Friday, April 5, 2013

Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week & Ristorante Massimo

Not all Restaurant Weeks are created the same. 

The Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week started yesterday and will continue through April 13. During this week, you will be able to obtain a three course Lunch for $16.95 or a three course Dinner for $29.95 at approximately 49 restaurants. In addition, some of those restaurants are offering even more for this low price, from free wine to extra courses.

For example, The Portsmouth Gas Light Co.B.G.'s Boathouse and Cafe Nostimo each offer a complimentary glass of wine or beer. The Great American Grill offers a free glass of House Wine. Cava offers a four course dinner while Moxy offers a five course dinner. Tio Juan's Margaritas Mexican Restaurant and Grill 28 are offering their three course meals all day for only $16.95. Check the various menus to see which other restaurants are offering special extras too. Over a dozen restaurants also offer gluten free and/or vegetarian menu options. These include The River House, Blue Moon Evolution, Brazo, Cava, Common Man, Green Monkey, Martingale Wharf, Moxy, Tulsi and more.

On Wednesday, I drove up to Portsmouth to attend a launch party for Restaurant Week at the Agave Mexican Bistro. I arrived in Portsmouth a bit early as I enjoy walking around their downtown region, which is thriving with lots of unique shops, bakeries, ice cream spots, restaurants and more. It is a great place  to spend a day and it is close enough to the Boston area that the ride is only an hour or so. With summer coming soon, it is a destination that should be on your radar, especially as its culinary scene keeps getting better all the time.

At the launch party, there was beer & wine and a couple tables loaded with Mexican food, including grilled beef, chicken and shrimp skewers, fully loaded nachos, quesadillas, and much more. My favorite was the Queso Fundido, a traditional black lava stone filled with sizzling Chihuahua cheese and Mexican chorizo. Lots of great flavor, nice spices and cheesy goodness. If I dined here, I would have to order this dish. The other items were good as well, but the Fundido really called to me.

There was also a Bartender's Competition, a selection of several local mixologists who competed to create the best cocktail. The judges selected Neal Jacobs from Moxy as the winner, his cocktail containing a variety of local ingredients, including: Art in the Age Rhuby, Flag Hill "Josiah Bartlett" Apple Brandy (Lee, NH), Sweet Baby Vineyard Bartlett Pear Sweet Wine (Kingston, NH), Syrup of Locally Foraged Wintergreen, Appleton Farms Maple Syrup (Ipswich, MA), Lemon Juice, and Moxy-Made Bitters. I didn't get to taste the cocktail but it sounds intriguing and creative.

There was another contest as well, sponsored by Martignetti Companies, for all of the attendees at the party, which involved a blind tasting of four wines, trying to guess the grape. The grapes ended up being Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. I was psyched to learn that I won the grand prize, a $200 gift certificate to McKinnon's Market & Butcher Shop. Blind tasting is far from easy, but it was lots of fun.

I spoke with a few local chefs and members of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and one of the more interesting conversations concerned how to keep their Restaurant Week vibrant and dynamic, to avoid problems like the backlash against Boston Restaurant Week. That is probably a conversation Boston Restaurant Week should have as well, to find ways to inject new life into an event which isn't working as well as it could. It is good to see Portsmouth is paying attention, seeking ways to ensure their Restaurant Week remains an interesting and compelling event. One thing I like about the Portsmouth Restaurant Week is that many of the menus seem far more interesting and diverse than what I often see in Boston Restaurant Week menus.

After the launch party, I was invited to dine at Ristorante Massimo, an Italian restaurant known for its authentic Italian cuisine and superior hospitality. I met Massimo Morgia, the owner, who was born in Pontecorvo, Italy, and he was a gracious host. In 1994, Massimo became the co-owner of Anthony Alberto's Ristorante Italiano and then in 2003, Massimo became the sole owner and changed the name to Ristorante Massimo. Since 2005, their Executive Chef has been Jethro Loichle.

This is Karen Kervick of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and Massimo Morgia.

The restaurant is located in the basement area and has an intimate and homey feel to it, with lots of exposed brickwork, paintings of Italian scenes and wine racks. There is even a tiny corner table, a romantic spot, where a number of people have gotten engaged (pictured above). The waiters are elegantly dressed in tuxedos, representative of old time hospitality, and they live up to that ideal. Each server was professional, courteous and accommodating.

Throughout dinner, I chose to drink a delicious Rosé, the 2010 Croix de Basson Côtes de Provence. It is certified organic, a blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. It was crisp and dry, with pleasant red fruit flavors, and paired well with the seafood I had for dinner.

Though Restaurant Week had not started yet, Massimo made the menu available to us and it includes a choice of 4 First Courses, 4 Entrees and 2 Desserts. You could start with a dish like the Fried Zucchini Blossoms or Pan Roasted Duck Breast and then move on to a dish like the Grilled Sirloin Steak or Porcini Crusted Day Boat Scallops.

I began with the Pasta con Gamberetti, Gulf shrimp sautéed with angel-hair pasta, basil chiffonade, and a parmesan, black peppercorn and lemon emulsion. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the emulsion was full of tasty flavors, complementing the tender shrimp. It makes me intrigued to try other of their pasta dishes.

For my Entree, I selected the Cioppino di Pesce, pan seared day boat scallops, shrimp, locally caught cod and Bangs Island mussels, served Cioppino style in a fennel and saffron scented broth, with grilled house made bread and rouille. The broth was rich in taste, a savory liquid that enhanced the seafood, such as the very tender and flaky cod and large scallops. I even dipped a few pieces of bread in the broth, sopping up the delicious liquid.

Prior to dessert, I ordered some tea and they brought out a box so I could make my selection. Each choice has a small container of tea leaves which you can sniff and determine if you want it or not. I chose the Bangkok, a green tea with lemongrass, coconut and ginger. It was a mild green tea with subtle flavors and I enjoyed it, especially the minor coconut notes.

For dessert, my choice was the Torta alla Cioccolata, a Valrhona chocolate mousse tart served with amoretto flavored raspberries and toasted salted walnuts. It was very rich, with a creamy mousse, and chocolate lovers would certainly enjoy.

I need to check out Ristorante Massimo another time, when it is not Restaurant Week, as I want to explore their menu in more depth. I saw several dishes on their regular menu which sounded quite appealing.

So why not give Portsmouth & The Seacoast Restaurant Week a try?

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