Providence Journal
Journal Staff Writer

WORCESTER — I never thought I’d say it, but one of the best seafood meals I’ve ever had was in Worcester.

Yes, Worcester — a city landlocked in the heart of Massachusetts and a good hour-and-a-half from any Atlantic coastline.

I went with a couple of friends, one of whom grew up, and still lives, in Worcester. It was she who told me that the Sole Proprietor is her favorite restaurant in the city. It has been in business for 26 years.

Of course, I’m from the Ocean State, so I was a doubter: Seafood? In Worcester?

We went for lunch and were immediately charmed by the look and feel of the place. It’s large, seating 230 in four separate dining rooms around a main room with a bar. But the size is not obvious because each of the smaller rooms has an intimate feel and scale. Carpeting helps to muffle the sounds of an always-busy place filled with animated conversation and the lusty enjoyment of food.

With beadboard on the walls decorated with nautical prints and paintings, the restaurant achieves the crisp feel of a newly renovated summer house, nothing musty or shabby about it.

The tile floor around the bar, it took us some time to realize, is a geographically accurate mosaic depicting Cape Cod, with all its towns and villages marked in tile letters.

Hot, chewy rolls

We were seated quickly and soon provided with a basket of hot, chewy rolls, the kind whose crisp brown crusts puff steam when you break into them. Delicious! And always a good omen when a restaurant knows enough to serve soft butter with good rolls right off the bat.

Drink orders were next, and although the wine list looked excellent (the Sole has an award of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine), two of us opted to share a pomegranate Cosmopolitan, which sounded just right to dull the edge of a rainy drive up from Providence.

On the ball, as she was throughout the meal, our waitress thoughtfully divided the drink — an inspired concoction of fresh pomegranate juice, Cointreau and vodka — into two chilled martini glasses for us.

We began our lunch with a salad of baby arugula, goat cheese, and fennel ($5.99) — a brightly crisp and tangy medley of summery flavors, enhanced by a citrusy vinaigrette that glazed every piece separately in the French-perfected manner.

Our waitress informed us that the kitchen was out of trout, which meant that an intriguing lunch dish of baked rainbow trout in a potato/chive crust topped with a roasted pepper vinaigrette was not available.

My Worcester friend was unperturbed, as she had already decided to order her favorite, oven-baked crab cakes ($8.99). These were a pair of nicely browned cakes, loaded with fresh-tasting crabmeat bound with just enough filler to hold their shape, drizzled with chili mayonnaise, and served atop a tangy Asian slaw. It would be hard to come up with better crab cakes than these. Accompanying them on the plate were rice pilaf and a perfectly cooked medley of summer squash, zucchini and carrots — nicely crisp but not at all raw.

My other companion chose Ginger Cream Scallops with Apples ($10.99) — a generous serving of eight large, sweet New Bedford scallops, seared to brown the tops and bottoms, and served with slices of Cortland apples in a light white sauce subtly flavored with garlic and ginger so that it didn’t obscure the fresh flavor of the scallops. This dish came with rice and spears of perfectly steamed fresh asparagus.

I was delighted with my choice, a special of the day: artichoke-panko crusted haddock ($8.99). This was a filet of some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had, simply coated with panko crumbs and baked to brown them. (Panko is a Japanese bread crumb coarser in texture than regular bread crumbs, thus yielding an especially crunchy coating for broiled or fried seafood.)

I couldn’t taste any artichoke in there, though I’m sure it was part of the crumb mix, but in any case the haddock was well served by this treatment, and I happily finished every bite. Side dishes were fine as well: rice pilaf and the squash/carrot medley.

The Perfect Flan

The desserts at Sole are mostly made in-house, our waitress informed us, and she glowed when we mentioned one of them, The Perfect Flan. “It’s our most popular,” she said, and so we ordered it.

It proved to be, indeed, a perfect flan — a neat circle of smooth baked custard topped with a thin brown caramel sauce, just warm enough to provide contrast with the cool custard.

Other choices (most in the $5.99 to $6.99 range) included a White Chocolate Tartufo, chocolate terrine with two sauces, tiramisu and black bottom pie.

Later, in a phone conversation with the restaurant’s owner, Robb Ahlquist, I remarked that we Ocean Staters don’t immediately think of Worcester in terms of fresh seafood. He explained that since he and his wife Madeleine opened the Sole in 1979, they’ve gotten all their seafood from Boston’s oldest seafood supplier, M.F. Foley, which also has a plant in New Bedford.

All of the restaurant’s fish, he added, is cut to order, and there is a seafood market on the premises as well.

A few years ago, when the Ahlquists redesigned the Sole, they added a sushi bar and raw bar, both of which have been very popular, he said.

The restaurant is open every day, with lunch service continuing from 11:30 a.m. right into dinner, and Ahlquist pointed out that “every item on the menu, including the lunch dishes, is available for the same price at any time of day.”

“We’d rather have people come here and have what they want than say no,” he said. “We know that price is an issue.”

Although he and his wife originally worked in the kitchen, Ahlquist now oversees two chefs at the Sole, Joe Wong and Roberto Dias. Six years ago, the Ahlquists opened a second Worcester restaurant, the One Eleven Chop House on Shrewsbury Street, serving a robust menu of Chicago-style steaks and other meats.

“Worcester has been very good to us,” said Ahlquist, when I’d asked him if he’d ever considered opening a restaurant in Providence. “We’re very happy here.”

Bill of fare

Lunch for two at the Sole Proprietor might break down this way:
Pomegranate Cosmopolitan…$7.99
Goat cheese salad…$5.99
Crab cakes…$8.99
Panko haddock…$8.99
Ginger scallops…$10.99
Flan… $5.99

The Sole Proprietor, 118 Highland St., Worcester. (508) 798-3474, Reservations advised; credit cards accepted: MC, V, AX, DIS. Wheelchair accessible; highchairs available.

Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. on. Dinner daily from 4 p.m. Closing at 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. Sat., 9:30 p.m. Sun. Late-night kettle (bar) menu till 1:30 a.m.

Upscale casual seafood restaurant

Entrees $16.99 to $31.99; appetizers $2.99 to $13.99; desserts $5.99 to $8.99. Extensive wine list, most bottles $23 to $80. By the glass, $5.99 to $12.99.

The Sole Proprietor and One Eleven Chop House are consistently mentioned as among the best restaurants in Worcester.