Down East 2013 ©
Chef Brian Hill is a surfer and a former musician in an alt-rock band. This explains a lot about the intriguing menu at Shepherd’s Pie, the neighborhood pub he opened in a historic old building on Rockport Harbor in May.
Forget bangers and mash. Hill’s inspirations range from the bar food of Mexico and southern Rhode Island to Cambodian home cooking. When applied to fresh local produce, meat, and fish, the result is the transformation of pub fare into something unexpectedly delightful.
“It’s the kind of food I like to cook on my day off,” Hill says. “Kind of surfer-inspired comfort food. It’s salty, it’s spicy, and there are a lot of pickles.”
Not too salty or spicy, however. Hill’s flavors are vibrant but well balanced and often infused with a subtle smokiness from the wood grill at the heart of his kitchen. He enlivens familiar food with subtle twists, from the addictive shoestring onions, which are seasoned with powdered herbes de Provence, to the fried clam tacos, which are inspired by his winter surfing and fishing trips to the Pacific coast of Mexico.
“I love how delicious the fish tacos are in Mexico, and I wanted to copy that same sort of lightness,” Hill says. He has, however, put his own New England spin on them. “Doing fish tacos doesn’t fit in Maine,” Hill says, “but I thought fried clams would be perfect.” It works. Served with avocado, cabbage, and green tomato, the tacos have drawn an enthusiastic following.
So has Shepherd’s Pie. On most evenings the place is nearly full by six o’clock, with a low, happy buzz resonating off wood-paneled walls and rising toward the pressed-tin ceiling. Near the back of the long, narrow space is the open kitchen, where Hill and his crew move with a Zen-like efficiency and calm.
The menu is organized into bar snacks, plates, from the grill, and sides, but there are no rules at Shepherd’s Pie. Diners can begin anywhere on the menu and mix and match at their pleasure. The same is true for drinks, with about twenty wines by the glass and a dozen or so fancy bottles, plus a small, hand-picked beer selection and creative cocktails featuring seasonal ingredients like cucumber and lavender.
Shepherd’s pie is, appropriately, the restaurant’s most popular dish. Hill’s version begins with lamb shanks braised in Madeira, capers, anchovies, and aromatic spices topped with buttermilk potatoes and glazed vegetables and garnished with fried onions and pickled shitakes. Other plates include fried local chicken, and one of Hill’s favorites, inspired by his surfing and fishing trips in Rhode Island: Sicilian-style drowned squid with “a vinegary puttanesca sauce with a lot of anchovy, hot pepper, two kinds of olives, and celery leaves.”
Grill selections include a melt-in-your-mouth halibut with a bright sauce of capers and lemons, and grilled kurobuta pork steak. The steak is served with a salted caramel sauce made with burnt sugar, fish sauce, and lots of spices — one of many secrets Hill learned from an older Cambodian neighbor during his musician days in a gritty Boston neighborhood.
While many places slack off on the veggies and starch, this isn’t the case at Shepherd’s Pie. For instance, Beth’s farmstand sweet corn is sautéed with local black trumpet mushrooms and chanterelles, finished with fried garlic and parmesan. The spaghetti squash makes a meal in itself, topped with tomato, olives, and fresh, creamy feta.
If, after all this, there’s room for dessert, the chocolate pot de crème is a great choice. Topped with whipped cream, fresh berries, and cacao nibs and lightly laced with espresso, it is a cup of dense, bittersweet perfection.
Shepherd’s Pie is open seven days a week from 4 to 10 p.m. and doesn’t take reservations. Hill can be found in the kitchen most nights — after spending mornings at his widely acclaimed Francine Bistro in Camden. The pace is intense, but Hill seems to have found his bliss.
“It’s so much more fun being in a restaurant than being in a band,” says Hill, who toured the U.S. in the late 1980s and early ’90s with the Boston-based band, the Heretix. He eventually traded the stage for the kitchen, working with chefs like Todd English in Boston and others in New York and New Orleans.
Being a musician and a chef really isn’t so different, according to Hill, who grew up on a farm in nearby Warren. “I think of putting together a dish the same way I think of putting together a song or a recording,” Hill says. “There has to be brightness, depth, and sizzle.” Judging from the happy crowds at Shepherd’s Pie, he’s hitting all the right notes.
Shepherd’s Pie is located at 18 Central Street in Rockport. It is open daily from 4 to 10 p.m. Bar snacks $4-$10. Plates $11-$17. From the grill $13-$24. Sides $3-$6. Desserts $7. 207-236-8500. No reservations accepted. Handicap accessible.