Although I grew up in a family restaurant and have spent nearly 20 years as a food critic and columnist, there are certain things about the industry I still don’t understand.
Among them: Why are some locations snakebitten places where eateries go to die, despite seemingly ideal circumstances? When restaurateurs come along who are able to crack the mystery, culinary landmarks are born.
The building that housed the Yorick Club in Lowell is a prime example of a seemingly doomed location that has flourished in the right hands. This historic site smack in the center of the city went through more restaurants than the Red Sox have gone through managers. Its tangled history was relegated to trivia question status when Cobblestones moved in and put an end to all that.
I suspect the same future lies ahead for the newly-opened Sea Level Oyster Bar in downtown Newburyport’s Firehouse building. That ideal spot has gone through a litany of eateries over the years, most recently Not Your Average Joe’s.
Since opening in June, Sea Level has demonstrated qualities its former occupants didn’t. First, it has a well-established sister operation in Salem, Mass. Second, it’s a comfortable and casual place to hang out. Third, the single-page menu is large enough to use as a head covering in a surprise rainstorm.
I’ll admit that when I first sat down in the spacious interior that features bricks and barn board — front and back patio dining is also available — I was ready to write it off when I saw “chowder fries” on the menu. Too cutesy, I thought, but that was before I tried the dish. Think of chowder fries as a New England version of poutine. The thick chowder comes off as a topping rather than a soupy mess. The $12 item might read like a kitchen accident (“seasoned fries topped with clam chowder and cheddar cheese”), but don’t be fooled. The flavor combination clicks, and I would order them again.
The same was true of the twinkie tiramisu ($9), another unique menu item. Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy its playful and delicious take on Italian tradition.
Those items tell you what to expect at Sea Level. It offers genuinely fun dining and a variety of options with an emphasis on fresh seafood. There are seafood towers (always a good way to impress visiting friends and relatives) and sandwiches, pizzas and tacos. There’s even a raw bar.
Mussels provencal ($13), one of three styles, featured a generous slew of fresh and briny crustaceans in a smartly herbed and very, uh, soppable sea.
A pound of large peel-and-eat shrimp ($20) can be ordered cold or hot. We opted for the latter, boiled in beer and dusted with Old Bay seasoning. What’s not to like?
The shrimp linguine ($22) included a choice of white or black pasta in an appealing lemon, white wine and butter sauce accented with garlic and chili flakes. The dish was chockablock with shrimp — not something you see a lot of these days.
The baked scallops ($21) arrived in a mini-casserole dish with lemon chive butter and puff pastry. The scallops were done just right — soft yet meaty and packed with flavor.
Harbor Light ($11), one of several house cocktails, is an ideal tall drink with Grey Goose vodka, St-Germain, crème de violette and prosecco among its ingredients.
Sea Level was fairly busy on the Sunday night we visited — a reason, no doubt, that most of our entrees arrived more warm than hot. But we’ll chalk that up to the restaurant still being on its shakedown cruise.
Newburyport is crammed with good and interesting dining options. This newcomer has elbowed its way onto that list.
Sea Level Oyster Bar
(978) 462-8862 or (978) 255-7449
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to closing seven days a week.