A New England Lobster Tale

Rhode Island chefs offer upscale twists on a coastal classic

A New England Lobster Tale
A classic New England lobster boil offers a chance for friends and family to gather around the table for an elegant yet casual meal. Stoneacre co-owner Christopher Bender (wearing a hat) digs into a feast being served by executive chef Michael Faccidomo. (Joe St. Pierre)
From the Jul 31, 2022, issue

When Stoneacre Brasserie and Stoneacre Garden owners Christopher Bender and David Crowell entertain, it’s a low-key affair, despite their fine dining backgrounds and proprietorship of two Newport, Rhode Island, restaurants, both of which hold Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. The recipes for this classic lobster boil are simple and straightforward, but each with a chef-y twist. The goal is a shared meal designed for easy but discerning conviviality.

“You’re all kind of huddled around the food. You’re sharing the food, and you’re sharing the work of cracking shells. It really brings everyone together,” Bender begins. Crowell follows up: “That’s what we like about the dining experience: the fun part. If it’s done right, everyone shares in that experience wholeheartedly, dirty hands and sloppy shirts and all.”

Both come from working-class coastal upbringings, Crowell in Rhode Island and Bender in Connecticut, and both started working in restaurants at a young age. What started as dishwashing and busing jobs quickly turned into more. “They’re not necessarily the most glamorous jobs,” Bender says, “but you sort of fall in love with the industry. A lot of it’s subconscious: That feeling of the dinner table, of the family atmosphere bringing people together. To be able to share that with others is the inspiration and the passion behind things. And it’s far more rewarding to kind of create that emotion or foster it than it is to necessarily do the fanciest thing.”

 People enjoying wine around a table on the coast
Like Bender, Stoneacre co-owner David Crowell (in pink) prioritizes family time—and it carries over into the company culture. Today, he works alongside his wife, Christine Bevilacqua, director of sales and marketing. (Joe St. Pierre)

Bender pursued culinary education at Johnson & Wales University, while Crowell studied video and audio production elsewhere. They met while working in Providence. Side gigs at restaurants took hold of Crowell’s future: “I was bartending and waiting tables in nicer and nicer restaurants, and then got out of college and realized that I was having much more fun and enjoying my life and all the offerings of hospitality.”

Bender took a job at the Chanler, a luxury hotel in Newport, and reached out to Crowell. “He said, ‘You gotta come check out this restaurant. It’s next-level stuff. It’s what we’ve always wanted to do, as far as the cool wine list and the elevated service and food.’ I followed his lead and took a job that turned me on to something that I didn’t ever want to turn back from.”

Bender continues: “It reinforced what the passion was. We hadn’t realized how much pride you could have in hospitality and how it can be really substantial. It’s not just providing service but providing an experience.”

They followed the chef from the Chanler to another job on Long Island, and eventually lit out for New York City. Bender found work at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Crowell at Gray Kunz’s Café Gray, both much lauded restaurants at the Time Warner Center.

“It was incredibly challenging,” Crowell recalls. “I guess it’s kind of cliché but without the challenges, the rewards don’t taste as sweet. And there’s a point where once you realize you’re never gonna learn everything about food and wine, you’re not gonna learn everything about cocktails and spirits, you are kind of open to a lifetime of enjoying all these things—and being on this journey.”

After another itinerant period, the pair started looking toward the future. Bender explains: “In hindsight, we started to understand the importance of putting in time in a place and building roots. No matter what you’re trying to do, whether it’s making a career for yourself or making an impact in the industry, you have to be satisfied with the baby steps and having things come to fruition over a long period of time. Otherwise, it’s just a flash in the pan.”

During downtime, they often prepared ambitious dinners for each other and friends, essentially playing restaurant at home. Bender recalls their time working for Galen Zamarra, then-chef at Mas Farmhouse in Manhattan, as especially meaningful: “For a long time, I think we were enamored with the things you get exposed to and [with] seeing, feeling and touching new things. Working for him, it was a real restaurant that was doing nice things and was also run by real people. There wasn’t a big group of investors, there wasn’t big corporate money behind it. It was an actual lifestyle. And there was a moment where we thought, ‘We can actually do this.’”

They considered opening an establishment in New York, but then felt that Newport had a magic combination of enough of an audience and also a space for them to fill in a meaningful way. They opened a small place called Stoneacre Pantry in 2013, and soon realized they were extending themselves a bit too much and would need to scale up. “We were pulling out all of our tricks,” Bender says, “making fancy cocktails, tasting menus. It was incredibly fun, but it wasn’t sustainable in the longer term. If you make yourself indispensable, you become beholden to it. So it couldn’t be all about us.”

Today they have the two restaurants in Newport (they also cater a lot of events, and are opening a bed-and-breakfast called the Chart House Inn). The central ethos of the company is sustainability through balance. They’ve worked plenty of long shifts and seven-day weeks, and now they feel that no one should.

“We want to challenge ourselves enough that we have a professional passion,” Bender says, “but also pay enough attention to our personal balance of life, whether that’s family, significant others or just being inspired. We really try to cultivate that environment. We’re trying to get to a five-day week or even a four-day week. Then people have time to travel, meet new people, be themselves. And they bring that back to the restaurants. Guests feel it when the people are happy and fulfilled. They feel like they’re part of something.”

 Three people enjoy a lobster boil at a table; at left, a man pours a glass of sparkling wine.
The lobster boil is a scene similar to “family meal” before dinner service—a time to enjoy one another's company. Here, Bevilacqua and GM John Massed share laughs over good food. (Joe St. Pierre)

Their menus read very simply, despite a lot of elevated technique behind some of the dishes. It’s the kind of food that you can simply enjoy, but there’s a lot behind it that’s fun for ambitious cooks to examine. Bender says: “It was only in the recent years where we forced ourselves to find some of that balance, some of that humble approach, just by virtue of trying to make that larger sort of restaurant work.”

Crowell’s wife, Christine Bevilacqua, is now director of sales and marketing for Stoneacre. Together, they have a 2-year-old boy and infant twin girls. He says, “Some guys are lucky, and some guys are really lucky. Balancing the work-life stuff has been a challenge, but the restaurant has found its stride in the past couple of years and we’re building that in around our personal lives.”

This year, Bender will marry Nicole Canning, director of marketing and guest experiences at Stoneacre Hospitality. “It’s important for us to be able to have these lives, and for other people to have them, too,” Crowell adds.

Their shift to knowledgeable simplicity extends to wine, too. They have tight but smart lists, playing between familiarity and discovery. Bender approaches pairing in broad terms: “There are very few pairings that actually make each other better, like Muscadet and oysters. It’s more about the progression or being able to enjoy things together. There’s a chance of an epiphany, but it’s usually much simpler: a logical order and paying attention so that things aren’t conflicting. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated.”

Later, Bender mentions the family meal, when the staff eats together before service. Crowell jumps in: “If you have a good family meal, and the staff all gathers and you talk about your night—and what’s going to happen, what wines you’re going to sell and what dishes are on the menu—then that transitions to after-shift drinks and dinners at home. That camaraderie and sitting around the table has always been very important to us, to our friendship and our business relationship. If our restaurants represent anything, it’s that.”

Prop stylist: Caylin Harris. Vases courtesy of Femme Sole by Jessamyn Go. Sparkling wine glasses courtesy of Riedel. 


ON THE MENU

Green Gazpacho
Domaine du Petit Coteau Vouvray Les Grenouilles 2019

Roasted Oysters
Kelley Fox Pinot Gris Rosé Dundee Hills Maresh Vineyard 2018

Lobster Boil
German Gilabert Cava Brut NV

Cherry Trifle
Domaine de Barroubio Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois Languedoc 2017


 Four mugs of green gazpacho, two glasses of white wine and a bowl of tomatoes
Green gazpacho enlivens the palate and sets the right tone for the meal. (Joe St. Pierre)

Green Gazpacho

“You’re basically making a savory smoothie. It’s a blend of summer bounty, very fresh and lightening, and has a little bit of acid to it and a little bit of heat. It starts everything off with the right tone, gets the palate excited and makes you want to eat more.”—Christopher Bender

  • ½ head celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 Thai chile, seeds removed
  • 1 cup parsley leaves
  • 1 quart spinach
  • ½ cup mint leaves
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 ½ ounces Sherry vinegar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 20 ounces water
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup toasted slivered almonds (optional)

1. Place everything, except the almonds, into a blender (or use an immersion blender). Blend until smooth.

WINE MATCH

Domaine du Petit Coteau Vouvray Les Grenouilles 2019

“This is essentially like a fermented version of the green gazpacho. It’s fresh, minerally, lively, aromatic and very quaffable. It has a real sense of place, too. Loire whites, you can taste the minerals, even feel the minerals. They have a body that’s irreplaceable.”—C.B.

WINE SPECTATOR ALTERNATES

Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec Le Mont 2020 (93 points, $42)
Tania & Vincent Carême Terre Brûlée Le Blanc Swartland 2020 (90, $16)


 A plate of Portuguese oysters Rockefeller
Chorizo and goat cheese give these Portuguese oysters Rockefeller an unexpected twist. (Joe St. Pierre)

Roasted Oysters

“This is a Portuguese oysters Rockefeller. With the chorizo and goat cheese, you get textures and flavors that are unexpected. The way it takes that little kiss of heat from the grill, it just kind of works.”—C.B.

  • ¼ pound ground raw chorizo
  • ½ stick unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 pint spinach leaves
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • ½ cup goat cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 dozen East Coast oysters
  • Breadcrumbs

1. To make béchamel: Saute the chorizo over medium heat, then remove and set aside.

2. Melt butter in the pan, then add the flour and whisk to make roux. Cook until “blond,” or lightly colored, then whisk in the cream and spinach.

3. When the mixture comes to a simmer, add the goat and Parmesan cheeses and the chorizo. Stir until it starts to thicken, then remove from heat. Note: This mixture can be refrigerated for up to a week.

4. Clean and shuck the oysters. Place shucked oysters on a sheet pan. Fill the oysters with the chorizo and cheese mixture. The oysters can either be placed in the broiler or on the grill until hot. Garnish with breadcrumbs.

WINE MATCH

Kelley Fox Pinot Gris Rosé Dundee Hills Maresh Vineyard 2018

"I’m absolutely in love with the wines she makes. The Pinot Gris is almost chewy in a sense; it’s got a real fleshiness to it, a round character. If you were to close your eyes, you might not know if it’s a red wine or a white wine."—C.B.

WINE SPECTATOR ALTERNATES

Hecht & Bannier Côtes de Provence Rosé 2020 (90, $20)
A to Z Wineworks Rosé Oregon 2021 (88, $16)


 A medley of potatoes, chorizo, corn, mussels and clams being poured into a large dish
Potatoes, chorizo, corn, mussels and clams make a visually striking—and delicious—base for the lobsters. (Joe St. Pierre)

Build Your Boil: A lobster feast in 30 minutes

"It's a subject I'm passionate about. Growing up in New England, I never enjoyed it. I thought I just didn't like fish and seafood. I wanted to love it. Then later, I realized I just didn't like it when it was overcooked. We have this magical bounty of things here, but they weren't being celebrated the right way. Timing and balance are everything."—C.B.

1. Combine the following and salt in a lobster pot: 1 gallon water; 1 pound butter; 1 bunch fresh thyme; 2 onions, roughly chopped; 6 garlic cloves; 1 head celery, roughly chopped. Cover and boil for 10 minutes.

2. Add 3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, halved, and 8 cooked chorizo links. Let cook for about 10 minutes.

3. Add 3 dozen littleneck clams, cleaned, and 8 live 1.5-pound lobsters. Cook for about 7 minutes.

4. Add 3 dozen mussels, cleaned and scrubbed, and 8 ears of corn, husked and cut into thirds. Cook until the mussel shells open, about 3 minutes.

5. Serve with dollops of chile lime butter (recipe follows) and garnish with parsley and lemons.

 Cast iron cornbread with chile lime butter
Jazz up this easy cast iron cornbread with a dollop of chile lime butter. (Joe St. Pierre)

Cast Iron Cornbread

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup butter melted, plus 1/4 cup butter for greasing the pan
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400° F.

2. Mix all the dry ingredients.

3. Separately, mix all the wet ingredients.

4. Stir the mixed wet ingredients into the dry ones, and keep stirring until the batter is smooth.

5. Evenly and thoroughly butter the bottom and sides of a cast iron pan or dutch oven.

6. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Use a toothpick to check that the inside doesn’t cling to the wood.

CHILE LIME BUTTER

  • 2 Fresno peppers, seeds removed
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
  • Salt to taste

1. Place Fresno peppers and lime juice in a blender and blend until smooth. (For a spicier chile butter, leave the seeds in.)

2. Combine the mixture and butter in a mixing bowl, and stir until light red. Note: This butter can be refrigerated for up to three weeks.

WINE MATCH

German Gilabert Cava Brut NV

"It has all the body to stand up to everything, and the acid to be refreshing, and also that effervescence. You’re having this big meal of shellfish and potatoes and buttery things ... it’s a great leveler, a great reset. It feels incredibly versatile."—C.B.

WINE SPECTATOR ALTERNATES

Segura Viudas Brut Cava Heredad Reserva NV (90, $30)
Domaine Chandon Brut California NV (89, $19)


 Two mason jars of buttermilk biscuit and cherry trifle with two small glasses of dessert wine
This buttermilk biscuit and cherry trifle is an easy match with a variety of dessert wines. (Joe St. Pierre)

Buttermilk Biscuit and Cherry Trifle

"It's a cherry pie meets strawberry shortcake sort of thing. You have the biscuits, the tartness of the cherries and the texture is incredibly enjoyable. Smaller dishes have a cuteness factor, but you could serve it in a big dish, too. Trifle is one of those desserts that encourages you to go back in for more, have another scoop."—C.B.

  • 16 ounces frozen red sour cherries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 16 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 2 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 8 buttermilk biscuits, fresh or up to one-day old

1. Reduce cherries and sugar in a small pot over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid releases from the cherries and becomes syrupy.

2. Stir together the cornstarch and ½ cup of water, then mix it into the cherries. Cool overnight.

3. Whip the mascarpone with 1 cup of cream and the confectioners’ sugar. Separately whip the remainder of the cream until peaks are stiff, then fold it into the mascarpone. Put mixture into a piping bag or a zip-lock bag with one corner cut off.

4. Layer torn pieces of buttermilk biscuits, cherry compote and mascarpone cream into glass jars or small bowls.

WINE MATCH

Domaine de Barroubio Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois Languedoc 2017

"This particular one is [a] Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois. It’s a very specific and visually striking area. It has this bright white limestone that, from a distance, almost looks like snow. Then right across the road, it’s completely red. So something that would usually be a sweeter wine here is incredibly floral and delicate. Dessert wines can be tough with food, but this one makes it easy. It works with so many things."—C.B.

WINE SPECTATOR ALTERNATES

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2018 (93, $44/375ml)
Roberto Anselmi Veneto Passito I Capitelli 2018 (92, $50/375ml)

Recipes seafood summer sweet-wines Restaurant Awards Sparkling Wines White Wines Rosé Cooking Pairings Chenin Blanc Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio

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