy directly
from the fish dealers. Although some of his staples are
purchased through the usual channels, Petersiel likes to act as
his own distributor for fresh seafood, preferring the wholesale
price and great quality and variety he can get by dealing
directly with up to a dozen different companies.
"It's so worth it," he says. "I'm not sitting on the phone
ordering things and neither is my chef. I'm there looking at
the fish before it leaves the market, and believe me if I don't
like the looks of something, it doesn't leave the place with
me. I get the very best quality that way."
And if he comes up short for the weekend, "there are guys
there until 10 o'clock on Saturday morning."
Petersiel has also learned a lot in this process of what he
calls "crawling around the docks."
"I see what looks good, and then I buy what I need - tuna,
salmon, clams. And I'm always asking, 'Hey, what's this? Tony,
what's that?'" Sardines, skate, whole Mediterranean fish, New
Bedford scallops, all have found their way onto the regular
menu or the specials sheet because Petersiel has seen them at
He also feels he gets an extra measure of regard by being
there in person, which has paid off when a dealer will
introduce him to something really unique, like pumpkin
swordfish, or sell him a cache of fresh Gulf shrimp. Some of
his favorite purveyors include Stavis Seafoods, Freshwater Fish
and Captain Marden's.
Once the seafood gets to Red Rock's kitchen, says Petersiel,
the goal is to get customers eating it by coming up with items
that that are appealing and on-trend.
"The chef [Lee Fannon, the restaurant's second since
Petersiel took over] has an Asian sensibility. He's not a heavy
hand with seafood, and that's very important," he says.
Asian style Cold Shrimp Rolls are a case in point: The dish
features poached jumbo Gulf shrimp wrapped in rice paper with
fresh herbs, rice noodles and spicy orange-chili dipping sauce.
"And we have a great tuna tartare. Everyone's got tuna tartare,
because tuna has parts that can't be used for anything else,
but ours is special," infused with ginger oil, shallots and
fresh herbs and served with a lemongrass-Thai basil aioli.
There's also pastrami-cured gravlax, pan-roasted cod and a
lobster pizza with blue cheese and fig jam, but as Petersiel
points out, "You can still get a brown bag of fried clams for
an appetizer, and an old-
fashioned fried seafood plate"
The single-most popular dish, however, is Pan-Seared
Scallops served with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, grilled
asparagus and a simple but savory lemon thyme beurre blanc,
which accounts for a whopping 10 percent of average total food
During the summer, Red Rock runs several seafood specials -
Petersiel's secret weapon in introducing new varieties to his
"I put skate on the menu, it doesn't sell," he says. "We
make it a special, I sell out." Likewise with other, less
familiar seafood varieties, including bluefish, whole fish,
black cod, bass and fresh shrimp. "The chefs hate me
sometimes," he laughs. "I come back with something like head-on
whole fish, and they have to figure out what to do with it. But
really, they love it."
Red Rock Bistro has also made a name for its raw bar
specialties, which Petersiel began introducing about five years
ago: poached colossal shrimp, littlenecks and cherrystones and
oysters. He'll have six or seven or eight different kinds of
oysters on offer at any given time, from Washington State
Kumamotos and rare New Brunswick Caraquets to local Duxbury and
Buzzards Bay varieties.
Three years ago, Petersiel decided to try to boost Monday
night business at the bar with $1 specials on oysters, sliders
(miniature hamburgers), corn dogs and shrimp-on-the-barbie.
"I serve whatever kind of oysters I have on hand, not just
the cheap stuff, because I want customers to be able to try
different kinds of oysters," he says. "And this isn't just a
5-to-7 happy hour; it's all night." Not surprisingly, Red Rock
has developed a huge local following for the Monday night
"dollar day." And what was once the slowest night of the week
is now busy - and extremely profitable.
"The secret is, you get interesting seafood and you
encourage people to taste it," sums up Petersiel. "We're not so
much into educating people as we are into just letting people
try new things."
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,