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Fall Restaurant Week Portsmouth & the Seacoast

Front Row Food

Featured Restaurants by Diane Bair & Pamela Wright/ Feature Photos: Allie Burke Photography / April, 2018

Chef’s tables give an insider’s view at area kitchens

“Hi, and welcome back!”says Chef Gregg Sessler as we enter Cava Tapas & Wine Bar in downtown Portsmouth. Sessler is in the restaurant’s open kitchen, a tiny space, smack dab in front of the door. We sit at the snug, four-seat chef’s counter and watch as he shakes and stirs sizzling saute pans, meticulously plates signature dishes, and talks with diners. “Look at this,” he says, palming a tiny, green spruce tip. “It’s so fragrant.” He holds it out for us to take a sniff before tweezering it on the grilled lamb chops we’ve ordered.

FrontRow Cava GreggSesslerDinner at the Cava chef’s table is like attending a private party at a friend’s house (if your friend happens to be an award-winning professional chef). For food enthusiasts, it is perhaps the best seat in the city. “I think a lot of people want a more involved dining experience,” Sessler says. “They’re seeking out something authentic and unique that takes dining to a different level.”

These days, people’s hunger for all things food related continues to surge, and a desire for a peek into the behind-the-scenes culinary world is unprecedented. It’s no wonder that Seacoast chefs are opening their kitchens (and sometimes revealing their secrets) to local diners.

An interactive, elbow-to-elbow dinner isn’t for everyone or for every occasion. And it’s certainly not for every chef. “It takes a certain mentality and personality to do this,” Sessler says. “You obviously can’t be too shy or socially anxious, and you have to be able to juggle a lot of things at once.”

Ken Lingle, executive chef at Salt Kitchen & Bar, agrees. “A lot of us cooks tend to gravitate toward the back of the house because we don’t have that outgoing personality trait that’s needed to work the front. It takes a special person to do that job.” But when it clicks, with both diners and chefs, the experience is memorable and unique. We visited Seacoast chef’s tables and open kitchens, where dinner is as much theater as it is a meal.

COMMUNAL DINING

FrontRow FranklinOyster

(Photo courtesy of portsmouthnh.com)
“I like the community vibe and energy that the guests bring,” Matt Louis, chef-owner of the The Franklin in Portsmouth, says of his open-concept bar. Grab a seat at the 16-person counter, with peek-a-boo views into the kitchen and a full-on look at the oyster station, and you’ll feel the buzz. In the lively, industrial-chic restaurant, you can watch Louis and his crew shuck more than 1,000 oysters a night, as they talk about the nuanced flavors and textures of each variety. The oyster menu changes daily, but typically there are five to nine different varieties, including the Franklin Oyster, which is local and exclusively farmed for the restaurant. Oysters come raw, stewed, grilled, broiled, fried, sandwiched, marinated, stuffed, and roasted. Not in the mood for bivalves? No problem: the daily changing menu also includes a variety of dishes, like smoked mackerel, mussel pozole, cider-glazed pork belly, Italian sausage flatbread, herbed potato gnocchi, pork schnitzel, and buttermilk fried chicken. And chances are, Louis will be joining you. “I like being able to interact and chat with guests,” he says.

FrontRow Joinery

(Photo courtesy of joineryrestaurant.com)
Walk into the Joinery, the chef-driven, locally sourced eatery in Newmarket, and you’ll come face-to-face with chef-owner Brendan Vesey and his crew. The restaurant, located in a restored mill building, with brick walls and hand-hewn wood beams, is cozy and relaxed, with a view of the kitchen from nearly every seat.

“You can’t yell; you can’t throw stuff; you have to be clean,” says Vesey of his ultra-open kitchen, where only a small counter separates diners from the work area. It’s not always easy, he admits. Once, a local farm delivered a whole lamb at 5 o’clock just when the restaurant was opening. “We had to deal with it right then and there,” he says. In full view of arriving diners. And, it’s not unusual for farmers to show up with bushels of vegetables during dinner hour. “Well, so be it. It’s real,” says Vesey. “At least diners know our food is fresh.”

We watch as Vesey, donned in a black and white chef’s apron and baseball cap, prepares and serves his signature dishes, like grilled corn bread drizzled with honey butter, fried oyster lettuce wraps, house-ground meatballs, and mussels in a coconut curry broth. When he brings over the special of the day, a perfectly grilled piece of steelhead trout topped with roe and a light horseradish sauce, he explains its provenance: grown within nets at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, as part of a New Hampshire Sea Grant project. It is delicious.

MEET AND GREET
FrontRow CavaFood335xChances are Chef Sessler will greet you when you walk into Cava, the intimate wine and tapas bar that continues to win raves and accolades for its creative small plates and smart wine list. Sit at the small chef’s table, within arm’s reach of the snug kitchen and plating counter, and you’ll be in the bullpen with Sessler and team. We watch as Sessler prepares each of our dishes—piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp, artichokes, and Spanish cheese; grilled baby octopus; and foie gras and truffle meatballs—and answers our questions. “I like the openness and candidness of what’s going on,” he says. “We have nothing to hide; this is me. We’re just making food and having a good time doing it.”

FrontRow OtisCounter670x

Otis Restaurant chef-owner Lee Frank knew he wanted a chef’s table when he planned his small, 28-seat restaurant adjacent to the Inn by the Bandstand in Exeter, New Hampshire. The first architect told him he couldn’t do it; there wasn’t enough space. So, he found another architect. Today, the buzzing restaurant has four front row seats looking into the tiny, tight kitchen, where Frank and his cook Ryan Kane run the show. It’s like watching a well-oiled, synchronized machine: orders are taken; skillets and copper pots are filled, shaken, and stirred; dishes are beautifully plated, and all the while, Frank is chatting with the folks at the chef’s table, and overseeing the dining room. “There’s no downside,” he says of the open kitchen. “This is where I want to be.”

FrontRow Otis BeetSalad

His ingredient-driven menu changes daily and is filled with sophisticated, of-the-moment dishes, like the umami-packed, tea-smoked mussels with sunchokes and house bacon, a technically perfect and delicious crispy chicken dish that’s a sin to pass up if it’s on the menu, and a sweet finish of cinnamon donuts and whipped chocolate. “These guys are ninjas,” the diner next to us says, as we watched Frank juggle a couple of bubbling pans before plating a pretty dish of beets, ricotta cheese, black radish, and arugula pesto, drizzled with a bit of honey. We agree: magicians in the kitchen.“

FrontRow CurePatio

(Photo courtesy of Facebook)
I want everyone to feel at home here,” says Julie Cutting, executive chef and owner of Cure Restaurant in Portsmouth. The restaurant is warm and inviting, with dark woods, brick walls, and soft lighting. In summer, a garden patio, tucked in the back of the restaurant, is a cozy place to linger. But, if you want to watch Cutting and her friendly cohorts in action, grab a seat at one of the tables adjacent to the small, open kitchen and plating counter. Here, you’ll watch the team preparing and plating popular dishes like the bubbling cauliflower and cheese, crispy skinned duck, maple-glazed salmon, and arguably the best French onion soup in New England. Go ahead, ask questions. “We love the interaction with guests,” says Cutting. “We want everyone to feel like family.”

BAR NONE

FrontRow salt-kitchen-bar

(Photo courtesy of wentworth.com)
For a different atmosphere and experience, head to Salt Kitchen & Bar at the Wentworth by the Sea resort in New Castle, with a vibrant bar scene and a lively chef’s bar. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag one of the cushy, cream-colored leather chairs that pull up to the thick marble countertop, in full view of the bar kitchen. “The chef’s bar is really popular, and our culinarians are very good at explaining things and interacting. People definitely get these guys to open up and start talking about what they’re doing,” says Executive Chef Lingle. “They enjoy it, and diners get to see it all.” You’ll watch as the “boys behind the counter” prepare top sellers like the prosciutto wrapped scallops and charcuterie boards, wood-fired flatbreads (try the Sicilian with fennel sausage, pepperoni, and spicy tomato sauce), fresh salads, handmade pasta dishes (the lobster ravioli is a favorite), and sandwiches, like the citrus brined grilled chicken. If you prefer to be a little removed from the action, reserve the eight-seat, elevated chef’s table, located next to the bar. “It’s a good option for people who don’t necessarily want to interact but they’ll still have a front row seat,” Lingle says.

It’s impossible not to be in the thick of things at the aptly-named Stages restaurant in Dover, where award-winning Chef Evan Hennessey performs culinary alchemy, and offers one of the more unique dining experiences on the Seacoast. You’ll join a snug group of food enthusiasts at the six-person counter, inches from the kitchen, as you watch the chef and his helpers create a stunning procession of dishes. Guests are presented a menu with a list of ingredients for that day, dependent on the farms, the season, the ocean, and the weather.

“The only choices diners make is how many courses they want [4, 8, or 12], and what to drink,” Hennessey says. Enjoy the show and ask as many questions as you want, as Hennessey prepares high-end, sophisticated dishes, like juniper-cured steelhead trout, served with savoy cabbage cooked in whey, king trumpet mushrooms, and red cabbage juice; rutabaga with black radish, black garlic, and lentils; and warm leek and ginger custard, with honey and nutmeg caramelized leeks, nasturtiums, and vanilla milk. “In many ways, it’s like having people over for dinner,” Hennessey says. “Everyone is chatting, asking questions, enjoying company, and involved in the whole process.

FrontRow Surf

(Photo courtesy of Facebook)
”In downtown Portsmouth, at Surf restaurant on the waterfront, you can elbow up to fellow diners at the large circular bar, and watch oyster shuckers and sushi chefs create a slew of fresh, on-the-spot dishes. “Glad you guys came in to enjoy some food tonight,” Sushi Chef Ben Cole tells us, as we perch on the high bar stools. We listen to the buzz of the bar and the back-and-forth talk among chefs, as we watch Cole prepare a lineup of signature dishes. First, a beautiful raw bar sampler with oysters, shrimp, sashimi tuna, and spicy scallop ceviche, followed by sushi plates, including the not-to-be-missed warm buttered lobster with tempura asparagus and truffle mayo, and the crazy tempura maki salad with tuna, salmon, hamachi, and crab. “I like the openness,” Cole says. “I like that the diners are involved with me in the whole process from start to finish.”

Tips for the home cook

FrontRow FoodTips

Master the basics and practice Learn how to saute, roast, grill, braise, and boil. “You have to walk before you run. You have to understand basic cooking methods first and then you can move on. A lot of what we do in the kitchen boils down to repetition. It all comes down to experience, doing it over and over again.”
Experiment “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you’ll learn from them, and that’s when you’ll really start to explore and create.” —GREGG SESSLER, CAVA TAPAS & WINE BAR

Mise en place “You don’t start a house project by cutting a hole in the wall. You prepare first; you get the tools and materials in place.” Have everything ready to go—chopped, diced, and measured—before you start cooking.
Practice “Master something first. Do it over and over again until you’ve mastered the dish, and then move on to the next dish and master that.” —BRENDAN VESEY, JOINERY

Spice it up “Don’t be shy about playing around with different spices and flavors. They can really make a dish sing!” Experiment with dried spices like cumin, coriander, and allspice; add a little fresh ginger, coffee, beer, or black garlic to a crock pot dish to give it an exciting twist.
Take time to properly sear proteins “Using a nonstick pan can be really helpful to achieve a golden-brown crust on a flaky white fish. And, using a hot skillet to lock in the juices of a roast or short ribs before braising will add extra moisture, tenderness, and flavor.”
Let your proteins rest Before carving or serving, give meat time to rest for several minutes. “Allowing the natural juices to settle back into the item before slicing gives a really beautiful result.” —JULIE CUTTING, CURE RESTAURANT

Fresh seasoning is best “I think people may be afraid to take the measurements given in a recipe for dry herbs and transpose them for fresh herbs. If the recipe calls for one tablespoon of dried basil and you put in two of fresh, who cares? It’s only going to make it better.” Ditto for fresh spices—use them! “The flavor you get out of freshly ground spices will be much more intense.” —KEN LINGLE, SALT KITCHEN & BAR

Get a good, sharp knife You don’t need a block full of them. “I really only use two knives. One chef’s knife and a smaller paring knife. There’s no need for more.” Matt Louis uses MAC and Misono knives but would recommend Wüsthof or Henckels knives, too.
Don’t be afraid of salt Use it throughout the cooking process. “Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt is the workhorse. I use it for virtually everything.” Add salt at the beginning of a dish; don’t wait until the end. “This really helps to build layers of flavor.” Just be careful not to over season; you can always add more salt later. —MATT LOUIS, FRANKLIN OYSTER HOUSE

Go with your instincts “Recipes are a guideline; they’re not a command. Not every dish is going to turn out, but if you cook confidently, it’s going to show.” —LEE FRANK, OTIS RESTAURANT