For those on a tireless crusade for the absolute best in grub, finding prime regional seafood on the Cape will not happen without effort. To the stalwart chowhound in fact, trying to slice through the monotony may border on aggravation.
For those not well versed on the area, one can drive for hours—down, up and across the Cape’s tangled web of narrow highways—routinely stumbling upon collections of seafood restaurants around each bend. Between this often overwhelming fact and the explicit proclamations by nearly every one of these eateries, having “the best chowder,” or “award-wining lobster rolls,” or “best seafood on the Cape,” tossed around indiscriminately on every roadside sign and inside every tourist rag, the process of elimination here can prove more daunting than satisfying.
Simply put, do your research. Inquire with a respectable source. Not finding the right seafood restaurant on the Cape can transcribe to eating food that is more akin to Red Lobster, than anything one might have imagined. However, maybe glazed tourists wouldn’t realize anyway.
Newer on my restaurant radar this summer was Sesuit Harbor Cafe in Dennis. One of those quintessential Cape Cod dining experiences, it was worth the hunt.
Overlooking dreamy Sesuit Harbor, sequestered at the end of a quiet, manicured residential area, the eponymous cafe is not centered in a nexus of commercial activity. Its rather concealed location was something mildly agitating to my party at first, however something that soon only added to its charisma once found. Centered in a massed boat yard, surrounded by alleys of large tri-level boat racks, the building itself is a tiny gray, weathered structure, trimmed with old buoys and crowned with a large white canoe atop its roof. Ample (though cramped) parking exists to one side.
There is no dining space inside Sesuit Harbor Cafe. The interior of the small, sea-worn structure only houses the kitchen and the main counter. Nearby, a large blackboard prominently hangs, listing both staple menu items and daily specials.
Spread outward, along a generous gravel-floored patio crammed with long wooden picnic tables, the picturesque (and no fuss) outdoor dining space overlooks the small harbor and channel. The level vista affords front-row seating to light boat traffic, traversing back and forth to Cape Cod Bay just to the north. It is precisely the laid-back, seaside eating experience many only read about. On days with optimal weather the view is pleasant, if not perfect.
As the food churns out, the eternally young and efficient waitstaff, carrying multiple orders in hand, walk out onto the patio calling order numbers. When digits are heard, hands are raised. Silverware exists in plastic form, and at each table, giant rolls of paper towels exist in place of napkins. On a golden Cape Cod afternoon, nothing could seem more perfectly effortless.
Echos throughout the area tell of Sesuit Harbor Cafe’s fantastic lobster rolls. Similar with finding other epitomical eats of the area, notably clam chowder, fried clams, oysters of all persuasions, scallops, etc., cutting through the hype can be bothersome. I am happy to confirm that yes, they do in fact serve one of the area’s best examples. In fact, this is the best lobster roll on Cape Cod I’ve enjoyed so far.
Amassed in a toasted split-top bun (toasted immediately becoming an oft-uncommon plus) atop slices of summer tomatoes and a single layer of greens, a reasonable ration of chunky lobster meat (tail and claw) sits perfectly cooked, ocean-sweet and lightly tossed with mayonnaise and bites of celery. While cold-roll purists will often scoff at simple additions of celery or other foreign imports, insisting “meat and mayo only,” if not in large quantity, i.e., used as filler in place of lacking or low-quality lobster meat, I find celery’s mild, crisp manner only enhances the package.
In regard to eating lobster rolls throughout coastal New England, don’t be blinded by grotesque portions of lobster meat aloft a roll. Quantity in meat does not always translate to quality in meat. Many (very popular) places will serve heaps of flavorless lobster meat so overcooked, with its rubbery texture so oft-putting, it fundamentally destroys the experience (and sometimes paid expense) of enjoying what is sold as an “award-winning” lobster roll. What’s most unfortunate is that a vast majority of these perpetrating restaurants pack in such hoards of frothing tourists, satiating their super-sized appetites with any amount of lobster they can get, there is little incentive to genuinely improve what they serve. It’s a value proposition not everyone, restaurants and diners alike, truly understand.
In addition to hefty portions of chewy, overcooked meat, the amount of mayonnaise added to the mix of a particular lobster roll is another red flag. “Kissed,” which has become catch-all menu jargon used to describe the amount of mayo applied, should describe an unwavering commitment. Unfortunately at most places, however, it’s more like slobbered. If I wanted to eat mouthfuls of mayo, I’d stay home and graze from my fridge. Not only does it disrupt the texture of the meat, it also masks any hint of sweet lobster flavor. But, maybe that’s the point—the operational deception. Maybe for those less-inclined to eat seafood in general, mayo might act as a lubricant to more substantial intake, but if I’m paying upwards of $15-30 for a sandwich, anywhere, gulps of Helman’s is the last thing I want to experience.
Back to Sesuit Harbor Cafe, their example of a great New England lobster roll does not succumb to these pitfalls, and is as close to perfection as I’ve found in a very wide radius. Never gloppy, perfectly cooked and portioned, its rivals in the area are few.
Each of their rolls are served with the obligatory accompaniments, french fries, pickle and coleslaw. Not drowned in a milky pool of sog however, their respective slaw in particular snapped as it should and was seasoned correctly—slight tang, easy on the sugar and satisfyingly salty. At many restaurants an otherwise afterthought, at this restaurant: a great complement.
Let me also note that besides the lobster rolls, their fried clam platter in particular, is equally as popular of a menu item. Whole bellies, light and crispy batter, they are the version loyalists crave. For those not on the trail for great seafood, Sesuit Harbor Cafe also offers a selection of deli sandwiches, burgers and varied locally-sourced baked goods.
A few other things about Sesuit Harbor Cafe deserve brief highlighting. In addition to its previously noted, hidden location, the establishment is cash-only. And, there is no ATM on site. Thus, make sure to stuff your wallets in advance. My party and I learned this the hard way, after finally locating the place unknowingly cash-less, having to then leave the premises in search of a machine. In the event of a monetary crisis such as this, the nearest is located about a mile back toward the the Town of Dennis, inside the small corner food shoppe at the intersection of Route 134 and 6A. Also, there are no in-house restrooms. If absolutely necessary, such relief can be found at a collection of (well-maintained) port-a-jons near the main parking area, within the boat yard. I’m reporting this arguably trivial detail out of learned sympathy—not empathy. (I can hold it.)
And lastly, the establishment is BYOB and observes operating hours from “dawn until dusk.” Hard to vouch for anyone else, but I’d imagine turning in the day with nice bottle of red wine over a casual harborside dinner here would be a pretty sublime experience.
In a seafood-dominated region saturated with “world famous” this and “best in the universe” that, it is refreshing to discover and patronize such an unmatched, mellow jewel like Sesuit Harbor Cafe. Absent of kitsch and tack, everything about the place reads of subtle charm and “Cape Cod” authenticity. On exceptionally beautiful days, when the sun is out, water breezes whispering through the trees, harbor buzzing with activity, it is simply an un-replicated experience.
You bet I’m still dreaming of my return.
Sesuit Harbor Cafe | 357 Sesuit Neck Rd | Dennis, MA