Even before I secured a job in New Bedford, Barbara and I were told by a couple of her Newport coworkers that The Black Whale was among their favorite restaurants in the region and we MUST try it.
It’s hard to believe that was more than two years ago now and we finally just made the trip.
I work in New Bedford every day, but it’s not often I find myself on the working waterfront. It was a nice treat to pull into the parking lot and be surrounded by fishing boats lining the wharf.
When we entered, there was one customer picking up a sizable to-go order from the hostess, giving us time to scope out the joint.
A massive U-shaped bar dominates the center of the room with a handful of tables to the left of the bar and many more tables to the right.
Large glass windows offer a view of the harbor and the large outdoor dining deck, which was deserted on this cold February night.
Since The Black Whale doesn’t take weekend reservations for small parties, I expected we’d have to wait a while for a table since Google showed 6:30 p.m. to be the start of the restaurant’s peak time.
But we were immediately whisked away to one of six small tables lining a sort of hallway divided from the entryway by a short wall and frosted glass partition. I was happy to be to the side, out of the frey of the main room.
Paula, our server, quickly greeted us and dropped off dinner, drink, and special menus, asking if we wanted tap or bottled water to start.
The Black Whale has a sizable wine menu with options by the glass, half bottle or bottle. The menu also boasted a score or more of specialty cocktails, most of which seemed to be in the flavored martini family.
Paula also rattled off an impressive selection of tap beers, plenty of IPAs and a couple darker drafts. I picked the Mayflower Scotch Ale, a very drinkable rich golden brown beer with a nice balance of sweet malts, but still dry and crisp without being bitter.
Barbara eyed the impressive selection of craft bloody Marys, but opted for a plane-Jane version instead. It came out a little less spicy than she might have preferred, but a good drink.
I had already eyed the winter dinner menu before leaving home and thought both the spicy shrimp appetizer ($18) -- jumbo shrimp, baby spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes -- and the boom boom shrimp ($12) -- crispy baby shrimp, sweet chili sauce, shaved romaine and toasted sesame seeds -- sounded good.
I asked Paula which she suggested and while she said both were good, when the boom boom shrimp was briefly removed from the menu, Black Whale regulars were quick to see it was returned. So that’s what we ordered.
Having had the Black Whale’s signature chowder before, I was tempted to get a bowl ($7), but decided not to be too gluttonous.
Even before our appetizer arrived, Paula brought a bread basket with some toasted French bread slices and herbed crackers along with a small tureen of smoked cod spread.
I had noticed a tent on the table advertising that cod and salmon spread were available for carry-out and one bite made me understand why.
Made with shredded cod, cream cheese and a little liquid smoke, the spread was delicious. It tasted good on the bread, but was even better on the crackers. We scooped up very bite.
The boom boom shrimp was another big hit. The shrimp were perfectly sauced and like a great chicken wing, maintained their crispy crunch in the face of the spicy sauce.
And the spice was perfect. Just warm enough to make you want another bite. It also had a nice tang, akin to the spicy mayo you’re used to getting atop spicy sushi rolls. The lettuce was more than just window dressing. It was crispy and fresh and was a nice counterpoint to the spice.
A strange thing about the restaurant became apparent during dinner. The food was on the par with many of the fine dining restaurants around the area. But the bright lights and loud music (it was an 80s-themed playlist with Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson), the feeling was more chain family bar and grill than fine dining. Maybe that’s by design to ensure no customers are put off by a white-tablecloth atmosphere, but it made for an odd juxtaposition.
Before leaving home, I had pretty much decided to try the pan roasted monkfish entree ($24), served with braised littlenecks, chourico, white beans, escarole, white wine garlic butter and grilled costini.
One of the reasons I was drawn to it is the movement to bring monkfish, an ugly creature in its natural habitat, to more tables, supporting a growing market for what was once considered a trashfish, but is now marketed as the poor-man’s lobster.
But fate intervened in the form of the special menu and the scallop thermidor ($27) advertised as New Bedford sea scallops baked with white wine and topped with buttery Ritz cracker crumbs, finished with a creamy sherry bechamel sauce and served with mashed potatoes and asparagus.
I’m a sucker for anything topped with a Ritz cracker crust.
My pescatarian dining companion, meanwhile was in heaven. The Black Whale’s seafood-centric menu allowed her to read the menu the way meat-eaters read every menu. Choices abounded for her, instead of being instantly narrowed to a couple shrimp or fish options.
I thought she might go with the shrimp scampi ($24) or the baked cod ($24) … or maybe even the jumbo shrimp ($24), but she tossed me a curve ball and ordered the seafood cioppino ($25) made with swordfish, shrimp, mussels and littlenecks in a spicy tomato sauce with fresh herbs and linguini.
The reason that choice surprised me is Barbara makes a great cioppino herself. It’s traditionally an Italian-American seafood stew with a tomato-based broth and bread to sop up the goodness.
The Black Whale’s version changed that up a little with pasta serving as the starch in the place of the bread.
The swordfish chunks were massive and well-cooked. There had to be the equivalent of a good-sized fillet scattered across the bowl, along with a bunch of littlenecks and mussels and several shrimp.
The broth was briny and tasted like the sea and the pasta was also well-cooked. It wasn’t as tomato-heavy as the soup we make at home, but the flavors were fresh and excellent.
The only hiccup in the dish -- in fact the only hiccup of our entire meal -- was the shrimp, which were overcooked and chewy.
The scallop thermidor, meanwhile came in a large oval baking dish sharing a large platter with a big helping of rustic mashed potatoes and bunch of asparagus. Clearly just-out of the oven, the scallops were too hot to eat for a minute, but well worth the wait.
The sauce was a delight -- creamy and rich with strong flavors that paired perfectly with the buttery, sweet scallops, which were tender and perfectly cooked. The cracker crumb topping was crispy and gave a nice (and needed) texture to each bite. I’m a stickler for proportions in my food and the balance between scallop, topping and sauce couldn’t have been better, allowing every bite to have the right amount of each.
It was one of my favorite dishes I’ve had since moving to the area.
We both boxed up some of our entree so we could try one of the numerous houses-made desserts.
The New York Cheesecake was temping, as was the carrot cake, but Barbara is a smores fiend, so I picked the smores dessert ($9).
This version is a thin, round brownie, as big as a saucer, topped with a scoop of graham cracker ice cream. The plate is smeared with marshmallow fluff and then toasted. The whole thing was drizzled in chocolate with a big mound of whipped cream on the side.
The brownie was warm and the ice cream had plenty of graham cracker flavor. Maybe a little more fluff would have helped the ratios, but we enjoyed every bite.
Not counting drinks, our bill came to $73, pretty reasonable for top-notch appetizer, two entrees and dessert.
Before heading to the waterfront for dinner, I had checked out former Coastin’ editor Joanna Weeks’ review. She had dined at the Black Whale just three months after it opened. Back in 2014 she found the food to be very good, with only a couple hiccups, including a steak that came out more rare than she had ordered. Interestingly she also talked about the loud music during her dinner on the deck, theorizing it was to help mask noise from Route 18 nearby.
I looked forward to seeing how the Black Whale has aged in the last 3 ½ years. Had it hit its stride, or developed a limp?
I can definitely say my experience showed it is well in stride. Again we received top-notch, well-executed food with just one minor hiccup in execution.
Dine Out's reviewer visits restaurants unannounced and at his or her discretion. The newspaper pays for the meals reviewed. The reviews merely reflect one diner's experience. Ratings range from 1 to 5 stars.
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