The recent heat wave saw the Atlantic beckon New Englanders like seldom before, with an abundance of cool refreshment and a good reminder of why we live here. Rarely does the cold coastal water bring so many, at once, to the shore, but restaurateurs look to it every day for seafood and shellfish to grace diners' plates that very evening.
Michael and Sarah Buckley have been putting fresh Atlantic seafood on those plates since 2002 at Surf in Nashua and, since 2011, in Portsmouth. The creative culinary enhancements, top-of-the-line service and an unrivaled harborside view put the Portsmouth eatery on our top shelf of waterfront establishments that make a good dinner truly a gourmet experience.
Nestled in a sparklingly modern, reconstructed harborside building overlooking the churning waters of the Piscataqua River, Surf is as attractive, nearly posh, casual and comfortable a restaurant as you will find anywhere. And we dare say that some of the food, and certainly the atmosphere, will be found nowhere except on Bow Street.
The combinations of seafood, preparation styles, sauces and accompanying vegetables and starches require time for diners to consider, lest they miss something. A complete and extensive raw bar is available at Surf and Surf Sushi Bar, and the Surf dinner menu is full of creatively prepared seafood of all kinds — too many to list, but we'll tell you of a few.
We enjoyed a cool refreshment from the restaurant's equally creative cocktail bar while we salivated over the menu. For lunchgoers, the Mary and the Boys ($14) is a staunch Bloody Mary with two huge shrimps adorning the sides.
The Chorizo-Braised Mussels appetizer ($9) is a bowl full of properly steamed shellfish, with not one speck of sand, swimming in an herb-and-butter-and-white wine sauce and sharing space with a crowd of chorizo sausage, red peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Slices of grilled ciabatta bread (but, only two) are served for dipping. Lip-smacking, mouth-wateringly delicious.
Shrimp Potstickers ($9), also a starter, features individually wrapped shrimp and vegetable dumplings, steamed then pan fried, in a delicate soy and ginger dipping sauce. Again, the lips were smacking as our dinner moved from enjoyable to possibly great.
The main course sealed the deal.
Lobster Kristina ($30) is a hearty dish of Atlantic lobster, shucked and steamed before a flambe with cognac, chives, cream and butter. Served over a bed of jasmine rice with grilled asparagus on the side, this pound-and-a-quarter seafood feast is everything a great seaside dinner restaurant is all about. Lobster Sarah ($38) is the 2-pound version, but Kristina was huge by itself, both in quality and quantity. It was almost too big to finish, but we managed. Outstanding.
Miso Marinated Salmon ($23), however, truly stole our hearts. A simple dish, perhaps, but quality does not require complexity. A hefty salmon steak, marinated in Japanese-style miso flavoring, was gently grilled and served atop a substantial jasmine rice-cake dusted with sesame, served with shiitake mushrooms, seared asparagus and a faint peanut sauce called ponzu. It is a superb dish.
Many of the sauces and styles of entrees at Surf are Asian-inspired, but it's a subtle leaning, leaving the core of the dish intact. This is super fresh seafood we're talking about, and it speaks volumes by itself, so it is proper that the sauces add enhancement, but only that. The Buckleys and crew understand, and excel.
Temptations abound at Surf. Saigon Noodle Bowl, Sesame-Seared tuna, Portuguese Seafood Stew, Panko Fried Crab Cakes, Shrimp Vindaloo, Chourico Wrapped Scallops, Grilled Swordfish .....or smaller ideas such as fish tacos, fried seafood, Andouille Wrapped Clams, and of course steaks, haddock .... even a burger and a fish sandwich.
We trust that every single item on Surf's menu is of outstanding quality and taste. We ordered only four items, but were mightily impressed. There are dozens of wines from all over the world, many types of beer, an enormous glass wall offering panoramic harbor views, and attentive servers who excel at their craft. Our server, Mary, was as delightful as she was professional.
A visit to Portsmouth during the summer has to include a meal, perhaps several. One of those visits must include Surf, or you will really miss an opportunity for an extraordinary experience with exceptionally good taste.