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Globe North Dining Out

Chic Portuguese cuisine and late-night hours

February 13, 2011

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Ceia Kitchen + Bar
25 State St., Newburyport
978-358-8112
www.ceia-newburyport.com
Sunday through Wednesday, 4 to 10:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 11:45 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped except for one step at the entrance

Newburyport has a chic new destination for nighttime foodies, Ceia Kitchen + Bar. The narrow, brick-walled restaurant opened two months ago, and it’s already drawing crowds. The Friday night we visited, we were lucky to get a tiny table at 8:30.

Ceia (pronounced SAY-yah) means “supper’’ in Portuguese. Owner Nancy Batista-Caswell’s family emigrated from Portugal in the 1980s just before she was born (and promptly named her after then-first lady Nancy Reagan). Several dishes, such as the spicy shrimp Mozambique appetizer ($9), are versions of family recipes. But this is no simple Portuguese restaurant.

Executive chef Billy “Brando’’ Brandolini, who was trained at Cordon Bleu, specializes in unusual variations on Portuguese, French, Italian, and Spanish cooking, including tapas. The restaurant’s website describes Ceia as “a casual evening dining experience with a sophisticated menu that is friendly and still grown-up.’’

The pasta is handmade. Food sources are local, when possible. The “late-winter’’ menu we ordered from was filled with innovative touches, yet it was small enough to fit on one page.

In lieu of appetizers, we picked samplings of three cheeses — a fontina, a parmesan, and a manchego — from a list of eight (three for $12, five for $22, and so on). They arrived with thin-sliced French bread and a bit of bean purée and garlic oil, plus a deep-red dollop of cranberry-fennel-pepper chutney on the side. The platter was both tasty and educational.

This is a place where the kitchen pays attention to how things look as well as how they taste. We were treated to the most eye-catching Caesar salad we’d ever seen ($7) — not that we’ve ever noticed much competition on that score. The romaine heart had been flash-grilled and placed on an oblong white platter like a small warm fish, then draped with shiny anchovy strips, slivers of cheese, and large beignet-style croutons. It was delightful in texture, taste, and appearance, but the croutons could have been fresher.

A salad of roasted root vegetables with mesclun greens, chocolate-covered goat cheese, and fresh figs ($10) arrived on top of a bright smear of red sauce that looked as though an artist had swiped the plate with a fat brush.

An order of scallops with truffled corn, chopped arugula with lemon, and a butternut bechamel sauce ($24) was an abstract sculpture of colors and shapes. The scallops were as juicy and tender as scallops can be, even if a bit saltier than necessary. It’s worth mentioning that there were only three scallops on the plate. They were each quite large, so we were more than satisfied. Still, restaurant-goers who have grown accustomed to entrées you can’t lift without two hands might object to Ceia’s European-style portion sizes.

A dish of fettucini carbonara ($16), made with cured Italian bacon, pecorino cheese, and egg yolks, came with slices of huge king oyster mushrooms. The noodles were pleasantly chewy, and the sauce had an appealing smoky taste. Our waitress, who was attentive but not intrusive, instructed us to mix the sauce in right away to capture its full flavor.

We finished up with a delicious warm peach tart ($9) made with a brown sugar crumble and almond cream.

As we left at about 10 p.m., we were surprised to see new diners still arriving. Few fine dining places in the area have a kitchen that stays open as late as Ceia’s. That’s one reason it has attracted a clientele so quickly, says Batista-Caswell. She wants her restaurant to appeal especially to the area’s commuter crowd, for many of whom every dinner is a late dinner.

Ceia plans to expand its hours to include lunch next month. For the cost-conscious, the restaurant will offer a $30 prix fixe dinner during Newburyport Restaurant Week, March 20 to 24. Among the choices is a dish of beef tournedos with confit fingerlings, smoked paprika, and an artichoke emulsion.

COCO McCABE AND DOUG STEWART

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor