Jason Santos plans to open new seafood spot amid pandemic
WOBURN, MA: December 5, 2019: Famed Chef Jason Santos in his Kitchen in Woburn, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
While many restaurateurs fear for the future of their existing businesses because of the coronavirus crisis, Jason Santos is already planning to open a new spot.
Later this summer, the local chef expects to expand his eatery empire, which currently comprises Boston’s Abby Lane, Buttermilk & Bourbon and Citrus & Salt. In a matter of months, he hopes to open B&B Fish, a laid back seafood joint in downtown Marblehead that he thinks will align with the post-coronavirus dining scene.
“I think gone are the days of ultra-fine dining,” Santos said. “And I think we all knew that was coming. Casual and takeout have always been a thing, but they’re going to be even more of a thing now.”
Since March, Massachusetts restaurants have scrambled to switch to a to-go-only business model, in adherence to safety restrictions imposed by the state. And during this period of mass transition, Santos used his free time to think and to embrace these offsite changes for the long haul with his upcoming Pleasant Street venture.
“I got to clear my head and think a lot,” he said. “The risk is sort of low. It’s casual. There’s no alcohol. It’s counter-to-table so there are no servers.
“I think that the concept lends itself to the sort of ‘new normal,’ as everyone says,” he added. “It’s just in and out, and nobody gets hurt.”
Of course, there’s nothing truly novel about a seafood counter. Our North and South shores are sprinkled with shacks offering folks fried clam baskets, fish and chips platters and lobster rolls, as well as picnic tables where they can collapse and enjoy their oil-soaked feasts. But with B&B Fish, Santos hopes to take these coastal classics and improve them.
“It’s been done a million times,” Santos said. “We’re just going to try to do it better, with a little more thought and little more seasoning.”
“I’ve never met a fried clam I didn’t like,” he added, admitting he’s been hitting up some of the most celebrated fried seafood spots as part of his R&D process.
“But it’s all the same,” he continued. “They dip a clam in evaporated milk and corn flour, and they fry it. I couldn’t tell one from another. I couldn’t do a blind taste test and be like, ‘This clam is from X restaurant,’ and I want to be able to do that.”
Using his chef wisdom, Santos wants to take these staples of New England cuisine and make minor adjustments that might be long overdue. He means no disrespect to his predecessors and he celebrates the unpretentious nature of these dishes, but he thinks they could use a little lift.
“Like for the fish and chips, we’ve been working on our batter now for two months,” Santos said. “I spent $130 at Market Basket two weeks ago on just cod for my house and I bought a fryer for my house because I couldn’t be in the restaurant.”
“For the fried clams, I literally made 30 batters and tried to figure out, ‘What do I like about these places’ batters? What do I dislike about them and how could I fix them?’” he added.
His proposed changes seem to be modern but hopefully not sacrilegious. For instance, he plans to dip his clams in buttermilk rather than evaporated milk, to mix pastry flour into his cornmeal coating, to introduce seasoning and to fry them in duck fat.
“You’re going to eat them and be like, ‘This is awesome,’ but not necessarily know why,” Santos said. “My analogy is that if you go to a place and you get a steak that’s prime but they don’t advertise it, you don’t know that it’s prime but you left there thinking, ‘Wow, that was a really good steak.’
“It’s the same idea,” he said. “We’re going to do a lot of things internally that the guests won’t even know about but that will just elevate it.”