Nauset Beach Club
I consider myself to be an inquisitive person—or nosy as my daughter more bluntly puts it. Fact-finding missions are my forte, so my assignment to write a back story on the Nauset Beach Club (henceforth referred to as the NBC) was one I was eager to take on. I was intrigued that despite the moniker, which evoked a casual beachside eatery, a glance at their online menu assured me this was not another Cape Cod clam shack and was not even located seaside. My curiosity had been piqued by this restaurant’s website, which promised creative Northern Italian cuisine and an intriguing wine list.
The NBC is a rambling antique house located on Main Street in the picturesque hamlet of East Orleans. Pulling into the parking lot, my eye is immediately drawn to three large raised beds already showing some early spring growth. How can I not get excited about dining at a restaurant that has its own dedicated garden? More surprises await inside: no red-checkered tablecloths or candles stuck in Chianti bottles, but rather the coziness of a favorite bistro with warm terra cotta walls and lovely artwork painted by Cape artist Pharr Schulenberg. The linens, polished silver, Villeroy & Boch china, and quaint lamps complete the sophisticated cafe mood. We waited for our dining companions in the small bar area, which houses a wood brick oven, before being seated in the upper-level dining area at a window table. (A word of caution when making a reservation: the lower level may be more conducive for those with limited mobility as you will have to negotiate a few risers to sit at the upper level).
Waiter Pablo admits with good humor that this is only his second shift manning the floor, so we decide to trust our instincts while ordering. The unanimous first choice is the ostriche all arrosto, six roasted, panko-encrusted, Stoneycreek Nauset oysters set atop a julienned carrot-celery slaw. The warm slices of Iggy’s Francese bread are equally worthy of mention. The strong crust is a perfect companion to the rosemary-infused olive oil. This delicious start is enhanced by sips from our wine selections: a bottle of Falesco Merlot, rich and spicy, and a bottle of D. Dauly Sancerre 2012, very crisp and herbaceous. Some satisfied sighs are emitted as we realize that maybe we have struck restaurant gold.
We happily move onto the next course, where we each opted for salads. All were expertly dressed with house-made vinaigrettes, but the standout was the insalata di Caesar with its addictively delicious cubes of double-smoked bacon. Of course we also had to sample the risotto del giorno because what more epitomizes Italian comfort cuisine? We were not disappointed by the lovely creamy consistency and asparagus accents, and had to stop ourselves from scraping the plate. Nonna would be proud!
Our dinners set before us, conversation wanes as we all dug in. I savored the pappardella alla boscaiola, a sinfully rich wide noodle pasta with garlic-roasted mushrooms tossed in a pancetta sage cream sauce—total carb nirvana. My husband was equally enamored with the capesante scottate: jumbo seared sea scallops nestled in a fennel garlic purée and accented with a bed of sautéed spinach. Glancing across the table, I saw our dining companions were similarly satisfied.
Her seafood choice was a thick herb-and-panko crusted cod, perfectly baked, served with two giant homemade spinach ravioli over a wilted buttery escarole. His pan-roasted heritage pork chop, crispy on the outside, fork-tender within, earned high praise. He proclaimed it’s on par with, if not rivals, the one at his favorite North End eatery. This chop hails from a family farm in Maine and is served with vinegar peppers, fingerling potatoes and cipollini onions providing a nice yin-yang of flavors, sour balanced with sweet. At this point, we began harassing Pablo to send owner Art Duquette out to the table. We were informed early on that he had abandoned his usual front-of-the-house post to commandeer the kitchen, and he had yet to make an appearance.
After debating skipping dessert, we ordered the torta cioccolato alla mode for the table. This large, triangular, decadent chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of espresso sauce completely did us in. With perfect timing Art appeared tableside, immaculate in his whites, looking like an actor in the role of chef, and bearing a tray of limoncello to toast the conclusion of this spectacular meal. As quick as he appeared, the elusive Art vanished to lend a hand on the line with a promise to chat at a later date.
Two weeks later, channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I head back to Orleans. The previously-mentioned raised beds are now occupied by a riot of fresh herbs. Following voices, I wander into the kitchen, which Art refers to as the “engine room,” the driving force of the NBC. Small in size, it reminds me of The Little Engine That Could. To the left is the cooking area, with a dish station on the right and the walk-in, straight ahead, where I find Art unloading an order. No wasted space here, this back of the house is compact, and yet I imagine it must take a well-run machine to handle service for a capacity crowd of 60 on a busy night.
Art Duquette was born in Worcester, the son of a French Canadian father and an Italian mother. At 18, he moved to New York City to study musical theatre and spent close to twenty years in Manhattan doing bit roles and cameos on soaps like One Life To Live and All My Children. He supplemented his acting with stints in restaurants and bars. After missing out on three contractual roles, he gave up his theatrical aspirations and moved to London to focus on restaurant management. He worked for Simpsons of Cornhill for close to a decade, starting as a bartender and quickly moving up the ranks to manage the bar at a private club near Albert Hall frequented by celebrity clientele like Bianca and Mick Jagger. Under the tutelage of boss Anthony Worral Thompson, the British TV celebrity chef, Duquette learned the business. He eventually became operational manager of the company, overseeing around eighteen units, some of which were smaller, chain-style crepe houses while others were more prominent high-end establishments. This gave Duquette a solid education on the financial end of the industry.
Eventually he reached a crossroads where his quandary became whether to move to Italy and immerse himself in the culture and food or return to Massachusetts and attempt to buy his own place on Cape Cod. The dream of ownership won out, and one day he spotted the NBC and thought, “Now that’s a cute place.” As fate would have it, the NBC came on the market months later, and after some apprehension, Duquette took the plunge and bought himself a restaurant. Why the name Nauset Beach Club? Duquette is unsure, but he believes the Nauset Beach component is genius as it is a destination on signs from P-town to Boston. Though the word “club” may give the connotation that private membership is a requirement for entrance, Duquette proposes that it gives the restaurant a certain cache.
Started in 1986 by the Campbell family, it was initially a mom-and-pop operation. The original fare included some Italian dishes such as bisteca and linguini alla vongole. In 2000, the restaurant was sold to a banking investor who brought in a manager-chef team of ex-Abbicci staffers, and the path for the next two years was that of Northern Italian cuisine. Less than three years later, Duquette passed papers in the middle of the season one August afternoon and was working there that evening. He has retained the focus on Northern Italian cuisine but admits Southern Italy creeps in due to his mother’s influence.
Though recipes have altered with chefs over the twelve seasons Duquette has been at the helm, his overarching philosophy is one carried over from his thespian roots: KISS (keep it simple, stupid). He believes in letting a dish speak for itself by emphasizing the freshest of ingredients. He finds gardening to be therapeutic and utilizes almost 470 combined square feet of raised beds to grow all of his own herbs as well as lettuce, Swiss chard, chicory, escarole, radishes, kale, a variety of beans, and heirloom tomatoes. When possible, he likes to buy from local growers: Tim Friary (Cape Cod Organic Farm, Barnstable), Lucas Dinwiddie (Halcyon Farm, Brewster) and Dr. Ron Backer (Surrey Farms, Brewster). Trips to the farmers’ market take place on Saturday mornings. Clams and oysters are farmed in Orleans, and lobsters are as close as a half mile away with the Nauset fishermen.
What are some seasonal specialties? One favorite is Nauset lobster with cognac mushroom cream sauce and fresh pasta like spinach fettuccine. Duquette prefers to use hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and heritage pork from Pineland Farms in Maine. He also features a daily catch like halibut and striped bass when available. Fresh pasta from Maria’s of Boston is used to craft housemade raviolis stuffed with roasted carrot and fennel or the very popular ravioli con spinachi.
Menu items change seasonally three times a year, but signature dishes like linguini nero con vongole (showcasing local littlenecks), zuppa di pesce (fisherman’s stew), and capesante scottate (jumbo seared sea scallops) are some year-round staples. Magazines like Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Saveur and La Cucina supply him with inspiration. He follows food trends in areas such as Portland and San Francisco and often takes recipe ideas and puts a Northern Italian spin on them. He is not a fan of the fusion movement—“You will not find ginger or bok choy in this restaurant!”—and he believes in staying true to his roots. All stocks, sauces, dressings and desserts are made in house. A simple fish fume (stock) will be the basis of many of the delicate sauces or brodi featured.
Warm weather puts a spotlight on the grill and higher-end cuts of meat like lamb and veal chops. Shorter days call for more braising, and slower-cooked comfort foods, often with a more Southern feel. In the off-season, he feels he gives back to his loyal, local clientele by offering more bang for the buck to those who support him throughout the year. Year round, NBC offers a nightly prix fixe pre-theatre menu from 4-6 pm, a value-priced three-course offering. (The Academy of Performing Arts is right up the street.)
Not to be overlooked is the NBC’s extensive wine list that fluctuates between 140-150 bottles, half bottles, and bin ends. Wines from Italy are predominant though there is representation from many other countries. Indigenous wines introduced last year by the NBC spotlight some obscure grape varietals. Duquette hopes guests will deviate from the expected, and he has trained his wait staff to help with wine selection and pairings. He encourages sampling a number of wines from different regions.
To stay viable year round, Duquette is constantly reevaluating and promoting his restaurant with different menus to maintain an attractive price point. He senses the Cape is transforming back into a seasonal region, and as he holds a year-round liquor license, he is competing with a dozen other Orleans restaurants to attract the off-season population of approximately 6,700 compared to a summer one of over 22,000. Adding to the fact that his is a fine dining establishment makes it even more daunting to fill seats off-season. He keeps a small staff and takes on a lot more responsibilities himself.
Recently he has been shifting his role from front-of-the-house/manager to chef to provide consistency in the back of the house. Despite the struggles of staying viable during a tough winter, his passion is still palpable.
Duquette sees many comparisons between a nightly dinner service and performing on stage. Each evening the curtain rises, and it’s not film but live theatre; there are not multiple takes to get the meal right, just that one shot to give the guests what they are paying for. When you are living and eating the business, you take a bad review personally, so Duquette strives to give a clean performance on a daily basis.
Nauset Beach Club
222 Main Street, East Orleans
508-255-8547 / nausetbeachclub.com
In summer open every evening from 5-10 pm