Our Gourmet: A dining hot spot in an old firehouse

January 31. 2017 10:48PM

Station 19
37 Water St., Exeter; 778-3923; www.nhstation19.com

Monday-Thursday: 5 p.m.-close; Friday and Saturday 4:30-close.

Cuisine: American bistro.

Pricing: Appetizers/Small Bites $8-$12; Salads $8-$12; burgers and sandwiches $12-$15; pizza $11-$15; entrees $16-$24; desserts $3-$6.50.

The scores for Station 19
Atmosphere: 15/20
Menu: 17/20
Food: 17/20
Service: 16/20
Value: 16/20
TOTAL: 81/100

The dining scene in downtown Exeter has taken a few steps up since the last time we were in town. As we walked along Water Street on a recent Saturday night, we made note of several enticing review targets on our way to our destination, Station 19.

Station 19, open for a couple of years now, takes its name from the brick building’s original purpose as a firehouse. What were the station’s two bay doors back in the days of horse-drawn steam pumpers are now the entryway and a large window overlooking the sidewalk.

When we arrived, the vestibule was filled with diners waiting for tables. We figured we’d have to join them, since the dining area was nearly full. But we didn’t get much of a chance to scope out the space, which seemed to be thoroughly packed with tables, because the hostess asked us if we wanted to sit upstairs in the bar area. Rather than wait, we said yes, and crossed the room to a long, steep staircase leading up to a space that serves as bar, additional dining area and function room.

The upper room was almost as full as the downstairs, but we were shown to an open table for two against the exposed-brick side wall. It’s an attractive space, with hardwood floors, tall windows and a nice, contemporary earth-tone paint scheme. Schoolhouse-style pendant lights and a big wrought-iron chandelier hang from the ceiling, which must be at least 15 feet high.

It’s a great space, but thanks in part to that tall ceiling, the lighting was low and the noise was high. It was so dark that Mrs. Gourmet and I had to use the lights on our phones to read the menu, and we had a hard time hearing each other over the din of the other 40 or so guests. Rows of black fabric baffles hang from the ceiling to help subdue the noise, but with a full house, noise reduction was a lost cause. We were feeling pretty old until we noticed that many of the 30-somethings around us were having the same problems.

The menu at Station 19 falls in the American bistro category. A lineup of 10 “Small Bites” (“Medium Bites” might be a more apt title) can serve as generous appetizers or as a tapas-style meal. There’s a lineup of pizza options and another of burger varieties and grilled sandwiches, and there are nine full-size entrees. Gluten-free pizza crusts and pastas are available for a $2 upcharge.

We were faced with difficult menu choices right off the bat. Korean BBQ Pork Belly? Smoked Pork Poutine? Both tempting, but we went in different directions for our starters.

Mrs. G. opened with Arancini ($8) — two deep-fried balls of risotto stuffed with Parmesan and mozzarella cheese and served in a marinara sauce. The crunchy exterior of the fritters gave way to a moist, but not gooey or creamy center; the spicy, acidic marinara pulled everything together.

I decided to expand my limited experience with polenta by opting for Polenta with Mushroom Ragu ($11). We both agreed that this was the better of the two appetizers: two triangles of grilled polenta, looking like a slice of buttery Texas toast, surrounded with a delicious ragout of mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, sherry and cream. The sauce was excellent, with the mushroom flavor clearly the star. The polenta — slightly crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside — was the perfect vehicle.

The entree menu includes chicken, fish, and a couple of Italian dishes that sound excellent, but we both went with beef. Mrs. G. chose the Flat Iron Steak ($24), with a pumpkin-seed crust and arugula pesto topping. Neither got in the way of the beef — indeed, the arugula pesto was quite mild compared to most basil pestos — but they combined to make a perfectly grilled steak even better. The steak was served atop a butternut-squash risotto that was rich and creamy and became “out of this world,” Mrs. G. said, when combined with what she called the best beef sauce she’s had.

I picked the Balsamic Braised Short Rib ($22). As braised meat should be, the beef was moist, melt-in-your-mouth tender, and perfectly seasoned. It was served on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes with bourbon and candied pecans. In concept, the mash was an excellent foil for the slightly acidic balsamic beef, but as a matter of personal taste, it was a little too sweet — I wouldn’t have missed the candied pecans

Portion sizes were just about right. We were satisfied, but not so stuffed that we couldn’t split a dessert. The Warm Rum Cake ($6.50) was a generous little cake, topped with whipped cream. It was nicely flavored with rum, but neither as dense or as drenched as some rum cakes we’ve had. In fact, we’d say it was light.

The value factor at Station 19 is good. “Casual” in the restaurant’s tagline is a bit misleading; it’s not a fine-dining spot, but neither is it Applebee’s. Pricing is in line with the food and the atmosphere. Service was good; our waitress was also the bartender, but she managed roles without missing a beat.

Our only complaints, as we mentioned before, were the darkness and the noise level. Fixing the former is as easy as cranking the dimmers up a notch or two, but the latter would take more work, given the nature of the space. (It did seem like the main dining area was brighter than the upstairs, but just passing through, we weren’t there long enough to gauge the noise level.)

Neither issue seems to be keeping diners away — and if we lived in the area, they probably wouldn’t keep us from coming back.

Our GourmetExeter

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