Originally published in the May Issue of Down East Magazine
I’m not one who excels at the art of self-control, especially when confronted with a decadent feast, but I usually learn from my mistakes. Having experienced a dinner prepared by chef Patrick Duffy at Shepherd’s Pie two years ago, I knew to forego lunch before dining at his new venture in that same location, 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill, which he co-owns with his wife, Jessica.
18 Central is exactly the kind of eatery that should thrive on the midcoast: it’s unpretentious and focuses on core ingredients beloved by most. When Duffy talks about his cooking style, he likes to use the expression “fond de cuisine,” a French term for long-simmering stocks that are the simple bedrock of many dishes — in other words, he believes great food depends on mastering the fundamentals before taking creative liberties. He honed that philosophy during his long stint in Boston-area restaurants, where he worked under respected chefs like Gordon Hamersley, David Rossetto, and Daniel DeCarpis, although he aims to make his own menus more approachable than those of his mentors.
Reminiscent of old-school Boston steakhouses, with its dark wood and high ceiling, 18 Central is the perfect home for Duffy’s cuisine. At the far end of the long bar, the fires of an open kitchen flicker. Duffy can see every table in the dining room, allowing him to gauge the timing for courses while simultaneously chatting with sated patrons on their way out.
In addition to overseeing the front of the house, Jessica Duffy has compiled an impressive wine list that emphasizes refreshing, high-acid wines that make good companions to rich food. Bottles to complement selections from the raw bar include classics like Muscadet, Picpoul de Pinet, and Bordeaux Blanc, as well as modern wines, like the racy Müller-Thurgau from Oregon producer Anne Amie.
The list of inventive cocktails includes the Kilnwooder, an unbelievably smooth and mellow take on the classic old-fashioned, made with Bulleit bourbon, maple syrup, muddled clementine, and Luxardo cherries. Like all the cocktails here, the name has a story behind it: Kilnwood schooners carried wood into Rockport Harbor to fuel the massive limestone kilns there.
The raw bar offers a daily selection of pristine oysters from Maine and elsewhere, served with a choice of mignonettes, such as apple, chili-lime, and a multi-dimensional scallion-ginger that benefits from a nip of fish sauce and cilantro. The wood-grilled-tomato cocktail sauce, with its deep, rich flavor and lingering burn, will most likely prompt a second order of the plump cocktail shrimp.
Salads at 18 Central are not an afterthought. A finnan haddie and fingerling salad pairs robust, bitter greens with perfectly cooked potatoes, piquant capers, and crisp garlic-laden croutons, tossed with a velvety smoked-haddock dressing. Equally successful is the Maine crab salad, a bracing and aromatic compilation of fresh crabmeat, crunchy apples, celery root, herbs, sliced black truffle, and fried potato sticks.
These salads provide a glimpse into one of Duffy’s talents — he can balance a dish that, from its description, sounds like it could be far too busy with conflicting flavors. His crudo of sliced scallops with chili oil, lemon, basil, beets, red onion, blood orange, and caviar somehow runs the gamut from spicy to pungent to aromatic to acidic to briny and leaves you craving more. Similarly, his rendition of steak tartare, with garlic, chili oil, quail egg, tomato confit, crispy potato sticks, and bone-marrow croutons (juicy cubes of fried marrow), is a vivid array of tastes and textures, each bite bordering on a religious experience.
A riff on surf and turf, rich, tender barbecued pork belly and charred scallops are accompanied by rutabaga slowly cooked in duck fat, formed into a ball, and deep-fried. A cider-mustard agrodolce (a sweet-and-sour Italian condiment) and a slaw seasoned with caraway and Szechuan peppercorns add nuance and acidity to the all-out assault of fat and salt. Another entrée, duck cassoulet, serves as a reminder that you don’t need to be hungry to eat, because no matter how full you may be, there’s always room for fried confit duck leg, white beans, and pork belly, served with a silky red wine reduction.
Not every repast taken at 18 Central needs to be so over the top, but there’s something satisfying about occasionally pushing the limits of your animalistic appetite with a procession of dishes that never allow the palate to be bored. This food isn’t created to be “on trend” (a term I despise right up there with “foodie”); rather, it’s the expression of two people who love to eat and aren’t afraid to explore new territory. My kind of people.