The tangy smell of seafood wafted throughout The Gloucester House restaurant last night as St. Peter's Fiesta kicked off its traditional opening event — the New Fish Festival buffet dinner — in untraditional style.
Unlike previous years, the tables were laid out inside the restaurant and the food was there simply to be eaten, without any ballots for competition.
The move indoors didn't seem to limit seating or attendance though, as Sefatia Romeo Theken, vice president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association (GFWA), reported more than 200 tickets sold for $30 each.
The Fishermen's Wives took over a portion of the cooking duties for the first time, and made one of the eight appetizers and five of the 12 entrees in an effort to promote its cookbooks.
"I thought, 'Let's bring Gloucester back to Gloucester,'" Romeo Theken said. "You won't get variety like this anywhere else."
The Gloucester House, Intershell Seafood, Passports Restaurant, Emerson Inn By the Sea, and Lobsta Land filled out the rest of the menu, and lines for every item curled around corners of the room.
Watering mouths waited on one of the most popular dishes of the night, Passports' seared Escolar — also known as "white tuna" or butterfish — coated with a South African cinnamon chili dry rub and served with roasted Granny Smith apples, spinach and butternut squash and finished off with a drop of truffle honey.
"The blend of flavors is ridiculous," said Jeremy Guyotte, a chef at Passports who came up with the recipe. "Spicy cayenne, sweet cinnamon and finish off with the truffle honey; it's amazing. When we make it as a special at the restaurant, it always sells out."
Passports' owner Eric Lorden said the restaurant has been making it since around March this year, after they came up with it for a wine dinner. The blend of spices created an incredible mix of smells that was attracting customers from across the room.
Other restaurants took a more discreet approach, such as Emerson Inn By the Sea's filet of sole stuffed with spinach and topped with a Mornay sauce.
"It's a very simple menu that uses a flat, white fish and can be used in different ways," said Molly Williamson, the Inn's general manager. "Last year we tried something a little more complicated but we thought with this economy, people would like something simple that they can put together."
In past years, the New Fish Festival included a ballot vote by all customers to decide which entree was best, but the invited restaurants were just as happy to let everyone eat their recipes without the added pressure of being judged.
"The competition adds a fun flair, but we always try to go into it doing our best," Williamson said. "We're just honored to be involved."
Romeo Theken and the rest of the Fishermen's Wives group hustled around to accommodate the fast emptying dishes and keep mouths full, while also finding time to sell both the group's new and old cookbooks at a table at the back of the room.
"We brought a couple of boxes — about 70 altogether — and we expect to sell out," said Donna Marshall, a member of the Fishermen's Wives. "They make wonderful gifts."
While New Fish diners were busy piling delicacies on their plates, crowds of people were taking advantage of another Fiesta event — the opening night of the carnival in St. Peter's Square.
The area was buzzing with excitement, but the cold and dreary weather limited the crowds from reaching typical opening numbers.
"It's been very slow for the first night, but it's picking up slowly," said Hansie Klaassen, the manager of the Fiesta rides. And crowds picked up significantly as the night wore on, with plenty of happy teenagers and children racing around buying fried dough and playing arcade games.
If the weather put an early damper on the carnival's opening, there are better days ahead. Today's forecast calls for morning clouds giving way to sunnier skies and temperatures in the high 70s. Tomorrow's and weekend temperatures are expected to be in the 80s — though there are daily forecasts for scattered thunderstorms.
Cameron Kittle can be reached at email@example.com