Our Gourmet: A Tuscan addition to the Port City sceneApril 04. 2017 7:52PM
Tuscan Kitchen Portsmouth581 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth; 570-3600; www.tuscanbrands.com
Hours: Sunday-Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday until 10.
Cuisine: Artisan Italian.
Dinner pricing: Appetizers and salads: $10-$20; entrees $20-$35; desserts $8-$12.
The scores for Tuscan Kitchen
Tuscan Kitchen in Salem has always been on the target list for Mrs. Gourmet and me, but our reviewing colleagues managed to beat us to the punch — twice — over the last five years or so. So when Tuscan recently opened its new location in Portsmouth, we seized the opportunity and claimed it for ourselves.
We headed over to the new Tuscan Kitchen on a recent Sunday evening. It shares a beautiful new building with the not-quite-finished Tuscan Market, which, like the Salem location, will feature a host of Italian groceries, wines and delicacies to go.
The restaurant is a large space, with three main aisles lined with booth seating, a bar on one side of the room and an open grill area with counter seating on the other. Lighting is low, but the ambience is warm, with Tuscan yellows and browns on the walls, copper trim and rich brown woodwork. There are big fireplaces at one end of the dining room and in the private function spaces at the other.
The atmosphere is luxurious, from the decor to the black-vested, bow-tied waitstaff to the prices on the menu. This is not the Italian restaurant for the average family, save for a special occasion — which it was for us, celebrating the approaching graduation and entry into the real world of our son, The Bottomless Pit (TBP).
The menu, though contained on one ledger-size sheet, is extensive, with sections of appetizers, pasta dishes, meat, seafood, pizzas and specialties. (Prices are not listed on the online menu, which has a few subtle differences from the in-house version.)
To play it safe, we made a reservation and were seated right on time. We were soon presented with a basket of assorted breads with a plate of dipping oil, olives and roasted red pepper to nosh on while we made our choices.
TBP started with an order of Calamari Fritti ($14), a tall bowl filled with a generous mix of rings and tentacles and sliced hot cherry peppers, all very lightly breaded and fried. The squid was tender and the peppers provided a great flavor contrast, boosting up what we agreed was a fairly bland coating. The lemon basil aioli was bright and bold, and one of the best accompanying sauces we’ve tried.
I started simply, with the Zuppa ($10), a comforting bowl of chicken broth with white beans, escarole and some big bits of browned pork.
Mrs. G was the most adventurous, and the winner of the appetizer competition, with her choice of Polpo ($16), a delicious presentation of grilled octopus chunks served on crostini with a luscious fra diavolo sauce. We were eager to try octopus, and we found it reminiscent of tender, unbreaded calamari, though thicker. The sauce, with chunks of tomato and green onions, wasn’t too spicy, but it was rich and delicious, pairing perfectly with the octopus. The smokiness from the wood grilling added another dimension to the flavor combination.
Moving on to entrees, I chose the Rigatoni alla Bolognese ($24). The house-made pasta, cooked al dente, was the perfect vehicle for a thick combination of braised beef, veal and pork, ground and mixed with just the right amount of red sauce and Parmesan cheese. A very flavorful, lightly spicy and hearty dish.
TBP, true to his carnivorous roots, went with the Tagliata ($36), a mushroom-crusted sirloin steak cooked in the wood-fired brick oven, served with spears of roasted sweet potato and greens. The steak was medium rare as requested and flavorful, but unfortunately, by the time it was served, it wasn’t hot enough to melt the large pat of truffle butter that topped it.
Mrs. G experienced similar inconsistency with her entree, the Pan Roasted Lobster ($35), a great melange of seafood including scallops, shrimp, a filet of salmon, a whole langostino and a “Hampton Harbor lobster tail,” all served in a large bowl with a lemon butter sauce. Parts of the dish — the scallops, salmon, shrimp and the sauce — were excellent, but the lobster tail, which was quartered the long way, wasn’t cooked thoroughly — a disappointment with the headline ingredient of the dish.
Later, we thought that we should have sent the dish back, but that’s something we almost never do.
Despite those issues, we were well filled by the time it came to order desserts. We debated but ultimately gave in, and were glad we did. The Salted Caramel Creme Brulee ($9), Tiramisu ($10) and Cannoli Trio ($12) were all rich and wonderful, and any of the three would have been a good choice for a couple to share. As it was, two of TBP’s three cannolis went home with him.
We left with mixed feelings. There was much to like, and much to be impressed with — the menu, the surroundings, and the service. But our meals were inconsistent, which we might chalk up to a kitchen that’s only a few weeks old.
We completed our two-hour dining experience with a tab of more than $200 for three courses for three plus a glass of wine and a beer — a record for our threesome.
The new Tuscan Kitchen might be the largest fine-dining restaurant in Portsmouth. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact it has on the dining scene in a town where high-end restaurants abound.