Lobster bakes are pretty much a foreign concept on the West Coast. Despite hailing from the Dungeness crab capital of the world and being incredibly familiar with seafood, Vanessa Donovan had never experienced what New Englanders know as a lobster roll, clam roll, or New England chowder.
All this was menu inspiration when the Donovans decided to open Ocean Bleu @ Gino’s Fish Market Cafe in Vanessa’s hometown. In this picturesque, year-round fishing hub, harbor seals beg for scraps outside one of the local canneries. Ocean Bleu is in the middle of Newport’s action, but the shack is more inviting than anything else in town. Set along a strip of overpriced seafood restaurants that feature mostly baked and breaded fish, the Donovans’ shack, which opened a year ago, stands out.
New England clam shack cooking, which Vanessa specializes in, is so rare in these parts that she can’t even get suppliers to send her the split top rolls that are a given in New England shacks. So her mother-in-law ships 40 bags of them from Massachusetts every month. While Mike Donovan fishes, Vanessa runs the restaurant.
Shrimp rolls are sweet and succulent. Mike’s grandmother’s special sauce (a combination of mayo, ketchup, dill, lemon juice, onion, and lemon rind) is sparingly tossed with tiny shrimp. And the rolls are toasted to perfection and stuffed high. Each order comes with two rolls since Vanessa thinks the split roll fits less and could give the impression that she’s trying to skimp.
But nothing feels skimpy and, with two fishermen now in the family, the co-owner knows where most of the fish comes from. A grilled halibut sandwich is a star on the menu and is so soft and rich, it might as well have been soaked in butter. All the halibut comes from Vanessa’s father’s boat in Alaska and she says most of the fish is only a few days out of the water when served.