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Dining Out Duckworth’s Bistrot

FRENCH CATCH
By Alison Arnett | Globe Staff
Golden light pours from a bow window along a snow-banked street in Gloucester. It’s inviting, especially since those inside can be seen talking and laughing, forks in hand. We push open the door, retreating from the cold night air to be warmly greeted by the hostess. This is a spot that has changed restaurant personalities as often as women’s fashions change hemlines, and as I look around at the little restaurant – 36 seats and a few at a tiny bar – I wonder whether the current incarnation will be the one that sticks. 

Several of the previous eateries here were Italian, often a safe bet. But Duckworth’s Bistrot is unabashedly French. Chef and co-owner Ken Duckworth was a chef at Boston’s Maison Robert for several years before the famed restaurant closed last February. Duckworth opened his first independent venture with his wife, Nicole, in October: just when the summer people have fled, and the city seems to withdraw into its identity as the oldest fishing port in America, according to the city’s website. The doldrums of fall and winter can be tough on a new restaurant, but in a phone interview Duckworth says the response has been good. “We originally planned to be closed all of January.” he says, but because business remained steady through the holidays, they decided to take a shorter break.

Duckworth’s dishes can be earthy, like the giant braised lamb shank that matches fork-tender meat to tiny green lentils in a winey sauce.

The locals are on to something good. There’s nothing fussy about Duckworth’s cuisine, and the long menu and half portions offered for each entrée mean diners can drop in often to share or taste dishes without getting bored. The wine list, too, is varied in price and selections, with a particularly good choice of wines by the glass, in 3 and 6-ounce pours. But the chef’s classical experience – before Maison Robert, Duckworth was a chef at the Cloister Sea Island, GA., - shows in the complexity of the sauces, the clean lines and beauty of the presentation, and the vibrant flavors. 

We start one evening with a mushroom soup: A pale taupe pool studded with islands of exotic mushrooms – hedgehogs, black trumpets, and shiitakes. The soup tastes intensely of mushrooms, its liquid distilled of many fungi and blended with a little cream, the three varieties adding both flavor and texture. Cauliflower soup has some of the same virtues; this time the creamy mixture is augmented by poached mussels and crunchy basil-scented croutons. 

The menu reflects Duckworth’s location with an abundance of seafood. In an appealing combination, a round of delicate sweet potato custard is offset by thinly shaved prosciutto and a large curl of lobster tail, topped with fluff of arugula. The colors, the contrasts of sweet against salty and bitter, even the varied shapes make this appetizer a small masterpiece. There’s nothing restrained about seafood in a lobster sauce under a puff-pastry dome: It’s rich and luscious, a good reason that French techniques and classic flavors will always delight us. 

Other dishes also reflect Duckworth’s penchant for all foods French. On an earlier menu, a bistro salad gave a little lesson on how the dish should be composed: curly endive, cubes of smoky bacon, a mustardy vinaigrette; and, on top, a beautifully poached egg that quivered when pierced with a fork and knife. Also on that early winter menu, confited rabbit leg under a puff of pastry came with rosy slices of loin and a rich sauce.

Duckworth’s dishes can be earthy, like the giant braised lamb shank that matches fork-tender meat to tiny green lentils in a winey sauce. A poussin, or small chicken , is all crackly skin and tender flesh, with Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes that are just creamy enough to catch the pan drippings from the chicken but still taste like the vegetable. And a few dishes have a simplicity about them that is also rewarding, such as veal cutlets sautéed in butter and sprinkled with capers and a lemony sauce.

Only a few notes rang discordant. Grilled pork loin is a little tough, and its accompanying white-bean and Swiss-chard gratin was odd. Shaped like a flat tart, with gratin at first liked intriguing: But the beans are slightly underdone, and two ingredients together tasted muddy. Why not just a white bean stew with the pork?

Although a cranberry-walnut tart from a December menu boasted a nice flaky crust and a good balance of tart and sweet, the crust on a blood orange tart was stiff. And a chocolate mouse cake layered with white and dark chocolate proved to be stodgy, the layers too heavy and sticky. A puff of baked apple over a pound cake studded with apple chunks was much better, substantive enough to share on a winter’s night but not too sweet or hefty to enjoy. 

Then there’s the sticking point that can make or break an evening. On a first visit, the service is seamless and friendly, not formal but attentive. However, on a second visit on a weekend night when the place is busier, we each order a glass of wine to start and watch the glasses sit on the nearby bar for 20 minutes or so until the waiter comes back to deliver them. All evening the pace is distractingly slow, making us thankful the conversations is lively. By the time we’ve gotten coffee, though, all of us are checking our watches. A leisurely meal can be stretched only so far. 

Service details can be smoothed over in time, however, Duckworth’s virtues should give this little bistro plenty of reasons to flourish year-round.