Fresh Fish in Boston? Try Going Inland

To please their fussy customers, top chefs often go to Captain Marden's, a third-generation family company with a seafaring background

COOKS, lovers of seafood, and chefs of some of Boston's most famous restaurants are going to the suburbs for a fish supplier they can trust for freshness and top quality, and no wonder.

Captain Marden's, a family company now operated by the third generation of Mardens, has a long tradition of seafaring in its background. Today's family members and their crew know the business inside out. With dozens of fish companies in the city of Boston, it is remarkable that top chefs go to suburban Wellesley and Newton to satisfy their demanding standards of quality and to please their often elite and fussy customers.

Clients read like a roll-call of New England's best chefs: Lydia Shire of Biba, Boston's Jasper White, The Wayside Inn, Michela's in Cambridge, and many others. Ms. Shire, owner of Biba, one of the most memorable restaurants in the United States, says that all her fresh seafood comes from Captain Marden's.

"The fish is impeccable," she says. "This company gives service like nobody else. The operation is as close to perfection as I've ever seen - East or West coast."

A Biba menu might include such fish dishes as lobster satay with green papaya and mint; bacon, rabe, and squid-tentacle pizza; scallop spiedini; gray sole with fresh fried Maine clams, as well as traditional seafood dishes.

"The quality of Marden's fish is unbeatable," Ms. Shire says. "It all started from Kimberly Marden's recommendation. I've told other chefs, and now they get their fish from Marden's, too."

"Seafood quality is a tough thing to describe, except that it means getting the very best," says Keith Marden Sr. "Many kinds of fish are seasonal and all kinds are not available all the time.

"It takes a long, long, time for a fish merchant to develop good suppliers. We use only those fishermen who give us the top of their catch and it must be properly iced and delivered in record time. We are very critical and we insist on fresh fish only."

It was while Kimberly Marden was a cook at the Bostonian restaurant that she recommended Marden's to Shire, then the executive chef there. Shire tested the quality and service and found it suited her high standards. Today Kimberly, a professional chef in her own right, has for five years been manager of the breakfast segment of Captain Marden's restaurant, called The Captain's Takeaway, an attractively modest establishment in the same building as the retail-wholesale seafood company. Her husband, Keith ( Kim) Marden Jr., is the seafood buyer and manager of the Marden's wholesale department.

"Captain's Takeaway is the name, because we thought originally we'd just have food to go out - to be taken away," says Chef Raymond Ethier, chef and manager for seven years since the opening. "We had a few tables then added 20, and later added 20 more outside. Our first menu had typical New England fried fish and shellfish, but customers asked for lighter foods. They want fish broiled rather than fried. Today, 75 percent of the dishes served are broiled, and the few basic fried foods, such as clams, Main e shrimp, and scallops are fried in 100 percent vegetable oil."

"Fish and chips is probably the most popular customer choice, with lobster rolls a close second and scrod maybe third," Chef Ethier says. The menu also includes seafood kabobs of swordfish, shrimp, and scallops; seafood lasagna; shrimp Parmesan; and several seafood pasta dishes.

Portions are large, and prices moderate. There is a children's menu. Fish is very, very fresh. House specials include Cajun catfish, lemon pepper catfish, and Fishcake Sampler with three different fish cakes - salt cod, salmon, and Maryland crab. "The cakes are lightly breaded and sauteed. Served with three different dipping sauces," the chef explains.

At breakfast, Kimberly Marden's menu has waffles and flapjacks with various fresh fruits, many egg dishes, and Maine Catch, which is two poached eggs on English muffins with fresh Maine crab meat and hollandaise sauce with tarragon. There are also breads, muffins, bagels, beverages and more.

It all started back in the 1940s, when Captain Roy Wilfred Marden, a Nova Scotia-born master mariner, opened a fish store in West Newton Square. It's still operating today and three times larger.

Customers came from neighboring towns, so many from Wellesley that in 1959, Captain Marden's son, Keith Marden Sr., with his brother Edgar, opened another Captain Marden's in Wellesley on Forest Street, later expanding when moving to the present site at 279 Linden Street.

Originally a railroad station, the building was restored in 1980 and now houses the wholesale and retail fish business, as well as the restaurant.

"We ran a small business for a while in West Newton, but the demand for fresh seafood was so great we decided to expand to Wellesley. We call this our satellite store, and since we've been here we've continued to expand," Keith Marden Sr. said in a Monitor interview.

His son, Keith, joined the company on graduating from Ohio Wesleyam University in 1980. He buys the seafood, often ordering from Australia or Hawaii or Chile to fill special orders, and is in charge of the 50 or more employees. Edgar Marden's son, Richard, is in charge of the retail store. Kim's sister, Nancy, handles accounting, and Mrs. Keith Marden Sr. is in charge of advertising.

What attracts the chefs of fine restaurants and hotels to this fish company? It may be the same qualities that have appealed to the local customers who keep coming back to the large retail fish store. Marden Sr. explains it this way: "We pay our bills on time. We all work hard to make sure we have the best quality. We know our sources. We may buy a whole boat of lobster from one fisherman. We get mussels from a farm in Prince Edward Island, so we know they're clean and free from pollution.

"We do all our own cooking and freezing," says the senior Marden when asked about the variety of frozen prepared seafood in the main store. "With all those wonderful fresh bones, left from our filletted fish - you can imagine we wouldn't let those go to waste.

"We started making fish chowders and froze it because there was so much. Then people wanted to buy it. We also make our own fish cakes and are known for our light, fluffy crabcakes with a special recipe from a Maryland friend."

There's also a deli that sells traditional seafood salads, and frozen-food cases with Haddock Mornay, Lobster Newburg, Creamed Finnan Haddie, Schrod Parmesan, Sole Delizioso, and many other heat-and-serve dishes in neat, frozen-food packages, all prepared on the premises.

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