THE PAST FEW weeks’ dreary, cold weather had Mrs. Gourmet and me pining for the beach. And seafood. But knowing that the beach would be even colder and drearier than our inland home, we decided to go for some seafood closer to home.
In the earliest years of our marriage, Mrs. G. and I lived in Derry not far from the traffic circle where Route 102 and the 28 Bypass intersect. Friday nights often meant one of us would stop to pick up takeout at the Lobster Claw II, just off the circle on the Bypass.
We remembered those days on a recent Sunday afternoon, and we also remembered that we never drove further south on the Bypass to try Clam Haven, the seasonal joint that defines seafood for many people in the Derry area. So we decided to fill that gap, satisfy our seafood craving and refresh old memories, all at the same time.
A few years ago, we did a comparison review of two well-known Seabrook seafood joints that are just across the street from one another. With Clam Haven and Lobster Claw II no more than a mile apart, we decided to try something similar: a one-trip taste-off along what we decided to call Derry’s “Clam Strip.”
To get a sense of as much of the menu as possible, we decided to order a fried seafood platter from each place. We would call in take-out orders while driving to Derry, pick them up, and immediately sample a little of everything in the car (parked, of course — no driving with greasy hands) before bringing the rest home to eat in a more comfortable environment.
As it turned out, the ordering wasn’t quite that simple. While Lobster Claw has a Seafood Platter on the menu, Clam Haven doesn’t. It has two-way and three-way combo platters, so we had to order two two-ways to parallel the Lobster Claw’s platter.
On the Claw’s platter, we got fried fish, scallops, clams, shrimp and french fries. (There was also a single fried smelt along for the ride, but we’ll ignore that.) We ordered a side of onion rings. At Clam Haven, we got a clam/shrimp combo with fries and a fish/scallop combo with rings. We also ordered a large clam chowder from each place.
Thus set up, we set about our research. Here’s what we found. (For simplicity, we’ll abbreviate the restaurant names.)
Chowder: CH’s was thick and chunky, but we thought it was a bit floury tasting. LC’s was equally thick and chunky, with plenty of clam bits and excellent clam flavor. Advantage: LC.
Fish: LC’s fish came in big chunks, fried brown, a bit dry without a lot of flavor. CH’s, which the menu referred to specifically as haddock, were smaller, more consistent portions, fried golden, and more flavorful. Even so, we rarely order fried fish, and neither of these samples would convince us to change our ways. Advantage: CH.
Clams: CH’s coating was thicker, but the clams were bigger with plump bellies, and more flavorful than LC’s, which were a bit overcooked with what we thought was an excessively sweet coating. Advantage: CH
Shrimp: Readers of this column know that we are charter members of the No Tails Club when it comes to shrimp. On that point, we give CH credit. But despite the presence of tails under the coating, we thought LC’s shrimp were tastier, with a coating that didn’t get in the way of the shrimp flavor. Advantage: LC
Scallops: Though LC’s coating was lighter, we thought their scallops, like their clams, were slightly overcooked. CH’s scallops were sweeter and more tender under their heavier coating. Avantage: CH
Onion rings: Two distinct styles here, and the choice comes down to personal preference. CH’s rings were encased in a heavy, cake-y batter. LC’s were lightly breaded and gently fried, just the way we like them. Advantage: LC
Accessories: We loved the LC’s cole slaw, with its big shreds of green and red cabbage and carrot. And I was a big fan of CH’s tartar sauce, with its big dill-pickle flavor presence.
Both restaurants are counter-service. Clam Haven’s counter is outdoors; there are picnic tables and an enclosed pavilion around the large parking lot. Lobster Claw’s counter area is enclosed, and there is a self-service dining room off to the side. There’s room for a few picnic tables on the smaller property.
Our outing wasn’t cheap — we spent $41 at Lobster Claw and $47 at Clam Haven. Both provided plenty of food, but neither won a spot among our favorite fried seafood places.
If you’re in the Derry area and have a hankering for fried seafood, these are two good choices, but for our money, next time, we’ll be heading to the beach.