Order this... flavors from the ocean at The Surf
The Surf Hotel, at the corner of Water and Dodge Streets, has been a fixture on Block Island as long as I can remember. The cottage was built in 1876 and soon after turned into a hotel. The Cyr family purchased it in 1956 and have owned and operated it ever since. The deck curves around the street on one side and opens to the ocean on the other. I’ve sat on the deck for dinner, and in the dining room for breakfast, but never had I seen the lower patio area overlooking the beach out back. It is a stunning vista that spreads before you as your food is delivered — the patio sits just above the beach; close enough that you can almost taste the salty wind spray but far enough that you can enjoy every morsel of your meal. A staff member pointed out a new dining and entertainment space even closer to the beach. With a tarp ceiling and party lights for the evening, the beach patio is a place to enjoy a meal and often the music of local musician Mark Phillips on the weekends.
I was greeted at The Surf by Chef Jim Bjurman, who is back in the kitchen after a one-year hiatus. We sat inside first where I asked him some questions about his life, work, and the tiny town where he spends his off season.
Q: What is your earliest food memory that made you realize you want to be a chef?
Jimmy: I just fell into it. I remember making spaghetti and meatballs with my mom and grandfather when I was six years old, and I knew I liked that. I started as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Rhode Island when I was 13, then became a grill cook, then a line cook, and now I’m here. I like the fast lifestyle and I love cooking with seafood.
Q: What made you want to be a chef on Block Island?
A: I love the island; I grew up in Rhode Island and would come out here to fish. I love that it’s a small community, and what’s great about The Surf is I get to see the ocean every day. It’s the only kitchen I worked in that has multiple windows to look outside.
Q: What do you like about being a chef at The Surf?
A: I like that there is new staff all the time. I’ve been working here since 2014 and it’s fun to see new people every year.
Q: Where do you go in the off-season?
A: I go to this little town in Colorado called Crestone. The town is really small — just 100 people — and my buddy owns a grill there, so I cook there once in a while, but mostly I just lay in the hot springs all winter.
Q: What’s your favorite food to cook with?
A: Any seafood, I love cooking with fish. My favorite right now is snapper, we sear it and poach it and serve it with garlic, tomato broth, fresh herbs and butter and it comes with a creamy Italian polenta.
Q: If you go out to eat, where do you go and what do you order?
A: Poor People’s Pub and I get the arugula pizza.
Q: What food would you never eat again?
This is a tough one because… well, here’s the thing. I hate the taste of olives, any kind of olive. But I want to like them and I keep thinking my tastebuds might change, so I try them every three months to see if I like them. So far, no matter what kind of olive I try, I still hate ‘em. So I wouldn’t say I’d never eat them again, because there’s always a chance I could like them someday.
Q: What is your favorite dish here you wish more people would order?
A: That’s our salmon dish, I think it’s excellent. The salmon is seared with the skin on so it’s really crispy, and then we serve it over prosciutto, black lentils and fava beans, with a cucumber-dill sauce.
Q: What style of food do you serve at The Surf?
A: I’d say it’s casual, high-end food. We have a motto in the kitchen — I tell my guys, “If you wouldn’t make it for your mother, you shouldn’t make it for a guest.” This means that all the food that comes out is mom-worthy.
Q: Are there any staples on the menu that you have kept to please long-time customers?
A: There are a few things — like our calamari with mango, cilantro and thai chili, and our lobster roll. It’s the perfect marriage of lobster and tarragon and that’s always going to be on the menu.
Q: What would you eat for your last meal?
A: Pepperoni pizza from Caserta’s Pizza on Federal Hill in Providence, New York System hot weiners, and anything with chocolate peanut butter ice cream.
After our conversation, my friend and I moved outside to the lower patio where we sat just above the beach. On a cloudless, low-humidity day, with a nice breeze, the beach was postcard-perfect and served as a lovely backdrop for our tasting. Jimmy started us with some of The Surf’s homemade clam chowder, garnished with olive oil, celery leaves and chive batons. The chowder was thick, creamy and flavorful with bacon, herbs and littleneck clams. But clams are not the star here; potatoes are what made this soup special. Perfectly cooked and chopped a little larger than usual, they melted in my mouth and make this soup one to savor. Our next course was the salmon over lentils and fava beans. Fava beans are having a moment right now — an ancient member of the pea family, they have a nutty taste and buttery texture all their own. Paired with black lentils, which have a mild, earthy flavor, and cured prosciutto adding a hint of chewiness and saltiness to the dish, the three elements combined to form a nice base for the fish. The crisp salmon skin gave this entree a nice symmetry, allowing the tender salmon flavor to hold its own. A cucumber-dill sauce provided just enough coolness to make this meal refreshing and representative of the season.
We finished our tasting with Chef Jimmy’s favorite dish, the snapper. As Jimmy told us before he served the meal, “we skip very few corners here” and most everything on the plate is house-made. This was especially true of the snapper, which I can best sum up as “summer on a plate.” The buttery snapper paired with the creamy polenta bathed in tomato broth and brimming with basil, oregano and other fresh herbs tasted just like what summer feels to me. A long, languid day outside, and on the beach, afternoons that stretch out for hours, and after you come in you just want a bite of something fresh and simple — a tomato cut in half sprinkled with salt and a swish of olive oil, a piece of fresh bread with a smear of cool butter, fish that was caught hours ago, seared on a grill and so tender it almost falls apart when you cut into it.
Chef Jimmy’s snapper dish was all that, and it was the perfect dish to conclude a tasting in one of the most picturesque settings on the street.