Provincetown seafood gets Portuguese touch

Email|Print| Text size + By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / June 2, 2004

PROVINCETOWN -- If ordinary fish and chips died and went to heaven, they would come back as catfish vinha d'alhos. This Portuguese version, a specialty at Provincetown's Clem & Ursie's, takes the basic idea of fried fish and vinegar and transforms it with a garlicky vinegar-based marinade. When the marinade is applied to ocean catfish, which is then battered and fried, the result is tangy and succulent, flaky to the fork, and surprisingly non-greasy. Served with marvelous hand-cut french fries, it's everything you could want in a fried fish dish.

However, if fried fish, even sublimely done, isn't your thing, Clem & Ursie's has more to offer. Unlike most restaurants that do best when they center their food on a theme or even one special dish, this airy, informal outpost, complete with outdoor picnic tables, focuses on variety and manages to succeed at just about all of it. On one side of the large, colorful main room, with tables painted by local artists, is a raw bar, which has expanded to include sushi and various Japanese-style seafood salads. As of this spring, it also boasts a real sit-down bar section, too.

On the other side of the bright open space are the counters where customers place their orders for hot dishes. In addition to the vinha d'alhos dish (which also comes in a pork chop version), these include a full range of the seafood you'd expect from a Provincetown institution, from fried clams and swordfish steaks to more complicated fra diavolo and aioli preparations. You can also walk through to the adjoining market and pick your own lobster, which can be steamed, baked, and stuffed or added to a variety of menu items. There's also very good barbecue, from chicken and ribs to pulled pork (look for that touch of vinegar again). For children, there are burgers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. (Save room for ice cream or the New England staples of grape-nut pudding and Indian pudding for dessert.)

If this seems like a lot for one restaurant to handle, Clem & Ursie's comes by it organically. Brother-and-sister owners Debbie and Clem Silva Jr., who named the place for their mother and father, are Provincetown-born and raised. The descendants of Azorean fishermen, they grew up learning how to prepare the local fish and shellfish. The rest of their training came from Provincetown's tourist industry: She worked as a waitress and bartender all over town; he worked as a chef here and in New York, and he learned to handle a smoker and a rack of ribs at his prior venture, a barbecue place on Commercial Street called Clem and Joe's. When a former ice cream stand became available in 1996, the siblings took everything they'd learned and opened Clem & Ursie's. From its bare-bones beginnings through a renovation this spring, which has added color, more art, and an extended back patio (complete with new sculpture garden), their restaurant has continued to flourish.

Much of the menu reflects the Silvas' Portuguese heritage. In addition to the vinha d'alhos (Ursie's recipe), there are tastes of the Azores throughout. As in most restaurants in Provincetown, there's a Portuguese kale soup, which gets its spice from the peppery linguica sausage. But Clem & Ursie's also features Clem Sr.'s squid stew, a smoky, dark dish full of squid and sausage, and a buttery rich sea-clam pie.

The key to maintaining both variety and quality is simplicity. Although the menu is extensive, Clem & Ursie's is essentially no-frills. The staff members concentrate on cooking, rather than service (though the counter help is invariably helpful). They bring your food to you, but utensils and condiments (including a huge array of hot sauces) are self-service.

What's important is that the seafood is sparklingly fresh, and everything is well prepared. While the adjoining market does a brisk business, it's no wonder this no-fuss restaurant has a large following among locals. From its food to the sculpture garden, which features the work of area artists, Clem & Ursie's knows what Provincetown does best.

Clem & Ursie's, 85-87 Shank Painter Road, Provincetown; 508-487-2333. Entrees $4 to $23.

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