Classic Dishes with Nouveau Flair
By Rachel Forrest
Hampton Union, Spotlight, March 28, 2013
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
The little hidden spots along the highway that runs through our smaller towns are usually interesting, if not wonderful surprises. How did I not see this before? What a gem! Oh, that's odd — all comments I make when I wander into place such as these.
Savory Square Bistro has actually been around for a bit under Chef Ron Boucher in the space next to his Chez Boucher Cooking School but in January he turned it over to Chef Myles Underwood and his fiance Kathleen Murphy. You'll find it in Depot Square in Hampton, in the old Hampton Union building, along the highway that runs through the "village." What a gem.
There's a bar to the left and a dining room to the right. The bar is a fun hang with locals stopping in for snacks. It's a cozy, welcoming place with a few brews on tap and some feisty cocktails made by affable bartender, Keith. For what I believe is the first time, I dined with a restaurateur for a review — Keith from Rudi's and his partner Chris — and it was a good match because the food reminds me of Rudi's fare. It's a bit upscale, finely crafted, but sticks to those "bistro" roots so while the food is familiar, there are just enough hints of creativity to set each dish apart.
But first, a note on atmosphere. I think the decor in the dining room needs a touch-up, one that gives it some identity. The basic theme is "European" with a mural of the Italian countryside on the wall, but overall there's not much interesting about it. I think the atmosphere could be sparked up and tweaked a bit in look but also in sound. The music was inappropriate to the point of distraction. It didn't fit with anything else at all. End of lecture.
On to food. There's a "bites" menu, which is a bit like choosing your own amuse bouche. The scallop bite was perfect, the shellfish perfectly cooked with a light crispness to the outside, all atop a puree of cauliflower, creamy yet surprisingly light ($5). An appetizer of duck confit with an arugula salad, toasted hazelnuts, cranberries and a snappy balsamic vinaigrette was nice and crisp outside, but a tad dry inside. I found it large for an appetizer. I'd like it to be a "small plate" to have with a few others.
You must get the Gouda Bites, golden fried jewels of hot smoky Gouda cheese with a house made ranch sauce for dipping ($8). They're my new favorite bar snack or a great way to stave off your hunger if you want to have a cocktail and chat at the table for a bit before ordering. French onion soup is also delicious. Robust, gooey with cheese and with a crust that gives even more terrific texture ($8). They also have a charcuterie and a cheese board, which looked intriguing, as well as blackened shrimp, a dish of mussels with chorizo and some creative salads.
When a restaurant presents itself as a bistro (and here in the United States, our bistros are different from our traditional European counterparts, but still distinct from other genres of restaurant), I always try the steak frites. Here it's a hangar steak with perfect hand cut fries, hot and crisp. The steak was tender, cooked just right to medium and covered in a creamy and surprisingly traditional sauce au poivre ($24). While the sauce was delicious and hard to stop eating, there was a bit too much of it, which overpowered the meat. Although that might just be an aesthetic issue rather than a flavor issue because I almost couldn't get enough of it.
Seafood Cioppino Pasta had very fresh mussels, scallops, shrimp and chunks of white fish, all over egg fettuccine with long crisp baguette toasts topped with thin slices of pecorino Romano cheese, presumably for dipping ($24) This was a variation on a more familiar cioppino in that there wasn't a broth, but a tomato sauce instead. Tasty and fresh as this dish was, I want broth. I want to dip that terrific bread in some rich, tomatoey, spicy broth.
Espresso roasted pork tenderloin is fantastic. The tenderloin was about the most tender loin I've ever had — I'm not sure how he did it — brining perhaps — but it was "like butter." The espresso rub was a great hint of rich flavor against a "drunken" cherry with a touch of sweetness. It's served with a crispy polenta cake, a simple alternative to the usual "mashed" and a pile of sweet and tender sauteed leeks ($19). You'll also find grilled duck breast with a pomegranate sauce, pan roasted salmon and a grilled rib eye with a marsala-mushroom demi glace.
Chef Underwood went through a Cordon Bleu program in San Francisco and Kathleen, who warms up the dining room with her charm and friendly attitude, went through the Chez Boucher professional program and can she make a dessert. They're very familiar styles — a chocolate pot de creme, a small lemon tart, a flourless chocolate torte — reminiscent of about a decade ago, but they were some of the most perfectly executed desserts I've had in a long time. Each element — the texture of the pot de creme, the bruleed crust on top, the tartness of the lemon custard and the texture and crumble of its crust, the rich fudgy quality of the torte — excellent.
What a team in this little bistro, tucked away in Hampton Village. And yes, what a gem.