Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Eating in my home town: Portsmouth NH

I was recently reminded about something I had somehow misplaced over the past few years, and that is the daily reality that is owning, running, and working in a restaurant. Portsmouth is no doubt a destination town (for a few months a year), but it is not the type of major metropolitan or even micropolitan city that can feed a restaurant with consistent paying clientele. And with a steady stream of patrons comes an ever expanding ability to use more and different ingredients, be expansive, and be creative. I would suspect if Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago was not on a three month waiting list, the twenty odd course tasting menu might experience some paring down.

That said, I've always believed there are a few fundamental elements to the success or failure of any restaurant. The first is consistency. The second is creativity. The third is value.

Now its easy for me to harp on the lack of consistency of a place when I saunter in at twenty minutes before close on a Tuesday in February. Shame on me. For it was not long ago when it was I in that restaurant (in the middle of nowhere to boot) watching the clock tick down so I could go brush off my freezing car to be home (if I was lucky) at midnight for a quick bite and to be up to do it all again the next day. I was reminded that even though my three fundamentals seem succinct and achievable, there is much that factors into their attainment--much well beyond the control of the restaurateur or the chef or the front end manager. And then I was reminded of the twenty or so years I spent working in restaurants and was challenged to more deeply connect what is possible within each of those fundamental cornerstones. Consistency takes incredible work and attention to detail. Its hard to do something the same way, day in and day out no matter how many are on the books that night, or when the snow is raging, or when the Superbowl in on and the local team is playing. But the food and the decor are the easy parts. Its the attitude that is toughest. Having a competent, educated and enthusiastic staff that share your vision and passion--especially in a place like Portsmouth where restaurants do not generate the high dollar covers that Boston eateries might---is a rarity.

Yet, to their credit, so many places in town have found such staff. John, Lennie, Monica at Black Trumpet, John and Karen at Brazo, Deb herself at Green Monkey, Ryan and Tristan at the Press Room, Leo, Aaron, Marc, Amy...the list goes on an on. Its truly amazing. Are there inconsistencies, of course. But having run a fairly large restaurant with lounge, dining, and private functions for 300 often going simultaneously, I realize that finding those individuals is paramount to success. You can't do it alone.

Creativity is something that, regardless of conditions save the cost of food, is within reach and it is something that I still think many Portsmouth restaurants save a few fall consistently short on. I'm still waiting for that upscale yummy diner to hit town (sorry Gracie's, Colby's and the eh-hem Friendly Toast). You're good enough for what you are, but you can make great creative food with a little energy, time, excitement and not a lot of money. There are bright spots. Black Trumpet and Cava top the current list. But they still are no Hugo's in Portland. I'm still amazed that the city of Portland Maine can consistently outshine our own with offerings like Hugo's, Four Street, Duck Fat, 5150 and others. Maybe its the sheer number of residents, but with a higher percapita income and more attractive waterfront (and city) Portsmouth chefs should be able to creatively rival those places--and it doesn't take a 30 course tasting menu. How about rethinking American Classics. I can imagine a PB&J where the three are dissected and brought together in different ways (like using Jelly Roll wine as the J...combining hazelnut and a crispy fat as the butter and making one sumptuous bite). And why has the idea of the bite--the combination of flavors in one perfect moment--fallen from favor or been reserved for the pages of the performance menus of the Thomas Keller's of the world? My point is...try to stay energized. I know its hard. Now...marketing and promoting the creativity is all our jobs. When you find something and you like it and you want to have it again...TALK ABOUT IT. Good restaurants need our help.

Finally is value. This is the really tough one as economic conditions such as the current recession externally influence what and how restaurants can do. It is, quite frankly, a killer. Not only is it a killer to the bottom line, it is usually a silent killer to consistency. Food costs more, bookings are down, walk ins are down and some nights seem ghostly. The first impulse is to change things. Do something different. Get bodies in those seats! And while there are positive efforts (like the Trumpet's undercutting prefixe menu) there are failures. If you want to see a few, go read my Yelp reviews.

Now, why write this you might ask. Is it a reviewer's need to set up the pins to knock them down again, like the oft used word but; as in I like you BUT (I'm about to completely belittle you). No. In fact it was the taking of the role of dining reviewing and not that of former restaurant worker and cook that got the better of me. It may be ok to be quick to judge in the culinary jungles of LA and NY, but in Portsmouth we need our restaurants. Not only are they our friends, they are part of our livelihood. And for those of use who savor the senses, the look of the art, the texture of the sculpt, the visual of the landscape and the auditory of the sound, so too do we bring these together with the flavor of the meal. It is one of life's primary pleasures, and so when done well (or even pretty well) we should savor and share. We should celebrate. We should not be so quick to the negative, but elaborate the positive. Be fair, yes. And be supportive, certainly. And perhaps even critical when called for. But unless offensive, we should remember those who do the long work of artistic celebration for our benefit and share it with us.