Steve Johnson Sets Anchor in Tiverton with the Red Dory
“I had my 30 years in the big city,” chef Steve Johnson said one morning last summer as he fetched water shoes from Blue Sky, the houseboat he moors in Westport Harbor. Clam rake in hand, Johnson headed to sand flats less than a hundred yards away and spent the next couple of hours talking about food, farming and restaurants while raking the shallows for quahogs.
“The big ones we’ll chop for linguini and clam sauce in the restaurant,” he explained, chucking a couple into a clam basket. “Some of the little ones will go on top of the pasta, and others will go to the raw bar.”
The clams were destined for the Red Dory, the seaside restaurant Johnson opened last winter in Tiverton. Just a few miles from the clam flats, the Red Dory’s spot on the Sakonnet River is a far cry from the gritty stretch of Massachusetts Avenue where Johnson sited his last restaurant, the celebrated Rendezvous, in Cambridge’s Central Square.
“I tell people I’ve traded cleaning up cigarette butts for gull poop,” Johnson said wryly.
For Johnson, the move to Tiverton seems a natural convergence of the personal and the professional. Born in rural Ohio to a family of “serious gardeners,” he says the coastal farmlands of southern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island captivated him 30 years ago. He bought Blue Sky so he could retreat to the water whenever possible.
Meanwhile, up in Boston, he established a reputation as one of the area’s top chefs. After a stint as sous-chef at Hamersley’s Bistro and as chef at the Mercury Bar, in 1996 he became chef and co-owner of The Blue Room, where he was nominated for a James Beard Award for the best chef in the Northeast in 2001. Boston Magazine twice named him the city’s best chef. In 2005 Johnson struck out on his own with Rendezvous, which Boston Magazine dubbed 2006’s “best restaurant debut.” A casual neighborhood place with exciting Eastern Mediterranean food, it drew national press as well as local academics and suburban foodies.
Johnson was one of the first Boston chefs to seek out produce from local farmers, and he cofounded the local chapter of the activist organization the Chefs Collaborative, which advocates for sustainable fishing and farming practices, among other issues. But selling to city restaurants became increasingly tough for farmers, he says, and by the time he left Cambridge, “only a half dozen farmers were providing the city restaurants. We were all serving the same vegetables. Everyone bought their seafood from one source. It was getting harder and harder to be unique up there.”
Twelve years ago Johnson approached the owner of Mykonos, a Greek restaurant in Tiverton, about buying the spot that is now the Red Dory. The owner wasn’t interested in selling, but over time that changed. Last winter Johnson gave the Red Dory a soft opening so he could work out the kinks and get to know his new neighbors before the summer’s hoards arrived, he says.
Chief among the neighbors he has been getting to know are the farmers and fishermen who live and work in the area, one that remains stubbornly, even reverently, agricultural. The dozens of small family farms in Tiverton, Little Compton and Westport were one of the big draws for Johnson, and he now buys from several—among them Ferolbink in Tiverton, as well as Skinny Dip, Young Family Farm, Walker’s and Wishing Stone in Little Compton. He buys clams just up the river at Bridgeport Seafood.
“The proximity to vegetables and seafood is really inspiring,” Johnson says.
The proximity is paying off in terms of quality, too. For 20 years Johnson has wowed diners with skate he prepares in brown butter with capers. Although available year round, skate deteriorates quickly. “So I prefer to buy it from January to June,” Johnson says. “I like it to come out of 40° water into 40° air.” This winter he will be cooking fresher fish than he ever could score in Cambridge. “I can get it two days faster.”
Johnson says he’s even bought squid straight from the net down at Sakonnet Point, and individual fishermen have brought him striped bass just hours off the line. “Now I’m buying fish from six or seven different people,” he says. “I’m able to do what is my core.”
While Red Dory honors tradition with the raw bar, Johnson gives fish-house standards a fresh twist: crunchy cornmeal-crusted fried oysters come with a bright, vinegary slaw, and his take on tartar sauce distinctly French—house-made mayo spiked with grainy mustard, cider vinegar and ground cornichon. It would be hard to believe even a dollop of this piquant sauce ever makes it back to the kitchen.
Johnson’s affair with food began in college, when he spent his junior year studying in Montpellier, in Southern France. The area was home to a large North African community, and on a student budget Johnson frequented the inexpensive African restaurants and shopped in the open-air markets, where he encountered harissa and chermoula, which would become foundational to his cooking.
“You can’t just point to a bunch of mint at the market and buy it,” he says. “[There] you have to buy mint, parsley and cilantro together. They are the holy trinity of North African cooking.” After college Johnson returned to France to teach and continue his French studies, but eventually the kitchen trumped academia. He moved back to the United States and took a restaurant job. “My parents were not thrilled,” he said.
Asked about his food philosophy, Johnson says, “I’m more of a tinkerer than a high-concept person.” To illustrate, he cites a recipe for toasted orecchiette with meatballs inspired by a trip to Puglia, on Italy’s heel. There, he watched a cook pan-fry the already-cooked pasta before pairing it with a simple tomato sauce and chickpeas. Johnson says he toyed with the dish for a decade until he hit on a combination that proved a favorite at Rendezvous and is now on the Red Dory menu: He serves the crispy pasta with kale and wild mushrooms in a rich roasted chicken broth; then he tops it with tender meatballs made of veal and pork. It’s proof that some good things are worth the wait, a lesson Red Dory’s customers will likely appreciate.
The Red Dory
1848 Main Rd., Tiverton, RI