Blog

Saltwater Grill Serves Seafood by the Water

Way up a wide, sea-blue staircase, diners at the Saltwater Grill get something extra with their shrimp pasta, fire-grilled rib-eye steaks, and crab-encrusted grouper. On the balcony, they take in broad views of the White Oak River and the Intracoastal Waterway, both of which cradle the village of Swansboro on the eastern edge of Onslow County.

Sandbars and islets dot the water, and shrimp boats rest in their moorings on the far side of the river. The Atlantic Ocean is only five minutes away by boat, and Hammocks Beach State Park stretches just across Hawkins Bay. At one end of the restaurant, dinner is served with a view of the sun setting over the water: The seascape turns a fiery orange, and shadows stretch long across Swansboro’s quaint downtown.

In warm weather, boaters can navigate into the public slips at the base of the restaurant and take a table right on the dock. Wearing swimsuits, shades, and sunscreen, they lunch on shrimp burgers, lobster cake sandwiches, bacon-wrapped scallops, and mahi-mahi tacos.

The water is as central to the restaurant’s origins as it is to its views. One warm afternoon in 2011, Kim Pierce and Mike Egan hopped on Jet Skis in Jacksonville and zigged down the New River, then zagged up the Intracoastal Waterway to Swansboro, where they stopped for lunch at a steak-and-seafood restaurant overlooking the waterfront historic district.

Though Pierce and Egan were only in their early 30s at the time, they already had years of experience in the mining industry — they’d hustled in food-service jobs as students at East Carolina University, and one or the other had tended bar, coordinated special events, or run the business side of restaurants ever since. The couple eventually moved to Charlotte, where Pierce worked as the catering director at a country club, and Egan managed accounts for a software company that worked with restaurants.

Mike Egan and Kim PiercePHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLES HARRIS

During their dockside lunch, they gazed up at the restaurant and out over the vast, quiet water. Both felt the allure of the same dream. “I wish we could own a restaurant like this,” Pierce said.

“If I were going to take a risk, a leap, I’d rather do it now,” Egan replied.

And that was the end of it — until a few months later when their friend Tim Anderson approached them. “It’s not on the market,” he told them, “but if it were, would you be interested?”

Indeed they were, and in April 2012, they partnered with Anderson and took over as owners of that very restaurant, which they renamed the Saltwater Grill. Together, they’ve established a casual restaurant built around friendship, familiarity, and the fraternal feel of a tight-knit community.

And water. Lots of saltwater.

 

• • •
 

In fact, when the weather cooperates, Chef Martin Berndt has been known to skipper his boat to work — a seven-minute trip by skiff that beats the 20-minute commute by car. He admits that returning home in the dark after a long shift in the kitchen can get tricky on the waterway, but he’s found that learning the feel of the tides is just a part of life in Swansboro.

“Coming here was the sun, the moon, the stars — a very acceptable, welcoming challenge,” says Berndt, who grew up in Germany as the son of a three-star Marine general and studied culinary arts in France. He cooked in restaurants, country clubs, and hotels in Germany, Pennsylvania, and Greenville before joining the Saltwater Grill — lured, in part, because his wife is Pierce’s best friend.

His menu draws upon the area’s abundant seafood. Flounder, shrimp, oysters, yellowfin tuna, and grouper all occupy regular spots, while conch and squid show up from time to time. Berndt confers regularly with local seafood brokers, who call with reports of the latest catch. He also offers some surprises, including Asian-inspired shrimp stir-fry linguini, Creole-marinated alligator-and-jalapeño bites, and, in honor of his European childhood, Bavarian soft pretzels.

Yellowfin tuna with wasabi butter.PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLES HARRIS

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me,” Berndt says. “From the people to the climate, everything suits me. I’ve basically been around the world, and this is the [place] I’d pick.”

 

• • •
 

The Saltwater Grill has deep roots in North Carolina. Pierce was born and raised in Wilson, while Egan, like Berndt, came from a Marine family and spent much of his youth in nearby Jacksonville.

Their restaurant draws on the everybody-knows-everybody air of small-town Swansboro, even though many of their customers are out-of-towners.

“We meet some very, very, very interesting people,” Egan says. “We live where everybody else vacations. When those people come in the door, we want them to feel welcome.”

Mallory Parker, who has tended bar and served tables at the restaurant since it opened, drives the 35 minutes daily from Jacksonville to Swansboro. “That was one of the wonderful things — how beautiful it is and how happy people were to be here,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody, and I know them, too.”

She felt a quick, lasting connection when she met Pierce and Egan. “I realized these people were special,” she continues. “They’ve been at the bottom, and they’ve worked their way up. They know what it’s like to be in our shoes, so they treat us with understanding.”

Pierce and Egan, who live with their dogs in a loft above the restaurant, have become part of Swansboro’s civic structure. They work with other restaurant owners in the historic district. If one of the businesses runs low on ice or sugar, they share. Egan joined the Rotary Club; Pierce serves on the board of the Swansboro Area Development Foundation.

“The older we get, the more appreciation we have for what a wonderful community this is,” Egan says. “It’s awesome when your friends want to come and hang out where you work.”

Plus, when things don’t flow smoothly, all that water provides ready respite. “If you have a stressful day,” Pierce says, “you just hop in your boat and go far enough away that you can see if the restaurant is on fire, and then you come back. A little salt water cures everybody.”

Market Place Kitchen & Bar

Market Place Kitchen & Bar

A new restaurant opens up in Woodbury and brings a great vibe to the area. With a bustling bar scene and an impressive array of dishes on its menu, be prepared to wait for a table.

Driving on Route 6 by the intersection of Route 64, we have all noticed the beautiful barn-like structure that has been vacant for some time, but now we have a reason to turn into the parking lot. Touted as a “modern American restaurant”, Market Place Kitchen & Bar is just that. Specializing in American farm-to-table cuisine, they regularly update their food and drink menus to reflect what is currently fresh from their farmers. Executive Chef Steve Scarzella uses local and organic ingredients, and restauranteurs Eli Hawi, Ayman Hawi, and Marc Anderson pride themselves on following a progressive approach towards healthy and sustainable foods.

THE MAIN DINING AREA AT MARKET PLACE.
THE MAIN DINING AREA AT MARKET PLACE.

The interior of the space is made of sustainable and local materials, utilizing beautiful 300-year-old barn wood. The large dining area is open to the kitchen and has a friendly, casual feel.

FOR STARTERS, SMOKED BACON MUSSELS AND CRISPY CALAMARI
FOR STARTERS, SMOKED BACON MUSSELS AND CRISPY CALAMARI

Your meal begins with a delicious and warm crusty bread served with artichoke and roasted garlic butter. The plentiful menu offers up everything from sushi rolls to duck confit, from oysters to shrimp and grits, and that’s just the appetizers. “Market Place Boards” include a charcuterie board and a cheeseboard. For starters, they have delicious salads and soups and don’t forget to try their flatbreads. For main dishes, choose from house-made pasta to Chicken Marsala, a Fish Fry, and burgers and sandwiches, including a Braised Short Rib Grilled Cheese to die for. Truffle Fries with Aged Parmesan, Fine Herbs, and Truffle Aioli and Chickpea “Fries” with Sriracha Aioli are just two sumptuous offerings on their creative sides menu.

 

THIS RICH DESSERT CAN EASILY BE SHARED BY TWO OR THREE.
THIS RICH DESSERT CAN EASILY BE SHARED BY TWO OR THREE.

For dessert, try the flourless chocolate cake served with salted caramel gelato and a cranberry compote. So good! The cozy bar area at the front is large, yet fills up rather quickly. Their Cosmopolitans were fresh and tasty. All in all, Market Place is a welcome addition to the neighborhood and is a great place to meet up with friends.

A Seafood Spot Is Reopened, but Not Remade

 A Seafood Spot Is Reopened, but Not Remade

 

The Litchfield Saltwater Grille has three dining areas.

Credit…Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

 

When a popular restaurant is sold, it is natural to wonder what changes, if any, to expect. Will the new owners close the place indefinitely for extensive remodeling? How much of the previous menu will be retained? What kind of turnover will there be in the staff?

Fortunately, in the case of the Litchfield Saltwater Grille, which closed for all of two days when it changed hands last December, those types of questions seem to have been answered satisfactorily enough. There is still a raw bar, with ocean-fresh oysters and clams served on the half shell; steamed lobsters continue to be a mainstay; and the interior, with oak wainscoting offset by pastel walls, looks much as it always has. And that’s just the way the new owners, Andy Stowers and his wife, Brook Noel, want it.

 

Credit…Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

 

“We have to be careful because Litchfield is a fairly conservative market,” Mr. Stowers said when I talked with him by phone after my visits. He said the restaurant was well run before he and Ms. Noel arrived, and they have kept much of the staff. The most notable exception to that is the current chef, Robert Peotter, whom the owners brought from their home state of Wisconsin.

Mr. Peotter’s skill is evident in both simple and more complex dishes. An appetizer of fried calamari hit just the right balance of crunchy-chewiness, the squid’s rings and legs delicately coated in a gossamer layer of batter, with just enough morsels provided to stoke, not a stunt, the appetite. Oysters Alaska reflected a more ambitious assemblage of ingredients — dill, flying-fish roe, smoked salmon, and horseradish cream sauce, all layered over oysters on the half shell (from beds off Mystic) — that hit the palate with an explosion of harmonious flavors.

Oysters Saltafeller, an updating of the Rockefeller classic, was just as intoxicating. Six agreeably plump oysters, coated in a creamy blend of spinach, artichoke, and Parmesan and dotted with bits of bacon, were baked just past raw so that their inherent brininess melted into, and beautifully complemented, the cheesy, smoky nature of their sauce. And on rare sliced tuna, seared on the edges but sushi-red within, the blend of spices crusting the outside — salt, pepper, cumin — delivered an intriguing, endearing savoriness to what elsewhere has often been bland.

Litchfield Saltwater Grille hosting local food and brew night March 6

Litchfield Saltwater Grille hosting local food and brew night March 6

LITCHFIELD 

The Litchfield Saltwater Grille is hosting an evening of local food and local brews Wednesday, March 6, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Teaming up with Stamford’s Half Full Brewery, Saltwater Grille will host the Half-Full Beer Social, featuring a three-course meal, a raw bar, and beer tasting. There will be plenty of food, organizers say, to make sure that those in attendance won’t leave half-full.

Half Full founder and owner Conor Horrigan, a Litchfield native, will be on hand to present and talk about the four Half-Full beers that will be available for tasting.

Horrigan and Saltwater Grille owner Brett Clugston came up with the idea for the social.

Clugston said that it is basically a beer dinner but with more of an emphasis on walking around and mingling in a very open environment.

Clugston said that she hopes to get 40 or so people to make reservations for the social, which will take place at the dining area in the bar.

Given how hectic Saltwater is on weekends, especially Saturdays when they have live music, Clugston said that it made more sense to have the social on a weeknight.

“We turn away people on Saturday nights, we don’t usually have room,” she said. “So this is just something to make a night that’s usually a quieter night busier.”

The entrée consists of a choice between IPA battered fish and chips or braised beef and exotic mushrooms. Both will be served with Half Full IPA. The chocolate bread pudding will be served for dessert and four appetizers will be available, including bratwurst in puffed pastry and smoked mozzarella.

Throughout the night, patrons will have access to a raw bar that Clugston said will be displayed on ice. The raw bar, consisting of all fresh seafood, will include blue point oysters on the half shell, Rhode Island littleneck clams, peel and eat shrimp, and seafood salsa with white tortilla chips.

“You just walk up and you take it as a buffet,” Clugston said.

The four Half Full beers available are the Half Full Bright Ale, which Saltwater Grille always has on tap, the Half Full IPA, the Half Full Chocolate Brown Ale, and a Limited Small Batch Specialty Beer. The cost for everything is $50 per person.

According to Clugston, Saltwater Grille tries to have about five or six of these kinds of special events every year. Last year Saltwater Grille had a seafood jazz festival in July, a Saint Patrick’s Day Beer Tasting last March, and also holds an annual holiday toy drive.

For Clugston, the restaurant business is in her blood. Her parents have owned restaurants in Greenwich, Westport, and Bethel. She grew up working in restaurants, so it was only natural that she take on a place of her own, she said.

Her husband Albert, who started off as a sushi chef in Arizona, is the chef at Saltwater and wrote the menu for the Hall Full Social.

Clugston, originally from Newtown, has owned the Saltwater Grille in Litchfield for going on six years. She and her husband turned what was once Chuck’s steakhouse into the wine and seafood restaurant that it is today.

“We found this place and it was gorgeous,” Clugston said. “We changed it all up and (gave) it more of a wine country feel.”

This included turning the large salad bar into a raw bar and bringing in a list of about 450 wines, American and international. Clugston is also a sommelier. She felt that a fish house like Saltwater Grille was something that could fit in well in Litchfield since the town didn’t have one at the time.

The Litchfield Saltwater Grille is located at 26 Commons Drive, Route 202 in Litchfield. Visit www.litchfieldsaltwatergrille.org or call 860-567-4900.

Reach Ryan Flynn at 860-489-3121 extension 345.

Litchfield Saltwater Grille expanding to Torrington’s Main Street, with broad takeout menu

Litchfield Saltwater Grille expanding to Torrington’s Main Street, with broad takeout men

 

 

TORRINGTON 

A popular seafood restaurant in Litchfield is expanding its offerings to an empty restaurant space on Main Street.

Litchfield Saltwater Grille, located on Village Green Drive, is owned by Brook Noel and Andy Stowers, who moved to Connecticut from Wisconsin in 2012 and purchased the restaurant from the previous owners in 2013. Brett Clugston and her husband Albert had opened the restaurant in 2007.

Sliders, which opened in 2019 at 84 Main St., was preceded by Backstage restaurant, which closed in 2018 after seven years.

The new owners plan to offer their Salt 2.0, a takeout menu they created to provide meals during the pandemic featuring grain and salad bowls, sandwich wraps, burritos, tacos, nachos, and quesadillas, with gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options.

Having a successful restaurant next door to the Warner Theatre is important for the downtown’s success, officials have said, as the city continues to seek ways to draw more pedestrian traffic to places such as Franklin Plaza and other areas on and off Main Street.

The city’s Economic Development Department, led by Rishta Malanca, is working with Blue Haus Group on ways to use vacant spaces and popup events to attract people. The department also is seeking to make East Main Street corridor improvements for pedestrian and driver safety on the commercial roadway that is adjacent to many residential neighborhoods.

City Planner Martin Connor, who has enjoyed the restaurant’s food as a take-home meal option during the pandemic, said the owners had a “smart” plan for Torrington.

“The Salt 2.0 plan is pretty popular,” he said.

 

Downtown

The Mertz building is owned by the Warner Theatre. Executive Director Rufus de Rham said he was happy to know the restaurant space is reopening.

“The way they’re doing it is smart, with having grab-and-go food for now, and then offer sit-down service as things open up,” de Rham said. “I’m excited to see what happens.”

Losing Sliders was a big concern for the theater. “The departure of Sliders was very sudden, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It caught us by surprise,” he said.

“We were worried; it’s difficult for us to fill this space,” de Rham said. “Then, out of the blue, here’s the Litchfield Saltwater Grille with this plan. We wanted to work with them. A lot of their ideas were very smart. I was also looking forward to a place to get burritos.”

After meeting with the owners several times, “we knew this was a partnership we wanted to happen,” de Rham said. “And fortunately for downtown Torrington, it did. So we’re very happy.”

Noel said the 2.0 restaurant option was born out of the pandemic, but it’s continuing in Litchfield, and she’s sure it will be popular in Torrington.

“Sit down and dine-in eating has taken a really big hit, and we needed to pivot our business somehow to compensate for that,” she said. “In Litchfield, there was a need for good, quality food that’s less expensive and fast, so people could be in and out in 10 minutes.

“So we took a dining room in the grille that had just three tables, and we turned it into a second kitchen,” she said. “From day one, it was incredibly successful. As we watched it grow, we knew we needed to keep it going.”

The 2.0 takeout meals were also a way to keep their employees working, she said.

“We would have had to lay people off, and we didn’t want to do that,” Noel said. “It’s allowed us to remain all our staff, and make it through the pandemic. We love it. We love the customers, and we have a ton of fun. So we thought, let’s do another one in Torrington.”

The couple chose Torrington, Noel said, because they already had a following there.

“That was the genesis of it because a lot of people are familiar with us already. With the space available at the Warner, it seemed like a great fit for us,” she said.

This week, Noel and Stoler were working in the Mertz building restaurant space. “I was up there painting yesterday,” she said. “We’re hoping to be open by the end of March or early April. I was there when it was Backstage, and as soon as I saw the space, I fell in love with it.”

New furniture and decor are also coming into the Mertz restaurant space. “There are all new colors and we’re getting all new furniture,” Noel said. “Most of what was it is gone now.”

The restaurant is large, and Stoler and Noel plan to divide it in half. “For the takeout business, customers will walk in on the bar side and order, and there’s seating there,” Noel said. “On the other side, it’ll have a different feeling, more like a venue restaurant, for private events for the theater, private parties, graduations, things like that.”

She also stressed that the Litchfield Saltwater Grille is not moving or closing. “We’re growing, not moving,” she said.