Award-winning chef Frank McClelland opens Riversbend in Essex to rave reviews.
Photographs by Pete Tschudy
For such a high-profile chef, Frank McClelland is surprisingly introverted. In addition to owning one of Boston’s iconic restaurants, L’Espalier, he received a James Beard Foundation Award in 2007 for Best Chef Northeast. He’s written a cookbook, Wine Mondays; been featured in copious national food magazines; and been heralded for his farm-raised ingredients and in-field dinners at Apple Street Farm in Essex, which he managed until this past July when he opened Riversbend restaurant in his hometown of Essex. Yet, despite all this, the 59-year-old remains extremely modest, almost bashful.
“To a certain extent, I am a private person,” confesses McClelland, sitting in the airy all-wood dining room of his ocean- and farm-based eatery. “I had to think hard about doing something so public like running my business in the same town that I live in…. I guess I’m a bit shy.”
Chef Frank McClelland
This explains why McClelland has spent the past 20 years commuting from his home on the North Shore to Boston and back each day. Keeping his personal life separate from his work life was important. If someone had a bad meal at L’Espalier, McClelland knew he probably wouldn’t see that person at his local hardware store, coffee shop, or market the next day. Now, his fears could become reality.
So what led McClelland to take the leap? The answer could be kismet. In 2010, husband and wife Curt and Lindsay Bergeron purchased Essex Marina, which came with the former marina owner’s home. Perched on a hill with breathtaking views of the grassy marshlands of the Essex River, the homestead, the couple realized, would make a fabulous spot for a restaurant. In addition to serving the local community, it could feed the 140 families who had boats at Essex Marina and the thousands of visitors who flocked each season to Essex River Cruises and Cape Ann SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard), both located next to the marina. Now, all the Bergerons needed was a partner who could launch and run such a restaurant.
Enter Frank McClelland. In addition to keeping his boat at Essex Marina, the Bergerons knew him from his Apple Street Farm dinners. The Bergerons envisioned a menu of Cape Anne comfort foods. McClelland specialized in farm-to-table cooking, as well as fire-cooked fare. He knew the restaurant business inside out. He lived in Essex. Might he be interested in being a partner at Riversbend?
The open kitchen at Riversbend
The answer was “yes,” and McClelland initially worked seven days a week to get the restaurant up and running when it opened in July.
“In a sense, [this restaurant] represents who I am,” he says. “I’m always chasing perfection with anything I’ve taken on. So, this is no different from L’Espalier, which is a passion.”
Born in Virginia, McClelland caught the fine dining bug from his grandparents, with whom he spent much of his childhood on their farm in Hebron, New Hampshire. In addition to raising pigs and chickens, they grew produce, all as a hobby. His grandmother was a painter and poet, and his grandfather served in the diplomatic corps in Russia during the Russian Revolution.
“They were fairly cultured people,” says McClelland with a whiff of nostalgia. “They knew great food, and we regularly had three- or four-course dinners. My great-grandmother was a great chef, and my grandmother learned from her. I grew up listening to symphonies, dining, and working with my grandfather on the farm every day. Those sensibilities were key influences to my taking the path I did.”
Although McClelland never went to culinary school, he taught himself to cook by traveling, reading, studying, and working with several talented chefs, including George Blanc, whose namesake restaurant in Vonnas, France, has three Michelin stars.
“He helped me develop my whole inspiration around vegetables,” says McClelland, who learned to embrace the concept of “bringing the perfect vegetable to the foreground.” Shortly after purchasing L’Espalier in 1988, McClelland planted a garden on the restaurant’s rooftop and started offering a vegetable tasting menu, which was revolutionary at the time, since eschewing meat, let alone eating vegan, had yet to go mainstream. More recently, McClelland ran Apple Street Farm in Essex for six years and has always installed a massive vegetable garden at his home—first in Hamilton, then in Beverly Farms, and now in Essex. His restaurant staff has always helped him build, plant, and harvest the garden to cultivate their appreciation for fresh-picked local vegetables and herbs.
At Riversbend, the brunch, lunch, and dinner menus change daily, based on what’s available from local farms and fishermen. Beyond oysters on the half shell and a shrimp cocktail, Provisions (appetizers) on the late summer dinner menu began with crudité served with smoked burrata and tapenade. Several salads followed, including tomatoes with watermelon, blue cheese, and stone fruit, some Asian-dressed greens, and a bowl of hay-smoked beets over a goat cheese–raspberry puree. Spongy hunks of focaccia came with fermented honey and charred eggplant miso, and a tuna crudo hid under curls of radish and cucumber and buttery avocado. The current menu reflects the produce and seafood now in season, like squash, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, and hard-shell lobster. Of course, regardless of the season, you’ll find signature dishes like fried clams, meatballs, and French fries. The difference in eating them at Riversbend, however, is that the clams might come with black garlic, the meatballs contain spicy hits of salami and took months to perfect, and the French fries arrive with house-made ketchup.
Having a wood-fired pizza oven and fire pit for grilling and roasting was a priority for McClelland, in order to create his roster of blistered pies (gluten-free crust available), ranging from white clam with cherry tomatoes and lardon to those meatballs sitting over ricotta and smoked tomato. From the fire pit McClelland serves flame-licked fish such as tuna, roast chicken, and the scrumptious short rib cheeseburger that’s still flying out of the kitchen. And McClelland hasn’t forgotten about kids. Riversbend is very child-friendly (McClelland has a five-year-old daughter). On the menu under “For the Wildlife” you’ll find a hamburger, cheese pizza, pasta and meatballs, and a L’Espalier-quality macaroni and cheese. For dessert, there are homey treats like seasonal fruit crisp and cheesecake, but elevated a notch with ricotta, buckwheat, and whey. The half dozen cocktails are made with fresh-squeezed juices and fresh fruits. McClelland cares so much about the details, even the coffee mugs and some bowls come from McClelland’s favorite potter, Marty Morgan, in Gloucester.
“The calculus for the menu is that I am trying to do things that are culturally based that people look for, but I am trying to do them with really great cuisine foundations,” says McClelland. In other words, he’s putting a L’Espalier spin on traditional New England fare and then serving it in a breathtaking setting overlooking the salt marshes of Essex, whose natural splendor shifts with the tides and the seasons.
Frank’s Favorite Local Finds
Cedar Rock Gardens
299 Concord St., Gloucester
This 18.5-acre farm near Walker Creek grows over 40 kinds of organically grown cut flowers and organic veggies, the latter of which McClelland loves.
Essex Farmers Market
24 Martin St., Essex
“A great place to buy local produce,” says McClelland. All the vendors are local.
5 Dock Sq., Rockport
Specializing in locally crafted pottery, homeware, cookbooks, and specialty foods, “It has beautiful cutting boards, and we buy our kids the silverware, which is made in France,” says McClelland. “They also have tasty olive oil and spreads.”
Marty Morgan Pottery
428 Washington St., Gloucester
McClelland bought her pottery for Riversbend. In addition to glazed stoneware and porcelain pieces, she makes “Quarry” vessels and tiles, highly textured pieces with multiple layers of glazes and stains.
Pastaio Via Corta
11 Center St., Gloucester
“This is a wonderful place in Gloucester where they use local flour to make homemade pasta that you can take home to cook for your family,” says McClelland. The flour comes from Alprilla Farm in Essex (some flour comes from Maine and Canada), the eggs hail from Chicken Little Farm in Ipswich, and herbs and veggies in the pasta grow at Plough in the Stars Farm in Ipswich. The shop supplies many restaurants on the North Shore and in Boston with its pasta.
1 Holly St., Gloucester
“Go for produce, meat, and cheese made by local artisans,” says McClelland. “And they have breakfast and lunch—a real gem! Their Cubano can’t be missed!”
35 Dodge St. 978-890-7098