Saturday, September 11, 2010

The North Shore

It is always surprising to me that a town like Newburyport, Massachusetts, hailed for its beauty and proximity to the ocean, has so little to offer the dining community. Everywhere along rolling hills are farms and farmers with corn in summer and apples in fall. The sea coughs up scallops, clams, mussels, oysters, cod, and striped bass. But the local menus reflect a dedication to Sysco, not the earth. It's sad to see such summer bounty wasted.

I've been to Ristorante Molise in Amesbury over and over again. I never liked it, not its massive, encyclopedic menu, and not its repetitious use of the same "Italian" ingredients: mushrooms, artichokes, proscuitto, garlic, and roasted red peppers. Recently, a restaurant consultant revamped the place and pared down the menu, offering up fewer offerings. Less is definitely more. On a recent visit, I asked to order one of the pastas, advertised as homemade, as an appetizer. And homemade it was, thick, unyielding pappardelle in a light dusting of marinara and ricotta salata and tossed with thick cubes of summer's last eggplants. The salad that came with my meal was no longer an exercise in excess (servers used to list a litany of available dressings, but this one came with no more than a hint of oil and white vinegar). It was a small tumble of arugula and lettuce, cherry tomato and whisper-thin red onion. On principle, I'm against the "salad that comes with your meal," but this was best described as an intermezzo. My entree was everything one could want from a summer meal: large local clams, fresh stewed tomatoes, yellow potatoes, fennel, caramelized onion, sausage removed from its casing and seared on a flattop. The bowl of meat and fish and vegetable and broth came with two thick slices of grilled bread, perfect for sopping up the clams' remains. The portion was overgenerous and I could have done without the tomatoes, but the plate was spicy and sweet and an ode to the ending of a season. It made me wonder why more places in Massachusetts don't serve the very foods that crop up in their local gardens.

Two nights later, I found myself in Portsmouth, New Hampshire again, this time along the water and the wharf at a place called Black Trumpet. The restaurant bills itself as a bistro and wine bar, but the wines in the 40-70 dollar range were disappointingly slim pickings. A house cocktail of sparkling sake, muddled nectarine, and pineapple-mint simple syrup saved the alcohol component of the evening. The food was uneven. Rock shrimp cooked in garlic and harissa (one of the restaurant's "small plates") was delicious, but I felt cheated by the name. Had I known that rock shrimp would appear, in place of tender prawns or normal sized shrimp, I would have saved my appetite for something else. Sauteed foraged mushrooms were woefully undersalted, but a plate of house-made sausage and torchon was a resounding success. The sausage itself was livery and more in the vein of a good morcilla. The torchon, made with foie gras and duck bacon, melted into the bread. Pickled cauliflower and carrot provided the requisite tang and crunch and a stone fruit mostarda cut all that salty with a little sweet. Also delicious was a small plate of cured pork and cooked potatoes. There were two types, one closer in style to a chorizo, and the potatoes were browned and chewy. It was a hit with all of us.

Next came a medium-sized plate of quail, cooked over roasted vegetables and served with a heap of cous cous. It was perfectly executed if not terribly inspired. The same applied to my veal chop, weighing in at close to a pound on the bone. The fig sauce underneath was too sweet, the mustard greens too bitter for my palate, and the grain salad simply boring. The dish needed something with more salt to balance the fig, but the sides were yawn-worthy. I applaud Black Trumpet's dedication to local and homemade foods. I applaud that they use good purveyors who bring in meat and fish that is sustainable. But I left a little less inspired than I had hoped to be. At least I know we're moving forward, always forging new territory.

Ristorante Molise
1 Main Street
Amesbury, MA 01913

Black Trumpet
29 Ceres Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801