Our Gourmet: A fresh take on Port City seafood

November 24. 2015 7:43PM

Row 34
5 Portwalk Place, Portsmouth; 319-5011; row34nh.com

Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Cuisine: Oyster and beer bar.

Pricing (dinner): Small plates and sandwiches, $9-$24; sides, $7; large plates, $19-$29; desserts, $6-$7.

The scores for Row 34
Atmosphere: 17/20
Menu: 17/20
Food: 17/20
Service: 19/20
Value: 17/20
TOTAL: 87/100

Portwalk Place, one of Portsmouth’s newest and most talked-about downtown developments, includes a hotel, residences, several businesses and perhaps most importantly, some really good restaurants.

Last year we had a great meal at BRGR Bar, and we’ve stopped to have a beer or two at British Beer Company, so it was a forgone conclusion that we would make our way over to Row 34, an upscale oyster and beer bar that opened earlier this year.

If the name sounds familiar, that is because this is Row 34’s second location, with the first being in Boston. But you don’t have to travel to Beantown for some fresh and delicious seafood.

When we got to Row 34, the place was packed and we had to wait 45 minutes for a table — not unusual in Portsmouth on a weekend. It gave us a chance to check out the large space, where the modern style is punctuated by galvanized steel and warehouse lights that we have seen in many restaurants lately. You can sit at the bar and watch a number of TVs, or you can take a peek in at the open kitchen.

Before we got a table, we noted that the restaurant space seemed to amplify the sound and it was quite loud. Once we were seated, though, we were surprised that for whatever reason, maybe by the way the space is set up, we didn’t have to shout at each other to have a conversation.

The central focus at Row 34 is the raw bar featuring oysters from a number of locations. In addition to the dinner and drinks menu, you are given a sheet from which you choose what you want to order (if anything) from the raw bar.

The Dining Companion had never experienced oysters, so I took the lead and made a few choices. Oysters taste slightly different depending on where they are harvested, so I ordered a selection from Cape Cod and the South Shore, including Wellfleet, Duxbury and Saquish Beach, in addition to a few littleneck clams from Wellfleet. All were $2-$3.

In full disclosure, I am by no means a certified oyster expert, and while I could have asked our server to explain more about the options, I was hungry so I did more guessing then selecting.

The oysters, served with a few accompaniments like a champagne vinaigrette and hot sauce, could not have been fresher. I prefer to eat mine plain; TDC, who was trying them for the first time, went for the hot sauce. After two oysters, TDC decided he prefers that his seafood be cooked, so I was happy to eat his share.

TDC did not go hungry, though. There are plenty of other menu options if the raw bar is not your thing. He ordered the Beer Steamed Mussels ($12), with garlic, scallions and grilled bread. Row 34 serves a sizeable portion; it could be a standalone meal for a light eater. He loved the amount of garlic used in the flavorful broth, but not so much that you could not taste the mussels. Again, they were as fresh as the oysters.

While I ate a number of oysters, I could not pass up on the opportunity to try Row 34’s Lobster Bisque ($9). When it was served, I was excited to see the large chunks of tail meat floating in the bowl. But that was the highlight of the dish. TDC and I agree that the bisque was unusually heavy and tasted as if whatever thickener was used was not fully cooked into the base. Unfortunately this masked a good deal of the lobster flavor.

The lobster bisque, while disappointing, was only a speed bump as the entrée I ordered — the fish and chips ($16) — was fantastic. The fish was flaky and the coating light and super crispy. The fries were also crisp and well salted. To balance out my meal, and to say I ate a vegetable, I ordered a side of the Brussels sprouts, one of my new favorites. They, too, were cooked perfectly, sauteed with just the right amount of bacon for a hint of smokiness.

TDC ordered the half-portion of the fried clams ($14), a dish that he can be particular about. He raved about the light, crispy breading, as well. For a half-size, it was a decent amount of clams, which tasted as if they had been dug only a few hours earlier. Neither of us have ever had fried clams that tasted this much like the sea.

The dessert menu looked tempting, especially the chocolate mousse and butterscotch pudding, but in a rare exercise of self-control, we decided to pass on the sweet stuff this time around.

We had wine, but the beer menu is varied and extensive, more so than the dinner menu, not that we are complaining. We thought there were enough items for seafood and land lovers alike. In addition to seafood favorites like the hot buttered lobster roll and Maine crab cake, menu items included braised short rib, fried chicken and flat-iron steak.

The food, the menu and the atmosphere are enough to make it a great dining experience. But we would be remiss if we did not mention the incredible service. Even while waiting near the bar for our table, a person who we believe was the manager, checked in to make sure we didn’t want a drink and offered to get menus for us to look at. Our server was personable and attentive, no easy feat given that when we started our meal the place was at full capacity and it was tough for her to get around. When restaurants are busy, sometimes the service slides, but not at Row 34.

When ordering from a raw bar, it is easy to lose track of how much you are spending, so we were pleasantly surprised to see that our food total only added up to about $80. Given how much we ate and the quality of the food, that seems in line with other seafood restaurants in the area. However, a couple of hungry oyster eaters could rack up quite a tab.

TDC may never have another oyster, but if we want fresh seafood, Row 34 is going to be at the top of our list.

Our GourmetPortsmouth

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