Those who wander are not lost, especially if you are hungry and happen to be in Portsmouth.
The Dining Companion and I recently ventured out to the Seacoast. However, the electronic sign in the downtown area saying the parking lot was a harbinger, so were the streets teeming with people. We finally arrived at our original dining destination, but told there would be a 90-minute wait, we decided to walk around and take our chances on what other places may be available.
Lucky for us, we found ourselves on Ceres Street at the doorstep of the Oar House, a fine-dining establishment that features seafood but also offers plenty of non-seafood options. The Oar House has been a fixture on the Portsmouth dining scene for decades, but this was our first visit.
We were immediately seated, which was a good for our stomachs, but I wondered why many of the other places in the area were more crowded. After look at the menu, it became apparent that the Oar House caters to a clientele with a little more cash to spend (the average price of an entrée is about $28) and its décor, paying homage to the mercantile past of the Port City, is a little less “hip” than some of its neighbors.
We were seated upstairs, away from the live music playing that night, in an intimate space punctuated by exposed beams and sturdy wood furniture. It was a setting a little more appropriate for a cold winter’s night than a humid, late summer evening, but we were charmed and we were hungry. (After we got home, we discovered that there was outdoor seating — on a waterfront deck across the street — which would have been nice, but we didn’t know and it wasn’t offered.)
We both chose seafood appetizers to start off the meal, although there were plenty of land options including Asian Style Sticky Ribs and Chicken and Pork Meatballs.
I opted for Classic PEI Mussels ($14), served with a steaming hot broth made with garlic, shallots, tomatoes and white wine, with a hunk of buttery focaccia bread on the side. The bowl was full of tender mussels, but they were on the small to very small side. Perhaps because of this, they did not soak up a lot of flavor from the aromatics. I managed to eat the entire serving myself, and that includes a good portion of the focaccia bread, which paired perfectly with dish. It was great for sopping up the broth, which was tasty but could have benefited from a bit more salt.
TDC went the deep-fried route by ordering the Fried Oysters ($14). The oysters were served with creole remoulade (think thinner, spicier tartar sauce) for dipping, although the fresh lemon mentioned on the menu never made it to the plate. The breading, and the texture of the oyster itself, reminded TDC of his favorite traditional whole- belly clams, but with one big difference: TDC noted how watery each oyster was when he bit into it. This impression was reaffirmed with each successive bite, and he found that it subtracted from the taste of the oysters themselves, which he did enjoy.
The entrées were more successful; this time around we chose to eat off the land.
TDC chose the 8-oz. Filet Mignon ($32). The filet is accompanied by a Portobello mushroom cap, wilted baby spinach, and topped with a port wine sauce. Although it was not indicated on the menu, fingerling potatoes were also served alongside, which helped TDC soak up any leftover sauce. The mushroom cap was nice and juicy with a smoky flavor that caught him pleasantly by surprise. The filet itself came out a perfect medium rare and was melt-in-your-mouth tender.
I was tempted by the Seafood Portofino and Saffron Bouillabaisse, but the description of the Peruvian Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($25) swayed me. It was billed as having a brown sugar-cinnamon-cardamom rub, and plated with a grilled pineapple mojo and jasmine rice. This dish reinforced a lesson: If I don’t know what something is, I shouldn’t assume anything and instead should ask questions. The grilled pineapple mojo sounded innocuous enough – a sweet salsa, maybe? Instead I learned the hard way that a mojo can be quite spicy, depending on what variety of pepper it is made with. In this case, jalapenos dominated the sauce. I like spicy foods but I was expecting, especially given that pineapple was in the description, that it would be sweet. The dish’s flavor was a surprise, but a good one. The star of the dish was the pork, which was fork-tender and well-seasoned.
The server gave us three options for dessert. TDC won the chocolate sweepstakes with a fudgy chocolate cake ($9). It was served atop a black plate sprinkled with powdered sugar. Also on the plate was a red raspberry sauce that really struck a chord with his taste buds with its deep, fruit flavor, and a dollop of whipped cream. TDC praised the cake as being smooth, creamy and of course, chocolaty.
For myself, it was a toss-up between the Key Lime Pie and Vanilla Crème Brulee ($9), but in the end I chose the brulée, which was creamy goodness with the signature burnt sugar crust. It was topped with the somewhat tart raspberry sauce that was served with TDC’s cake, taking it over the top.
The meal, along with a few glasses of wine we ordered off their extensive wine menu, was a good experience. Service at the Oar House was great. Our server made us feel at home and did not rush us, even when they were closing, and she meant it.
The rustic atmosphere is cozy with a comfortable vibe — you even have plenty to look at and read, as the restaurant acts in part as a museum that gives you a peek at the history of its building, Merchant’s Row. With all these pluses, I wish it was easier to dismiss the prices, which we feel are a bit high given comparable meals we’ve had in the past. But all in all we were pleased to find refuge at the Oar House, another example of some of the tasty eats you can find on the Seacoast — sometimes unintentionally.