503 Shrewsbury St., Worcester
By Bernie Whitmore
Is it possible to discover what’s been obvious forever?
That’s how my recent visit to the Wexford House felt. It’s not that they’re hidden away somewhere obscure; quite the opposite ~ they call their location at the top of Shrewsbury Street “the Gateway to Worcester.” And it’s not as if my companion and I were the first to walk through their door ~ on a recent weeknight both dining room and bar were packed.
But there’s a certain element of sociological field study to be faced on your first visit to the Wex: Its somewhat cramped quarters are a refuge zealously enjoyed by a group of regulars, people who’ve known each other for eons and think nothing of crying out greetings that echo across the dining room. The overall effect felt chaotic (albeit friendly), so I focused my attention on a glass of Sam Adams Summer Ale and the several bowls of buttery popcorn our waitress kept dropping off.
My apprehension was mounting. But when the food began to arrive I soon discovered what keeps this crowd of veteran regulars coming to the Wexford House.
Pleasant surprises began with the Crab Cake appetizer. By now I’ve had so many industrialized versions of crab cakes that I fear what travesty they’ll suffer next. So I started with a taste of the Wexford House’s remoulade sauce. Surprise! Tangy, spicy ~ it deliciously surpassed any I’ve had in years.
Emboldened, I forked a chunk of crab cake. Mostly tender crab, its subtle flavor pleasingly intact, there was just enough bread crumbs to hold it together. The flavorful golden-brown surface was crusty and uneven, evidence that it had been hand-formed and pan fried, which is always better than the oil-soaking they get from a plunge into the deep-fryer.
Strangely enough, this exemplary appetizer was served with bland, supermarket-grade bread and little plastic tubs of whipped-butter-margarine blend labeled “European Style.” Bypassing the “butter,” I used a slice or two for scooping up the remaining remoulade.
Open Face Steak Sandwiches are a phenomenon I’ve never warmed up to; I usually suspect they’re just Steak-umms on a bun. Things couldn’t be more different at the Wexford House. My friend ordered their “open face” and was amazed when he was served a righteous slab of tasty sirloin ~ an inch and a half thick ~ expertly grilled medium rare, just as ordered. Its copious juices had soaked the poor little slice of toast nestled under it and it was served with a large baked potato and pickle slices. Who decided to disguise a steak dinner as a sandwich?
My Seafood Linguine Fra Diavolo came in a large oval bowl ringed with in-shell mussels; the pasta was dressed with moderately spicy marinara sauce and scattered with calamari rings, large sea scallops and shrimp. I gave it a few shakes of red pepper flakes to bring it up to my preferred level of heat. After sampling the seafood, I found the shrimp to be the tastiest and was crestfallen when I found only two of them. However, as I proceeded through my meal, more and more shrimp surfaced from the sea of linguine.
Despite the large entrée portions, I decided to try one of their desserts, a slice of Caramel Apple Granny Pie. Rich pastry was filled with sliced apples in creamy custard. The thick crumb topping was slathered with buttery dark caramel and the plate was crazy-drizzled with caramel sauce.
The Wexford House is certainly not an elegant place to dine: crowded, loud, with little focus on decor. But when it comes to prices, it’s one of the better values around. And once the food has been served, diversions fade to pure dining pleasure. That was the real discovery.