It takes guts for a restaurant to offer only three entrees, two of which are whole fish; the third is a whole Jonah Crab. None of this is for the faint of heart. You do your own boning and picking.
At Short & Main, a four-year-old spot in the center of Gloucester with 61 seats, the two whole fish are hyperlocal. One night recently you could order sea bream (called porgy northern scup in the trade) or black sea bass. Both were caught off our shores. If you haven’t heard of them or ever tried them, that’s part of the mission here, says manager and partner Matt Cawley. They want to teach you about foods you may not already know.
The presentation is fabulous. You get the entire fish on a platter, head and tail intact, its skin crisp from the wood-fired oven (everything on the menu, including an array of pizzas, is cooked in this oven). The fish is surrounded by rotating garnishes. I had it with cut-up pieces of corn on the cob, big red potatoes, Napa cabbage, and herb salad. The staff will not fillet the fish for you, as some restaurants do. “We have high-level food,” says Cawley, “but the service is not too formal.” Wait staff will explain how to do it, give you a large spoon and blunt knife, and you’re on your own.
Fish this fresh, cooked this well, is an admirable endeavor. The flesh is firm and juicy, the skin delectable, the flavor briny. It goes into the back of the wood oven, says chef Josh Smith, where the temperature can reach 850 degrees; a 1½-pound fish takes only seven minutes. He lets it sit out for another three or four minutes to rest.
Short & Main is a sister establishment of The Market on Lobster Cove in Annisquam, a charming restaurant that juts out into the water. Nico and Amelia Monday, who met at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., when both were working there, co-own that restaurant and this one.
Whole fish is just one of the things Short & Main excels at. Smith is also cooking slender leeks on a rack over embers until they turn buttery tender. He prepares them a number of ways. I had them on a bed of cream blended with pecorino and colatura, which is an Italian fish sauce made with anchovies, straight-up umami that is added to a dish by the drop.
Smith cooks shaved zucchini salad to order. Slices of raw young zucchini are tossed with olive oil, and layered with chile pepper, shaved Parmesan, pine nuts, and mint. First Light Farm in Hamilton, which sends zucchini and many other vegetables to the restaurant, “cures” the zucchini first in the field, explains Smith. Growers pick young zucchini and let it sit in the shade of the plant for a couple of days to lose some of its moisture. When Smith gets it, he slices the zucchini when an order comes in and coats it with olive oil to protect the moisture that’s left in the vegetable. You eat it and shake your head. How can raw zucchini taste this good?
Local bluefin tuna is chopped into a tartare with avocado, fennel, beets, and strawberry vinegar, which sounds like too much is going on in the dish, but tastes divine.
The pizzas have a thin crust with chewy sides made from a fine dough. A toddler at the table beside ours — the chef’s son, our waitress tells me later when I ask — sits up at attention when the pizza is set down in front of him. He has a big smile. His mother cuts a piece and puts it on his plate; he studies the slice thoughtfully as if he is some sort of pizza authority. Then he eats it with such gusto and polish that a film crew should have been there to shoot it.
Wait till he learns to fillet a whole fish. He’ll dazzle the other first-graders. 36 Main St., Gloucester, 978-281-0044, www.shortandmain.com. Antipasti and salads $6-$13; main courses $29-$33.