Matt Kelly has the Midas touch. Everything he has touched as a chef and restaurateur — Vin Rouge, Mateo, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, Lucky’s Delicatessen — has turned to best-in-class gold.
It’s no surprise, then, that when the four-time James Beard semifinalist announced plans to open a seafood restaurant, it was big news. Or that, nearly five months after Kelly opened Saint James in the old Fishmonger’s building, lines continue to form out front.
No wonder. The place is a seafood lover’s paradise.
The oyster bar selection alone is enough to keep me coming back, with nine or 10 varieties on a typical night ranging from briny-sweet Jarrett Bays from North Carolina to minerally Beau Soleils from Canada, with an occasional cameo appearance from the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Prefer your shellfish cooked? Baked oysters, voluptuous with bone marrow and maître d’ butter beneath a delicate crust of parmesan and bread crumbs, won’t let you down. Nor will Southport clams “Jackpot,” which live up to their name with a presentation that includes chorizo butter, charred green onion and bottarga. Or oysters Ashworth (the name is a tribute to Kelly’s maternal grandfather; because the dish includes “pretty much everything he liked”), the chef’s elegant take on oysters Rockefeller.
Shellfish towers raise the ante (figuratively and literally) with jaw-dropping presentations of raw and steamed seafood. Minimum bid is $46 for the Jon Boat, which nets you a catch — ample for two as a starter — of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, crab claws (cracked for easy nibbling), and Kelly’s bright riff on coctel de camaron, served with fried saltines.
The Nautilus doubles down on that bid with a generous portion for three or four, and adding lobster and a fresh catch crudo to the pot for $95. And if the even more massive USS Nimitz (market price) sails by your table on its way to a different port of call, the sight of it will haunt you until you can round up a party of four or more and board the vessel yourself.
If the thought of a traditional appetizer-entree-dessert sequence strikes you as staid by comparison, rest assured that it’s an equally worthy path to a memorable meal. The selection evolves seasonally, with smaller daily changes — or as Kelly puts it: “We don’t give our seafood suppliers an order for what we need. We ask them what they’ve got that we can use.”
And make no mistake about it, Matt Kelly sets a high bar for what his kitchen can use.
Hamachi (Pacific yellowtail) may have replaced the speckled trout that you enjoyed a few weeks ago in a Japanese-inspired unagi-style appetizer presentation with avocado, crispy rice, cucumber and mayo. And precisely which fish are featured in the smoked fish dip will depend on the catch.
You can generally count on a few more or less permanent fixtures, though, among them BBQ North Carolina shrimp, and a decadent baked crab dip served with crab roe toast.
The same philosophy guides an entree offering that deftly walks a tightrope between honoring classics and exploring contemporary flavors.
When is the last time you saw lobster Newberg on a restaurant menu? You can relive the memory here with a respectful rendition that’s tweaked only slightly with a touch of paprika to reinforce the lobster shell color in its sherry cream sauce. Or roll up your sleeves and dig into an old-fashioned steam pot (OK, technically it’s a Le Creuset braising pan), redolent of Old Bay and brimming with half a lobster, shrimp, clams, oysters, andouille, potatoes and corn on the cob.
Nor will you be disappointed if you set your compass for points South and cast a net for N.C. shrimp and grits, awash in a tide pool of tomato fondue and riddled with smoked sausage, mushrooms and a drift of chopped scallions. Or let the wind blow you wherever the fresh catch takes you, be it Florida golden tilefish or Virginia striped bass with green tomato sauce vierge, or pan-roasted N.C. black bass with smoked mussels, butter beans and chorizo.
Regardless of which direction you take, you’re in for smooth sailing. Well, almost. The Calabash-style fried seafood platter I ordered recently was only a qualified success — catfish, shrimp and oysters all fresh and succulent, but the breading not as crisp as it should be. Given the kitchen’s record, that won’t stop me from giving Calabash another try next time clams are in the offing.
I can give an enthusiast thumbs up, on the other hand, to every dessert I tried, from ethereal pecan custard to playful baba au rum “donut” to exemplary key lime pie on a crushed saltine crust (shades of North Carolina’s own Atlantic Beach pie).
Kelly wisely kept the vintage black and white checkerboard tile floor he inherited from Fishmonger’s, but otherwise gave the place a complete overhaul. The result is a large, airy space with polished brass portholes, fishnet-etched globe chandeliers suspended from high ceilings, and canary yellow stools at a long marble bar , where tiki cocktails are a specialty and the wine list is exceptionally well-suited to a seafood menu. It makes for a suitably upscale contemporary setting with a nautical accent. High on the back wall, changeable letter board menus hanging against a backdrop of glazed white tiles suggest shades of a fish market vibe.
(Word to the wise: Those high ceilings make for a noisy setting. The smaller Captain’s Quarters dining room upstairs, if it isn’t in use for a private function, is a marginally quieter alternative.)
Service is welcoming and as well-trained as you’d expect in a Matt Kelly restaurant, though attentiveness can suffer a bit when the place gets very busy.
Which, in my experience, is pretty much all the time. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on weekends. Of course, you could always just plan on getting there early and taking your chances. Just know that by early, I mean 15 minutes before Saint James opens its doors at 5 p.m. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.
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806 W. Main St., Durham
Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: upscale contemporary with a nautical motif and shades of fish market
Noise level: high
Recommended: everything, wholeheartedly (except Calabash seafood, recommended with reservations)
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; validated parking in Brightleaf Square lot across the street; parking also available after 5 p.m. in lot adjacent to the restaurant.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.