Duckworth’s Bistrot, an intimate French-influenced restaurant serving dinner five nights a week, has been a mecca for discerning diners since it opened in Gloucester 10 years ago.
For many, a special attraction is that almost every entrée on its ever-changing menu of the day, which might include eggplant roulade stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and monkfish ($22) or grilled whole quail with a goat-cheese mousse ($26), is offered as a half portion (in these cases, $12 and $14, respectively).
Chef-owner Ken Duckworth guesses that two out of three customers order half portions. Couples often order three small plates and split them. “This way,” Duckworth said in a phone interview, “I have a chance to showcase what I can do, and people can taste more things.”
No, he said, offering low-cost options doesn’t hurt his bottom line. “Not if you come back.”
The sight of crowds enjoying dinner through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows is one of the picturesque features of an evening drive along the winding road out to Rocky Neck or Eastern Point. Duckworth, formerly chef at downtown Boston’s late, lamented Maison Robert, lives directly above the restaurant with his wife, Nicole (who is the pastry chef), and their three young children.
Our party of three arrived at 7:45 on a Thursday evening — the earliest reservation available that night — and were promptly shown to the only table available. With just 36 seats, plus four stools at a small bar in the corner, the small dining room was lively but not overly loud.
The waiters, wearing long white aprons bistro-style, were friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. Ordering a pork dish, we were surprised to be asked how we wanted the meat cooked. Isn’t pork always supposed to be cooked until well done, to avoid trichinosis? Actually, our server said, good-quality pork no longer needs to be cooked through and through; translucent pink in the center is fine.
For starters, we enjoyed a $10 salad of Boston lettuce with julienned apple, beets, walnuts, and “tartine”—grilled French bread with, in this case, blue cheese and caramelized onion. We also tried the Ubiquitous Bistrot Salad ($9), which, our server explained, was a bistro staple throughout France.
This consisted of frisée lettuce with yummy little cubes of bacon and a farm-fresh poached egg on top. We half-expected the egg to be semi-hard, but when we cut into it, hot yolk ran down into the salad and mixed with the mustard vinaigrette, which was an entertaining novelty. For an extra $3, we splurged on grilled poultry livers to go with it. They were tender and delectable.
The three of us took turns digging into a bowl of cream of mushroom soup ($8). Banish all memories of the Campbell’s version. This was a savory blend of sautéed wild mushrooms spiced with sage, which reminded us of turkey stuffing, and rich in cream. It was the kind of dish that makes you think about having it again even as you’re eating it.
The aforementioned pork dish was flavored with maple syrup in a bourbon glaze with Swiss chard and a sweet-potato purée ($15 half, $28 full). The purée was a light, velvety confection that was almost like pudding. The first bites of pork were a bit tough, but inside, where the meat was rarer, it was as tender and juicy as a good steak.
An order of lobster and vegetable risotto ($16/$30) was served in a heavy copper saucepan and arrived steaming hot, like all our other entrées (though we had to wait a bit for them to appear). Succulent chunks of lobster were plentiful — and, like much of the food served here, locally sourced; the menu thanks Captain Joe & Sons “right around the corner” for the lobsters. Hidden in the risotto were other tasty morsels, including chewy chunks of sweet potato and grilled half Brussels sprouts.
An entrée of pan-seared haddock came with roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and bacon cubes in a lemon brown butter ($13/$24) and enough spices to give the dish a bite. The fish was fresh, delicious, and abundant. Though we all ordered half portions, each of us had more than we could eat in one sitting.
Or more than we chose to, since we were saving room for dessert. A slice of Very Chocolate Cake ($8) consisted of alternating layers of chocolate cake and a milk chocolate filling with semi-sweet chocolate icing. It was creamy and good, though a tad dry — perhaps it was the last slice left that evening.
More unusual was a dish of rice pudding with tart, port-soaked cherries and a macaroon ($8). The combination of flavors and textures, like so much else here, was heavenly.
And the pre-tip bill for the three of us? $110, including a round of beer. There’s no telling what will be on the menu on the future but, yes, we’ll be back.
Coco McCabe and Doug Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.