IN THE KITCHEN Josh Cushman is the latest to don the mantle of head chef at Cala’s, which first opened in Manchester-by-the-Sea in 2006. Cushman began working part time there a little more than two years ago, then graduated to sous chef before being offered the top spot.
“I’m a firm believer that, as chefs, you can’t follow the philosophy that you’re owed something,’’ he said. “You need to work for it.’’
Another of Cushman’s guiding principles is to listen to his customers. Closely.
“My job is to keep the people who come in here happy,’’ he said. “If there’s something they want, then I have to adapt to that. Working my way up the ladder as I have, I’ve learned those things. And it’s humbling.’’
THE LOCALE Situated in the center of Manchester’s quaint downtown, Cala’s is one of a number of restaurants owned by Mark McDonough’s Serenitee Restaurant Group (which includes 15 Walnut in Hamilton, Latitude in Gloucester, Hale Street in Beverly, The Spot in Georgetown, Maggie's Farm in Middleton, and Opus in Salem).
The place just feels comfortable the moment you walk through the door, with the bar to the left and a small, softly lit dining area to the right.
“It’s extremely lively,’’ said Cushman of the bar. “Scott Blatchford, the bar manager and head honcho here, has an unbelievable following. A lot of these people come in to sit at the bar, and they come to see him. He's definitely one of the faces of the restaurant.’’
ON THE MENU Diners will find an impressive variety on Cala’s dinner menu. You can choose from pub food, such as Mexican street tacos ($5 each) and the haddock sandwich (fried or baked, $14), or elegant entrees featuring seafood, steaks, ribs, and pasta dishes. Pumpkin and squash ravioli ($19) is one of Cala's best sellers, Cushman said.
There are also nightly specials, and I was tempted by a house favorite, the lobster roll ($17). This delicacy is served every day in the summer, but typically only on Wednesdays in the winter.
“People who come into this restaurant really know what they’re talking about when it comes to seafood and fresh fish,’’ Cushman said. “It keeps us on our toes.’’
After being seated, my wife, Lauri, ordered a blood orange cosmopolitan ($10), a very smooth, nicely balanced blend of vodka, triple sec, blood orange puree, cranberry, and lime. In keeping with Manchester's seafaring tradition, Cala’s also offers up the national drink of the British Virgin Islands, called a pain killer ($9), with dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice, and nutmeg.
For starters, we shared an appetizer of Thai mussels ($13). Served in a sauce of yellow curry, lemongrass, and coconut milk, the mussels were bountiful and delicious. We asked for extra bread to soak up the sauce.
For her entree, Lauri chose the porcini-crusted scallops ($26), while I opted for Cala's fish stew ($24/entree, $16/cup). Lauri's scallops — six altogether — were cooked just a bit unevenly, but the flavors of the scallops, wild mushroom risotto, shaved Parmesan cheese, black pepper truffle oil, and fried basil blended beautifully.
The fish, shrimp, mussels, and scallops in my stew were all prepared exquisitely. I requested a small bowl of white rice, which helped me lap up every morsel of the robust lobster saffron tomato broth.
We each had a glass of J. Lohr chardonnay ($8/glass, $30/bottle), which complemented our meals nicely.
Because we insisted on using bread or rice to wipe our plates clean, neither of us had room for dessert. But Lauri would not let me leave until I promised we would return soon for Cala's peanut butter icebox cake ($8), a vanilla wafer crust filled with peanut butter mousse and chocolate ganache. It won’t be a difficult promise to keep.
Cala’s Restaurant, 7 Beach St., Manchester-by-the-Sea; 978-525-3304; calasrestaurant.com.Brion O'Connor can be reached at email@example.com.