If some enterprising soul were ever to compile a list of unlikely restaurant success stories, Nantucket Grill would surely be near the top.
New England transplants Jeannie and Jerry Sullivan opened the original restaurant, a little lunch spot called Nantucket Café, in 1997. The location, in the back corner of a nondescript strip mall in Chapel Hill, was hardly prime. And the notion of selling New England-style seafood in the heart of Calabash country was, to say the least, bold. It's a safe bet that few locals had even heard of the lobster roll that was one of the restaurant's signature offerings.
Everyone was familiar with New England clam chowder, though, and it wasn't long before Jeannie Sullivan's version - which the Boston Globe had named best in Boston for three consecutive years - won a strong local following.
Word got around about her quiches and home-style "mile high" cakes, too, specialties that - along with house-made deli salads and sandwiches with names like The Cranberry Bog (roasted turkey with warm stuffing and cranberry sauce) - set Nantucket Café apart from the sandwich shop crowd. The lobster roll, featuring 5 ounces of fresh Maine lobster and diced celery tossed in mayonnaise and served on a buttered and toasted oversize hot dog bun, won favor from displaced New Englanders and Southerners alike.
Four to try
The formula proved so successful that the Sullivans have since opened three more locations across the Triangle, each with a more ambitious menu and more upscale setting than the last. The newest of these, which opened in February in Falls River Shopping Center, offers full table service in a spacious dining room framed in cherry paneling.
The attitude is decidedly family-friendly, though, backed up by a kids menu and reasonable prices (including a commendable selection of half-portion entree offerings for $10). Sandwiches on the dinner menu and a colorful display of cakes and cheesecakes in the entryway serve notice that, for all its changes, Nantucket Grill has, by and large, remained true to its roots.
If your willpower is strong enough to resist the siren calls of coconut cake and Heath Bar cheesecake until after the meal, it will surely succumb to the temptation of the complimentary dinner rolls that your waiter brings to your table. That is, if he remembers to bring them. Service is friendly but given to lapses. On one occasion, our rolls didn't arrive until midway through entrees; on another, we had to ask for them.
Remind your server if you have to. Warm, yeasty and slightly sweet under a glistening brown surface, these little pillows of bread are downright addictive. One waiter described them as "like Krispy Kremes but not as sweet" and, sure enough, turns out they're deep-fried like doughnuts. They go great with the restaurant's justifiably famous clam chowder or rich, velvety lobster bisque, assuming you haven't devoured them before the soup arrives.
A few misses
If you're looking for a more substantial starter, the crab dip ought to do nicely. It's generously loaded with crabmeat and served in ample portion for two with warm pita wedges. I'd pass on the chewy calamari, but the traditional New England-style crab cake should satisfy, especially if you haven't been spoiled by the all-jumbo-lump versions that are fashionable nowadays.
The entree selection covers a lot of ground, from teriyaki chicken to Cajun grilled pork chops to the herb-roasted prime rib that's offered on weekends. Not surprisingly, though, given Nantucket Grill's reputation, most people set sail for the open sea. That's a good direction to take, as long as you know how to navigate the waters. Too often, just beneath the surface lie the treacherous shoals of overwrought presentations.
Blackened mahi mahi, drizzled with lemon butter and served over cheese risotto interlaced with sauteed spinach, sails perilously close but avoids mishap. But a baked trout special is sunk by a culinary perfect storm of lemon butter sauce, polenta cake, sautéed spinach, tomato, whole garlic cloves, sweet walnuts and more lemon butter sauce. Grilled Atlantic salmon could do without - what am I saying, it would be much better without - the cloying, gelatinous "spicy honey tomato vinaigrette" sloshing over its deck.
Thankfully, the kitchen is accommodating and is happy to simply grill most fresh fish selections. Take the helm firmly in hand, and order accordingly.
Or you could go the fried seafood route. Shrimp, scallops and lightly breaded nuggets of cod all offer smooth sailing. As do whole belly clams - not ordinary clam strips, mind you, but whole Ipswich clams, succulent bivalves with a flavor as rich as oysters. Now, that's the taste of New England.