18 Central Oyster Bar and Grill in Rockport is the kind of beautiful neighborhood restaurant you want to visit every Sunday evening, to reassure you that there is still actual civility in the world. It’s a shining, warm space with dark wooden interiors, a gleaming bar, and an open kitchen with a grill that spits fire like a medieval dragon. It’s a great big room with little nooks and corners for conversation.
Malcolm: I had spent only a handful of nights at Shepard’s Pie, the previous tenant at 18 Central Street, but I don’t remember ever feeling this simultaneous sensation of showbusiness and coziness; the open kitchen of the redesigned space provides the perfect working stage for Chef/Owner Patrick Duffy, the banging of knives chopping, the giant iron cooking grate creaking as it is hoisted up and down over an open flame by an enormous cogwheel, the impeccably-dressed sous chefs clustering, observing, and springing into action as needed. Inside 18 Central, there is both the sense of theater you get from a kitchen like this, while the rest of the room also offers quiet spaces for couples looking for calm.
When we walked in at 7:30 on a Monday night, there were happy couples sharing wine and oysters, a round table of ladies laughing in each other’s arms, a toddler running back and forth through the dining room, and affluent older people in quiet, good coats who looked like they walked out of a Nancy Meyers movie. The high-ceilinged room was fragrant with garlic. It was so damn inviting, I could have died right there from loveliness.
Malcolm: I feel like I should do some quick research to see whether anyone has ever died from loveliness.
We took a table deep in back, next to a window that looked down over Rockport Harbor (probably). I already knew what I was ordering: A gin martini, called “The Local” on the cocktail list, served with adorable pickled orange tomatoes, was brilliant. The raw bar menu was a little card with a little pencil like you get at mini golf, or at Ikea. There were oysters from Maine, and from away. We decided on 4 Pemaquids to start. They were served in a deep dish metal cake pan with crushed ice and an apple mignonette that was sweet and acidic.
Malcolm: This has been my favorite presentation for oysters that I’ve seen in a long, time. Every detail was perfect: The battered metal pan, the perfectly crushed ice, the silver spoon for the mignonette. It was perfect, and exactly what you would expect from an upscale raw bar.
The oysters were just as I like them, not too big, sloppy or briny, kind of creamy. They looked and tasted like drops of the moon, fresh from a dip in the ocean.
There really wasn’t any question about whether I was having a steak. The hangar was served with a lightly dressed watercress salad, and herbed fries. The char on the medium-rare meat was almost holy, the center pink and satisfying to chew.
Malcolm: Though I loved my dish as well, a beautiful plate of seared scallop and pork belly with warm duck fat slaw, a crispy rutabaga cake, with cider-mustard agrodolce, I have to admit to being secretly envious of Jillian’s perfectly-charred slab of beef, served shellacked in a red wine reduction. It’s everything I want steak to be, from a cut I don’t usually order: Charred on the outside, violently red on the inside, with a side of crispy fries that convert even staunchest “Side of Salad” eater.
(Also, I’m totally stealing that “warm slaw” idea.)
It was so simple, really, yet perfectly executed. There were no tricks or theatrics. There was nothing just for show or ego. It was beautiful food cooked in a way that I could never do at home.
Malcolm: I’m interrupting again here because Jillian nails this point. So much of dining out is, for us, a desire to submit to someone else’s ideas and technique, and 18 Central is a perfect place to do just that.
I don’t have the talent or machinery to achieve a steak like that. I don’t know what sort of art was involved and I don’t care. For me, dining out must have magic. And this did. The whole experience was warm and buzzing, like a bar in your college town that no longer exists and maybe never did.
Last night, I talked to my husband. And not about how much gas there was in the Jeep or who was working when, or whether we should pay the preschool bill now or later (sorry, preschool). We talked about our lives and ideas, thoughts and feelings we have about things happening to us and the world around us. (Sigh.) We may have mentioned the kids once or twice, but mostly we didn’t. We had a conversation the way we used to when we went to dinner once a week, and as it turns out, I still like him a lot.
Going out to dinner gives you space away from home and work and the other places you have to go. The best dinners exist outside of time. Walking into the November night, under the yellow moon and silver stars, the air smelled better than it has in a long time. I felt a bit tingly from the drinks, and that enveloping thing of being outside at night. I looked back at the glowing building in a block so pretty it almost kills you and thought, “how lucky am I?”
We will be going back to 18 Central. Soon, I hope. It’s the perfect place to take a seat at the bar, order a cocktail and an appetizer (next time, the mussels, pate, and fingerling salad!) and feel warmed by the good things in this life. They cannot be taken for granted.
18 Central is located at 18 Central Street in Rockport, Maine. (207) 466-9055. 18central.com