by Alice Levitt
7 Pinecrest Drive, Essex Junction, 879-3611
It's been there forever. They have creemees year-round. So how in the world have I never been to Ray's Seafood Market before?
I finally repaired the error of my ways last night. A visit to Ray's seemed like the perfect antidote to the gross sleeting, raining, melting weather. The bright, seaside-themed interior certainly provided respite from the gloom.
Ray's is a real-deal, old-school seafood market complete with two cold cases, a large freezer case and a life-size fake swordfish on the wall. However, the cheerful dining room adds another layer of cute comfort. Ray's is definitely the only seafood market I've ever visited with wall-to-wall carpeting.
One of the seasonal specials advertised on a white board up front was lake perch. Clearly, we had no choice but to try it. Ray's buys the local fish from hobbyist fishermen, so chances were it was fresh. The first item on the menu, advertised with the warning to call ahead, was fried chicken. It seemed to be a signature dish, so we decided on a surf and turf.
We grabbed a booth and chose a pair of books from a pile alongside the mayo and relish packets. I was so rapt reading the weirdest, most gustatorily tone-deaf cookbook I've ever seen — Pol Martin's A Guide to Modern Cooking — that I barely noticed the 20-minute wait for the chicken.
Our number was finally called and we brought a pair of overloaded plates back to the table. I was expecting whole perch that would necessitate boning. Instead, the plate was filled with chunky nuggets of the flaky fish.
Not that it really mattered what lay within the thick, crunchy crust. The batter was inarguably the star of the dish. It transported me to childhood clam-shack visits and even reminded me a bit of Long John Silver — in a good way.
Beneath the huge pile of fish lay handcut, skin-on fries. These were what I refer to as Vermont style, meaning slightly mushy with a taste of caramelization just past its ideal flavor. Native Vermonters love them. They just aren't for me.
Also not for me was the coleslaw, which seemed to be three parts mayonnaise to one part vegetables. The rolls were delicious. Spread with a pat of Cabot butter, they were almost sweet enough to be donuts. The plate was nothing but whites and browns. I would have loved some greens, but that was my fault for not thinking to order a salad.
The chicken lived up to its call-ahead promise. The meat tasted like it had been brined for at least 24 hours. Tender and splendidly saline, the chicken burst with juice at first bite. Even the breast, so often dry, was ideally moist.The breading was light and crisp and merged with the skin to make one inextricable, yummy unit.
I chose rice rather than repeating potatoes (besides fries, baskets can be filled with potato wedges or a baked potato). It was the same Near East pilaf I use on lazy nights at home, but slightly overcooked. On the plus side, there was way more butter in it than I would ever use.
The chicken and perch were so irresistible that we were unable to fulfill one of our goals — no room for creemees last night. Ah, well, something to look forward to on our next visit.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.