New bistro offers Southern comfort
Like many good things in travel and life, we found 106 Kitchen and Bar by accident.
One night last fall, on our way to the Press Room, a Portsmouth, N.H., institution, a bright blue sign jumped out at me. “Hey what’s that place?’’ I said to my husband, who was making tracks to our favorite pub.
When we found the old standby filled cheek by jowl, we did an about-face to 106 Kitchen and found a friendly, months-old bistro with plenty of room at the bar. After an evening of beers,
Remembering 106 Kitchen’s Creole bent, we returned last month to savor the flavors of Mardi Gras.
It was a perfect night for gumbo and anything spiked with Tabasco or cayenne. Gusts of 50 miles-per-hour winds slapped us on a bracing walk along the beach, and by the time we arrived for an early Saturday night feed, we were ready to warm up and chow down.
After a refreshing hurricane cocktail, the official drink of Bourbon Street, we dug into a plate of southern fried oysters ($8). Piping hot, plump, and lightly coated with just the right amount of batter and seasoning, they were an unexpected midwinter treat, a nice break from fried clams.
The creamy Creole sauce with a hint of nutmeg (or was that pumpkin?) was worlds above tartar sauce. House-pickled veggies, a medley of beets and cauliflower, gave this appetizer a refreshing pucker. It seemed wrong to pop them in your mouth like tater tots, but hard to resist the urge.
Fried oysters also are served po’boy-style with grilled pineapple, green chili chutney, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted bulkie ($10). Sounds like a Guy Fieri road trip in the making. In chef Stephen “Reno’’ Diehl’s kitchen, fried food is refined, nongreasy, just right.
There is a relaxed, jeans and Uggs vibe to 106 Kitchen, open since May. The owners run several successful restaurants in the city, including the more upscale Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Café. But for my money, I’ll take its more casual cousin.
Chef Reno, as he is known, learned to cook stick-to-your-ribs cuisine in Texas, although he grew up a short drive down the coast in Rye, N.H. You’ll see the Culinary Institute of America grad cooking up a southern fusion in the open kitchen, the heart of this snug yet comfortable 70-seater with a balcony.
Prince Edward Island mussels ($9) came next. Oddly, these beloved Canadian bivalves are not always prepared with love, even in bistros by the sea. But at 106 Kitchen they are nurtured and cared for with the utmost attention until they land in front of you with a delightful thud.
Steamed in a lobster-infused fume with scallions, lime, cilantro garlic, and capers, they conjured up Vietnamese pho by way of the Mississippi Delta. It’s hard to pinpoint what region this dish hails from, but don’t sweat it. Capers and chunks of Andouille sausages give the broth a hearty yet elegant flavor. You won’t want to share.
In a bistro that peddles Southern comfort, you would expect gumbo to be the star. Compared with the exceptional mussels, the chicken and seafood gumbo ($18) is a clammy comedown. The bowl is plenty filling and the shrimp was firm and tasty, but the smoky flavors of the New Orleans classic got muddied. And the PEI mussels, so divine as an appetizer, were overcooked and marooned in this sea of plenty. Sad to say, the chicken didn’t fare much better. It was stringy and hard to decipher from the seafood.
But there’s so much to choose on this offbeat menu, from barbecue short ribs ($18) to pork osso bucco ($20), that you could visit several times and never get bored. Snacks like French fries and gravy and collards greens are offered for $3, fried pickles for $5. But don’t overlook the salads, which are far from rote. Romaine ($7) with fried okra, grilled corn, roasted tomatoes, toasted cashews, jalapeno, and avocado relish is the most fun we’ve had eating healthy in months.
Visit 106 Kitchen before the day-trippers return this spring and finding a parking spot becomes a full-contact sport.