Portsmouth, New Hampsire’s Restaurant Week is April 3-12, 2014. Our resident moto-foodie columnist Ken Aiken shares his experience at the even last year.
In the shadows, ice was cascading down rocky faces of road cuts as I rode my motorcycle across the state of New Hampshire. Taste is 90% dependent on smell, and everyone knows that brisk air whets the appetite. It was the first week in November and I had been invited to attend the opening of Restaurant Week in Portsmouth. I was already getting hungry.
Portsmouth’s culinary revolution began in 1970 when James Haller opened the Blue Strawberry Restaurant and put Portsmouth on the foodie map. New Hampshire’s first brewpub, the Portsmouth Brewing Company, was established in 1991 and quickly followed by Smuttynose in 1993 and Redhook in 1996. Portsmouth has since become the center for craft-beer production in the Granite State.
Downtown Portsmouth is really a relatively small area that’s absolutely packed with amazing restaurants, often literally one on top of another, and walking is advised. As such, I parked my motorcycle for a couple days and moved into the Sheraton Harborside Hotel on Market Street.
Sponsored by the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, the concept behind Restaurant Week is amazingly simple: participating restaurants offer a special fixed price lunch ($16.95) and dinner ($29.95) menu to encourage foodies to explore this culinary oasis. It has become a major event with 45-50 establishments and up to 70,000 diners participating during each of these weeks.
My first stop was the Portsmouth Brewing Company. After sampling their daily brews—Dirty Blonde, Wheat Wine, Petite Effronte, Mil Stout, British IPA, Calyspso Pale Ale, Belgian Kriek, and Retro Pale Ale—in their secret pub, it was time to head upstairs for lunch. I started with crispy, beer-battered fried calamari and a cup of homemade chili made with ground beef and chorizo sausage, tomatoes, spices, onions, peppers, beans, and ale –topped with red onions and green chilies. Their fresh Atlantic salmon was grilled and finished with their exquisite mustard-malt glaze and served with ale-braised kale. Apparently the chef likes cooking with beer.
Founded in 1623, Portsmouth has one of the highest concentrations of early 18th century buildings in the country. Many are privately owned, but a number of historic ones are open to the public. An entire 10-acre section of the original town is now a museum called Strawberry Banke, but walking along almost every street reveals architectural gems. Besides, you’ll appreciate the exercise between meals.
If you like modern fusion, the fare and atmosphere at Moxy is sure to please. Touted as being an “American tapas bar,” their small plates and bites—lacquered pork belly, fried pickle chips, NH spicy tasso, crispy Rhode Island calamari—are ideal for a quick stop and a glass of wine.
Ristorante Massimo has an extensive wine cellar and its elegant atmosphere is what you’d expect for a fine dining experience. Upstairs at Massimo’s a more casual bar atmosphere serving small plates of impeccable quality. Having just eaten at Moxy, I had no intention of savoring more than a glass of wine, but Massimo Morgia is true Italian host, pressing upon me imported Italian charcuterie and cheeses [forse un po] and then some homemade ravioli from the kitchen—basta cosi—followed by another glass of an exquisite vintage [o Dio mio!].
Book & Bar is both a bookstore and light bistro. Who doesn’t like to read while enjoying a cappuccino, beer, or glass of wine? Two-story high ceilings, large windows, couches, café tables, and inside bar with craft brews on tap, bookcase and library stacks of affordable books, an expansive outside café patio, and a graduate chef from New England Culinary Institute combine to make this a place where you just want to hang for a few hours.
The Portsmouth U.S. Naval Yard was established in 1800, but the first warship constructed at the shipyard was the British Falkland in 1690. Today it is where the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines are repaired, overhauled, and modernized. It’s a little bizarre to stand on the dock in Prescott Park and see a nuclear submarine among the lobster boats and river traffic.
The Library Restaurant advertises as being a steak house, although their menu includes chicken, seafood, and lamb. Wine Spectator has given them the Award of Excellence for the past four years, but their vodka and whiskey selection is pretty impressive. The history of this hotel dates to 1833, but in 1884 a fire destroyed all but the elegant dining room and the new Rockingham Hotel was constructed around it. If you want a Kobe steak or the finest Champagne in town, this is the place to go—and yes, you can read the books while waiting for your meal to be served.
There is an indefinable something about Radici that makes it one of the most popular restaurants—and my favorite— in town. The owner, Jay Krecklow, is committed to always providing gluten-free options—including pasta—on the menu. Not having any dietary restrictions, I ordered the Osso Buco of braised veal shank with garlic mashed potato and asparagus. Also tried a side of cranberry/cherry polenta and just a few—well, maybe several—forks of Penne Gorgonzola made with a blend of wild mushrooms, tomato sage, and Gorgonzola. Radici even offers a “build your own pasta” option where you select the type of pasta, the sauce, and a selection of additions.
The sad thing is all the places I never made it to. However, in 2014, Restaurant Week will be held April 3-12 and November 6-15, so you’ll have the opportunity to explore these and 40 other participating restaurants that I missed.