There are few things more rewarding than a sure thing. A car that always starts, a friend who always answers the phone, David Ortiz in the clutch (and his inevitable contract extension request). Add Turner’s Seafood to the list.
The Turner family (primarily brothers Joe, Jim, and Chris and their wives) has operated Turner’s Seafood Grill & Market for two decades in downtown Melrose, where it has become an institution.
This past November, the Turners unveiled a restaurant at Salem’s Lyceum Hall, just a short drive from the family’s Gloucester Seafood Market. According to Jim Turner, the family had been actively looking for a second location for five years.
“My wife says I walked in the building and never walked out,” he said, laughing.
The Church Street location had all the essential design elements he wanted, including hardwood floors, high tin ceilings, brick walls, and big picture windows, he said. It also has history, a trait that Turner said his family takes to heart.
“The ambience is what we were looking for,” said Turner, whose father owned Turner Fisheries in Boston.
The building has a colorful history, most notably as the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone, in 1877. Lyceum Hall was established in 1831 as a lecture hall, and also hosted the likes of John Quincy Adams, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Most recently, it was the site of The Lyceum restaurant, which closed last summer.
The Turners have preserved the distinctive features that made it such a treasure, while adding several bold features. Foremost is the oyster bar, a sweeping semi-circle that dominates half of the dining room and provides an open view of the kitchen.
The dining room and bar have the same welcoming atmosphere that the Melrose restaurant exudes. We declined one cozy table by the fireplace, because it was situated beside a wait station (a pet peeve of my wife). Instead, we opted for a high-top table by the front windows and the raw bar, where the same wide-ranging menu is available.
Jim Turner likes to refer to the family’s restaurants as “fish houses,” meaning your seafood choices will be plentiful. Executive chef Yale Woodson and his staff stay true to the menu, without changing offerings weekly. Customers will find a few seasonal specialties and some intriguing preparations but not many “exotic” choices. Nor will you find mahi mahi or red snapper; the seafood all comes from local waters.
Whatever customers do select will be off-the-boat fresh. This is what the Turner family does best: Take same-day seafood, prepare it elegantly, and present it simply. That’s evident at the raw bar, where you can opt for raw oysters ($2.35 each), “Oysters Rockerfella” ($10), steamers ($15), or tuna sashimi ($11).
Can’t decide? Order the raw sampler ($12.75), with two oysters, two clams, and two shrimp. On a cold winter’s night, the lobster bisque ($9.75/bowl), clam chowder ($7/bowl), or Portuguese fish stew ($9) can warm you quicker than the heat thrown from the shallow fireplace.
During our first visit, my wife and I started with a favorite litmus test — the cherry pepper calamari ($10) – and a Turner cosmopolitan. Both were superb. My wife, feeling iron-deficient, selected the surf ’n’ turf ($21.50), which featured seared tenderloin medallions with red wine demi-glace and two crab cakes, mashed potatoes, and grilled butternut squash.
The tenderloin, she said, was among the best she’d ever had, cooked precisely to order (high praise, coming from a Kansas native). Stealing a few bites, I thought the crab cakes were excellent, though my wife found a few shell remnants.
I went for the broiled fisherman’s platter ($25), which had scrod, shrimp, and scallops topped with buttered crumbs. The scrod and scallops were absolutely mouth-watering, while the shrimp were very good. It seemed a little odd to have such a sumptuous dish accompanied by French fries and coleslaw, but I didn’t mind, especially since we paired our meals with a half-bottle of Caymus Conundrum ($25).
On our next visit, my wife pulled out all stops and ordered the traditional New England broiled lobster dinner ($29), with baked potato and vegetable medley. The 20-ounce lobster, served with drawn butter, was a conversation stopper, as her eyes rolled back in bliss.
My penchant for spicy food led me to the mussels and calamari fra diavolo ($16). Not being a mussel fan, I asked if I could substitute scallops, and the kitchen was happy to accommodate. The fra diavolo sauce wasn’t overtly fiery, but had a nice bite that enhanced the velvety scallops.
The portions at Turner’s aren’t huge, but they’re not skimpy, either. Suffice to say, my wife and I didn’t have room for dessert either night, despite the temptation.
Like Melrose, the Salem outpost has a children’s menu, and a seafood market that’s open on weekends. If there’s one key difference, it’s that the Melrose restaurant has a rich atmosphere cultivated over 20 years, blending a fine dining experience with the boisterous feel of a neighborhood pub or a holiday get-together. The wait staff is like old family – comfortable, engaging, and light-hearted.
Conversely, the Salem crew is still feeling its way out, which is to be expected. The service was prompt, polite, and friendly but a little stiff compared with the crew in Melrose.
Still, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Turner’s in Salem to someday match the same cult status that the Melrose location enjoys. I can’t say when, but it’s going to happen, if history is any judge.Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.