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In the Kitchen: Fish shanty goes upscale

Owner Petersiel transforms Red Rock Bistro from dive to destination

The restaurant boosts Monday night business with a $1
    oyster special. - Photo courtesy of Red Rock Bistro
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 the market.

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 sales.

During the summer, Red Rock runs several seafood specials - Petersiel's secret weapon in introducing new varieties to his customers.

"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, Maine


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