The long-awaited return of Fanwood's landmark Seafare Chippery is finally over: the new Chippery, under the ownership of Oh' Brian's chef/co-owner Brian Walter, had its soft opening last week.
Walter says it was three years ago when he decided to rehab the Chippery.
"I've grown up eating here," says Walter, who lives in Fanwood and is originally from Scotch Plains. "My father would bring home food from the Chippery for us. I think it's the same story a lot of us in Fanwood share. We have the train station, we have the Chippery – it's all of ours, I'm just manning it right now."
Walter says seeing the circa-1970 South Avenue business so rundown, "although that added to a lot of it’s charm," was a shame.
"We were one of the people bidding on the property, but we were the only ones who wanted to keep it the original Chippery, so I think we had that in our favor," he says. The business is a joint venture between Walter, his parents, and family friend Deanna Poll.
And keeping close to the original is no easy task. Though he's a multi-business owner and seasoned chef – who worked in NYC for 10 years with big names like Mario Battali, Luc Pasquier and Daniel Or – manning the Chippery could be Walter's toughest gig yet: He is painfully aware of the pressure he faces to get the batter, the fish and the chips to taste just like they did when he was a kid.
"To hold the reins here is an incredible honor," he says. "I know the pressure is on me. I know I’m under a microscope."
The key to the fish, he says, is using a quality fillet – Atlantic white cod, which arrives fresh daily, not frozen.
"It's the best on the planet," says Walter. "It's more expensive, which is why a lot of other places don't use it. For three years, we tried every place around and there were only two I would even consider edible. Don’t think your customers are that stupid and you are that smart, when it comes to price over quality."
The batter, which Walter bought the rights to, is also original – though it had to be recreated by food chemists and he had to order 2,500 pounds of it at a time. Because the batter is formulized, it's consistent every time, he says.
"It's a flour-cornmeal mix and it has a beautiful golden brown color," says Walter. "With the sweetness of the corn it works really well with the cod. It's an awesome batter and it's a privilege to have it. Anything we dip in it – corn dogs, jalapeno poppers – comes out awesome."
For frying, Walter goes with peanut oil.
"It's 100 percent trans-fat free and it's what they've always used," he says.
Each piece of fish features a quarter pound of cod, and the servings come from one piece with chips, tartar sauce and coleslaw (the Cabin Boy - $6.95) and two pieces (the Regular - $9.95), all the way up to family-size (the eight-piece Cruise Pail - $27.95).
The menu also features the fish on a Breadsmith sub roll (made specially for the Chippery) with cheese and tartar sauce – the Fishwich – plus, a Chickwich, batter-dipped hotdogs, and batter-dipped veggies (zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and jalapeno poppers, for now).
Other highlights include two soups, which Walter says took 30 different recipes to get just right. The first is the Seafare Crab Stew - a tomato-based soup with crab, veggies and Old Bay Seasoning.
"Like a Manhattan Clam Chowder, but packed with crabmeat," he says.
The other soup is a New England clam chowder, which starts with a base of onions and bacon to make it smoky.
For sides, there's the clam fritters – "like a zeppoli but filled with clam" – onion rings, and, of course, the chips.
"We're using the original round chips," says Walter. "I was considering changing them, but then I tried them again and they were awesome. They are originally from the 70s, too. They absorb vinegar and they're also great in the tartar sauce."
And recreating the original Chippery's tartar sauce was no walk in the park either. Walter had to track down the original producer, Bab's, who have since stopped making tartar, and convince them to make it for him.
"To get it to taste exactly the same took a lot of work," says Walter. "No one will ever realize just how much work."
What's not the same at the Chippery is the space. Walter had to stay in the footprint of the old building, since the business was grandfathered into a neighborhood that's zoned residential. He chose a prefab nautical-themed building that arrived in two pieces. (But before the new building could be placed, Walter faced removing two circa-1920s gasoline tanks from when the property was a truck stop – a surprise uncovered during construction, which set back the opening.)
Inside the small dining area Walter decided to keep it simple, with light blue walls and wood tables, calling the usual net-and-buoy decor at seafood restaurants "so goofy." On one of the walls are framed photos of his wife's father, fishing on ships in Bulgaria.
For now, the Chippery is open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week and will likely be open from 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. till 9 p.m. next week. Because so much of the business is take-out, it can get busy and Walter advises customers to call in their orders ahead. He's planning a grand opening in January and hopes to approach the planning board about adding outdoor seating in the spring.
So far, he says, the reaction from customers has been just what he hoped for.
"It's been off the charts," he says. "People say 'It's exactly how I remember it. Thank you for bringing it back.'"
The Seafare Chippery, 401 South Avenue, Fanwood, 908-288-7741. Also: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Seafare-Chippery/310778499061345