“My goal and my hope for the clambakes here is that this is the best clambake location in New England,” Castle Hill Inn’s Executive Chef Karsten Hart told me as we stood by a long, shallow pit of expertly lined stones—a pit that was getting hotter by the minute from the wood fire in it that was slowly turning to hot embers. Some boats passed by just yards away from us and the Newport Bridge was prominent in the background. The hot August day was slowly cooling down and there were very few clouds in the sky as the sun set across the way from us. If this wasn’t the most beautiful clambake location in New England, “the best” as Chef Hart hoped, then I’d very much like to see what tops it.
Last spring I was at an event at Castle Hill Inn and ran into Hart. We stopped to talk and he was like a giddy boy with a new toy. You have to come see our new clambake pit, he said, and if I hesitated I bet he would have dragged me down the lawn to see it. But of course I was as excited to see it as Hart was to show it off, and as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to photograph it in action. Last week my wife and I were invited guests of Castle Hill to watch the clambake process and eat an amazing meal under the stars on the Chalet lawn.
The clambake process is relatively straightforward: dig a hole, line it with rocks, light a fire on the rocks and wait until it burns down to embers heating the rocks, place your food in a basket in the hole, cover the hole and wait until it’s ready to eat. It’s an almost ancient cooking procedure, shown to Europeans by Native Americans, and many food anthropologists think it may have been the actual meal at the first Thanksgiving. Naturally it’s been refined over the years, but the process is basically the same.
Hart explained how the clambake pit came to be at Castle Hill, “The inspiration started from a Relais & Chateaux conference that we hosted two years ago. It was my second week at Castle Hill. I just moved from California. I wasn’t sure what to think about the clambake. We did a traditional one right on the beach for about thirty people. We buried the lobster, seaweed, similar to how we’re doing right here. I admit I was pretty suspicious. I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out. I’d never seen it before in my life.
“But I was just so amazed at how incredible the flavor was from the smoke and seaweed flavor that it gave the lobster. It kept the juices in there. I thought it was going to overcook, but it didn’t. It just sealed it. It’s almost like a pressure cooker in there and it just seals everything in. I was so impressed with it and as an outsider coming into to New England I could not understand why Castle Hill did not have a clambake pit. So for the past two years we’ve been searching for the most beautiful spot on the property that we don’t utilize and this is it right here. So we found the location, and in my opinion it’s picture-perfect. It’s a beautiful location and an incredible product.”
The lobster is an incredible product, as Hart said, because, as expected at Castle Hill, Hart brings his exacting precision and dedication to cooking to the clambakes. Banquet Chef Joe McCarthy, who was assisting with the clambake, said they kept logs indicating cooking times, fire temperature, wind direction and other external factors to see what contributed to the best cooked lobster.
Hart explained the process, “The first few times that we did this, we timed it. It was a goal of mine to have a perfectly cooked lobster. I didn’t want to overcook. I did my research and the more I researched the more I realized most people are cooking the lobsters for up to two hours, which is too long. The first few times we did this it was a little nerve wracking because I wasn’t certain if they were going to be cooked perfect. We dropped the time to an hour and they came out delicious, just to die for. They were perfectly cooked. I remember saying to the guys, ‘We just set a standard.’
“We did about four of these before we even decided to open it to the public. We have the timing down [according] to how many lobsters and the staff is just doing an excellent job with it now. We’ve mostly been selling these clambakes to corporate groups—we can do up to about eighty lobsters. It’s nice to show them what specialties and gems we have here in New England. We had three dates this year so that the public can enjoys this and will probably have four or five [dates] next year.”
Hart’s not boasting when he said “perfectly cooked.” The lobster was a standout, all of the meat was almost sweet and I hardly used any melted butter. But of course, that’s not all we were served. The evening began with passed hors d’oeuvres on the lawn. When he became Executive Chef Hart began a charcuterie program at Castle Hill and his fried rabbit rillettes with mustard is a standout. I also had some rice croquettes which were perfectly fried. There was a third passed item, a stuffie, which all managed to disappear as I was making photos. My wife had two and told me they were some of the better stuffies she’s had.
After the unveiling of the clambake, we were seated at gorgeously designed tables on the lawn and dinner began with Clam Chowder with a black pepper biscuit. It seems kind of crazy to say, but if all I had all evening was that clam chowder I would’ve been happy. Several of the other guests indicated the same. But of course, we weren’t going to refuse the main course. In addition to the perfectly cooked lobster we were each served a bowl of steamed Littlenecks with smoked seaweed-vihno verde broth, another item I would’ve been happy to make a meal of.
The potatoes and corn that were cooked in the clambake pit were served family style, as was the house made chouriço with peppers. Hart’s chouriço is very well made, with a nice little spicy kick at the end. There was a big bowl of shaved Red Cabbage Slaw with apple cider vinaigrette which was excellent and, as odd as it may be, I want to give special mention to the abundant slices of toasted baguette. There was a lot of delicious sopping up to do so the bread was more than welcome by all the diners.
If I had to improve upon one thing, I would have liked to have had a broader selection of wine at the outdoor bar. For white wine we were only offered Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay or Fumé Blanc by the glass. I would have loved something that could have better complimented the amazing food. Perhaps a crisp German or Oregon Riesling, maybe with a hint of sweetness that would have gone great with that chouriço. Or a high acid Vermentino could have worked well with the richness of the lobster and clams. Maybe offering too many wines by the glass at a temporary outdoor bar is a slight logistics problem, but my feeling as I tasted the wine was that such a well-made meal deserved a more complimentary pairing.
Dessert was a house made Apple Crisp along with a Watermelon Aqua Fresca. Both were a great, light way to close the dinner. By the end of the meal, night had completely fallen and we lingered with friends we had made at the table until we were almost the last ones there. The Chalet area was well lit, but you could still make out the stars and the Newport Bridge was lit up in the distance. It was one of those perfect Rhode Island nights, made all the more special by the feeling that Hart had met his goal of best clambake location. Please take a look at the picture-perfect-process in the photos below.
The next and final clambake for 2012 is being held on Thursday, September 20th at 6:30 p.m. The cost is $95 per person plus tax and gratuity. For more information or to make reservations, please call 401-849-3800 or visit www.castlehillinn.com.