Another summer, another vacation in the books. This year, we headed back to the East coast for a tour of Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. When we head out there, it’s relaxing, and we get to sit on the patio, pick from the garden, and when we’re on the Vineyard, head to the beach for some sunbasking and baypaddling.

This year on the Vineyard, we were in the same place, up island, away from the tourist crowds. We were travelling with the lady’s parents, were meeting more family at the house, and this year, in addition to the pup they had in tow, we met a family friend at the ferry terminal for the boat ride over. One of the things the boat had going for it, in addition to a great viewing deck up top, was the addition of clam chowder on board. Back in the Midwest, far away from the ocean and any kind of seafood that rivals the freshness of either coast, a good seafood chowder is hard to come by. This one hit the spot, and with the meerschaum spitting over the observation deck and a tallship on the horizon, I got the feeling that it would be a good week.

On the other side of the water, we drove off the ferry through the town of Oak Bluffs, down through the middle of the island, past farms, shops, ponds and town halls, until we hit the far edge of the island. Without the tourist traffic, and with a breeze swirling around the lighthouse tipped point, it was about ten degrees cooler than where we got off the ferry. The car crawled up the dirt driveway to our house, and as we offloaded our gear, we were greeted by a second car with an uncle and aunt.

We spent our time that evening sitting on the deck, watching the sailboats cruise by the beach. We ate some Long Island pizza, trucked up by the doting uncle, and relaxed with a nice walk along the beach as the low slung sun beamed onto the red clay cliffs abutting the shoreline.

Even though it was technically vacation, I’d wake up early with the coffee, and make something for breakfast. The first morning, I decided to use some fresh eggs we had purchased at the general store back in Connecticut the previous day. They had just come in from Ashley’s happy hens down the road, and along with some cheese, fresh tomatoes, and scapes, they turned into a beautiful frittata. Paired with some quick biscuits, fresh fruit and blueberry corn muffins, it was most definitely a good way to start the day.

We spent our first full day on the North Shore of the island, just a few minutes away by car. Tucked away just up the road from where they filmed Jaws, is a secluded beach with a tiny house big enough for two, and under the floorboards of the deck lay three kayaks in waiting. While a few of our party sunned themselves on the beach and patio, an intrepid three, including me, took the kayaks out to the massive sandbar just offshore, where we parked and scavenged for sand dollars.

That night, we motored over to Oak Bluffs, where we enjoyed a dinner at the Red Cat Kitchen, where several of the evening’s menu items are described as “chef’s imaginations of…” It was a new concept in Island dining, but one I’ve seen before, where a talented chef gives you the base of what they’re offering, and utilizes what they have in the kitchen to create a unique plate for a one-off run. This has both its positives and negatives, but especially when tables are filled to capacity every night, it makes perfect sense.

We had a table of seven with two vegetarians. For our non meat eating diners, there was an option on the menu that was described as “Ben’s Vegetarian Showdown”. When I looked up their menu on Facebook, which changes weekly, sometimes close to daily, I mentioned that we’d be bringing in a couple of vegetarian diners. “What can you throw down for a showdown for two hungry vegetarians?” I asked.

The response? “Plenty!”

Fair enough. We sat in a living room with a bar on the ground floor of a two story house in the middle of town, looking out at the bustle through a window filled with glass apothecary bottles. Around the table, we ordered starters of fried local oysters with  banana peppers, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and celery hearts,  Yukon potato gnocchi with Sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino romano, a tuna tartare, and the signature dish, an Island Fresca-Fresh tomatoes, sweet kernel corn and basil in a corncob broth with shaved parmigiano reggiano and dotted with basil oil.

As the plates made their way around the table, everyone taking a bite, it became clear that there was a comfortable medium between a high class restaurant in, say, Chicago or New York, and a place such as this where the chef has unlimited creative license as well as a built in time cushion where diners, most of them on vacation, are just there to relax. I looked around the table. Everyone was smiling. Over at the bar, the bartender was tapping an unruly glass and shaker against the bar to get it unstuck, but maintained friendly eye contact and a jovial banter with the patrons while not missing a beat. The waiter was hasty, a bit surly, but also good natured on this busy night, and everyone was having a good time. The food, while not earth-shatteringly inventive, was the creation of one kitchen, and it was simple and satisfying.

The entrees came out next. There was a buttermilk fried chicken with Braised Carrots and a Vanilla Jus (weird, but it worked)with wilted spinach, Sea Scallops with sweet corn risotto, a bluefish poached in more of the sweet corn broth, and a giant plate of breaded pork chops for me.

The kicker, though, was the Vegetarian showdown. Normally, I don’t care for vegetarian options at restaurants, but this seemed like a logical solution to everything. Each person who ordered it received a small side salad, a dish of sweet corn risotto, some tempura green beans, and a few other roasted vegetables. Four or five tiny plates came out, all offering a variety of differently prepared vegetarian offerings, leaving everyone full, happy, and satisfied that what they received wasn’t a tired old piece of quiche that was kept in the freezer for the lone person who didn’t eat meat.

For dessert, even after our gigantic portions, we figured we could split a few between our table. The offerings, while standard, were done well. We had a molten chocolate mug cake and a bananas foster dish, but the hit was a panna cotta with basil oil and a fresh huckleberry compote on top. It’s the little surprises that make these dinners such pleasant experiences. I’d love to go back.

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