Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Picks- Best of Newport County, Dining Edition

Man, that was a lot of food- here lemme wash 'er down...

Although this is a food related post, I thought it would be a better fit for The Humble Home, as opposed to the Table, since it’s a review not a recipe. Like any other self-proclaimed foodie, I adore going out to eat and trying new restaurants, it is a very close second to making a fantastic meal at home. For being considered a small town, Newport has some really outstanding restaurants, so I’ve compiled a review of the places we frequent, and those we’ve only recently tried, so if you ever find yourself in the area, you’ll at least have an idea of some of the offerings of our local culinary teams. I'm shooting to make this a two-part post, with the first half dedicated to my favorites in the region, so let's start off with the brightest stars.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, we ended up living in a great neighborhood for food. The upper Broadway area of Newport has arguably some of the best restaurants in town. As an added bonus, it is a bit off the main drag, so the tourist traffic is less than the America’s Cup/Thames St. area down on the water. We’ve made a pretty good go at checking out the restaurants in this area, and it plays host to our favorite go to spot, which is where I’ll kick the list off:

(A quick note: I've included links where possible to the webpages of these restaurants, but I do not have any photos of the meals I've enjoyed. It's a bit of a personal issue with me, but I find it extremely distracting to take photos of a meal when out with friends. Most of the sites have menus & photos, so you can get the idea from there on the offerings!)

1) Salvation Café: This is easily my favorite place in all of Newport. It has a very funky, eclectic style, and the food is always outstanding. Almost every time we have guests in town, we’ll take them to Salvation. They run a well thought out, seasonally inspired menu with offerings for any taste- their hanger steak & frites is outstanding, the pad thai (offered with chicken, shrimp or tofu) is generous and fresh, and the offer rotating specials that are always spot on. Their appetizer/starter selections are on par with the rest of their menu, and their beet salad and mussels with frites are a personal point of obsession (they ran out of mussels the last time we were there, and I was completely crushed, but was well consoled by the hanger steak in homemade Worcestershire sauce), and eat well as a meal. I sampled a friend’s calamari a few weeks ago, and it did not disappoint. Cocktail, beer and wine offerings are all great, and their infamous Sangria lives up to the hype. On the last visit, I tried their Tiger Tea (a mix of sweet tea vodka and house made lime aid), and am now hooked! Service is usually very good, but being the hotspot that it is, it can get a little spotty at times. As an added bonus for year round residents, they run a lot of weekday specials after peak season, including Taco Tuesdays and the Real Winos of Newport County. The place is packed most any night, so getting there early is a good idea, and if you’re waiting, the back yard tiki bar is not a bad place to hang out with a cocktail.

2) Norey’s Star (fan page available on Facebook): Located a couple of doors down from Salvation, Norey’s was a great stumble-upon find. Looking for a place to grab a beer and an appetizer while my Dad was in town, the three of us ended up at Norey’s, and have been back many times as a result. Norey’s has a funky modern diner sort of aesthetic, with an extensive offering of beers and wine (cocktails are not available). They pride themselves on having the most extensive offering of bottled beers from both national and international breweries. Similar to Salvation, their menu seems to change seasonally, although staples can be found any time of year and also have a great offering of fresh raw bar selections. A standout on the appetizer menu is their Fried Goat Cheese plate, which pairs a disc of lightly breaded goat cheese with their incredible fried spinach and toasted baguette slices. The combination of the warm goat cheese with the crispy spinach is absolutely outstanding. Other great offerings include their mussels (which were on the winter menu and show up occasionally as a special), the bistro steak w/ blue cheese, lobster mac & cheese and their burgers. Full service is available at the bar, and I have found that the bartenders are a bit more attentive than the floor staff. The food at Norey’s is thoughtfully prepared, and makes for a great out of the way spot to grab dinner and catch up with a friend.

3) Pour Judgement: I love Pour Judgement not only for their witty name, but their unpretentious approach great bar food. From the outside, it looks like your standard bar, and in part, it is. PJ offers a great lineup of 17 beers on draught, as well as bottled offerings of some lesser known brew houses. They also boast a solid wine list and full cocktail service. Their menu has everything from standard chicken wings and burgers to hand cut fries with smoked Gouda cheese sauce, nori of the day, and an impressive offering of entrees. I habitually order their Portuguese Littlenecks- steamed in white wine with chorizo, onions, peppers and garlic- and they are always perfection. Kyle has adventured further, and their nightly specials are always well prepared, the fried shrimp Po’boy was a remembered standout. As an added bonus, I just found out that they do a Sunday brunch, and I’m looking forward to taking a stroll down the street for further research soon. The staff is always on their game, and with a constantly changing draught beer lineup and nightly specials, it’s hard to get bored.

4) The Fastnet Pub: Fastnet is exactly what you would expect out of an Irish pub- well poured pints, a good selection of standard drinks, and pub fare. Fastnet certainly isn’t looking to re-invent the bar, and they do a great job at bringing a little of Ireland in Newport. The food selection is pretty standard- burgers, deli sandwiches, wings and the like, and my personal standout would be their homemade curry sauce for their Curry Fries and the Fish & Chips, two staples of any good pub. I’ll go just about to the ends of the earth for well done Fish & Chips and Curry Fries- luckily for me I only have to go to the end of the block. And there’s nothing like a freshly poured Magners for refreshment, which is enough to keep me loyal for years. The interior of Fastnet looks like something right out of Dublin, with dark wood, a good sized bar and hi top tables. On Sundays they have live Irish music, and in the summer they roll open the shutter windows for an open air, relaxed feeling. They’ll also open early for televised international rugby games (on the projection big screen), and you’re sure to find crews from far and away sporting their motherland’s jersey and enjoying a pint.

5) Empire Tea & Coffee: Although not really a restaurant, per say, Empire is a fantastic coffee house. My brother-in-law Brandon and his wife Ugne were actually the first to discover Empire during a visit this past winter, and I am eternally grateful to them. The crew at Empire really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to tea and coffee, and they are more than happy to share their knowledge with their customers. While they have the standard coffee/espresso/latte/tea offerings you would expect, they can also broaden your horizon with their extensive selection of loose teas and unique beverages like their “Third Degree Burn” which pairs espresso with spicy (as in hot pepper) Mexican chocolate for a unique and delicious combination. They also carry one of my favorite guilty pleasures- Bubble Tea!

6) A-1 Pizza: Well made, fresh pizza is a thing of unbridled beauty. My family prides ourselves on being quite the pizza connoisseurs, and thinks nothing of driving ridiculously out of our ways for a good one. Lucky for Kyle and me, we found a fantastic place literally around the corner from our apartment. A-1 creates incredible Greek style pizzas (thicker, pan style crust) out of their humble little shop, with offerings to suit any taste. It’s not just my personal accolade for the best pizza in Newport- they have won the “Best Cheese Pizza” in Newport County award for years- and the proof is in the pie. Their extensive menu of specialty pizzas takes up two pages on their menu, and thus far, I haven’t been disappointed. Favorites in our house include the Pizza all Bubba (pepperoni & sausage covered in a mix of sautéed onions, garlic & peppers), Grecian Delight (Tzatziki sauce, spinach, black olives, feta & tomatoes), Gyro (marinated slices of lamb & beef) and the Buffalo Chicken. During a visit from my brother, who is not shy about his passion for great wings, we threw in an order of their Italian Wings, and they were outstanding! Fried extra crispy, the wings are tossed with Italian herbs, chopped garlic and olive oil- unbelievable! The meat was juicy, and the flavors worked together beautifully. While A-1 is not your typical $8 pizza joint, they’re well worth the money, and have stood the test of time for the past 34 years for a reason. As a matter of fact, after writing this list, I went straight home, called my husband, and told let him know that I had place an order for takeout, if he would be so kind as to swing by A-1 on his way home from the base.

7) Café Zelda: I know I’ve mentioned Zelda’s a couple of times before, and with good reason- they are consistently great! Like many of my favorites, we stumbled on Zelda’s while wandering around downtown in search of a place for brunch on Sunday. The interior has a bit of split personality, with the dining room reminiscent of a seaside French bistro with white tablecloths and attentive servers, and a rich wood-laden, no frills bar that is full of the sailing crowd at any given time washing down pints and trying their hand at the well-known Virgin Island “ring game”. Food at Café Zelda is always spot on, and they stay true to their Bistro roots- offering such favorites as Pissaladiere (a French tart with caramelized onions, black olives and anchovy paste), a classic Savoyard sandwich, Eggs Benedict, Truffled Foie Gras “Crème Brulee”, Steak Frites and what is arguably the best burger in all of Newport. Although I’ve only made it to Zelda’s for lunch and brunch, I am looking forward making the trip downtown for dinner once the crowds start to die down- their Bouillabaise and Braised Short Ribs sound like the perfect thing to take the chill out of a fall night!

8) Bouchard’s: Interestingly enough, I had heard about Bouchard’s long before I even knew I would be a resident of Newport. Once we had established residency, I knew Bouchard’s would be the sort of place for a truly special occasion, as was such for our 2 year anniversary. Set in an old converted house which also plays host to a small Inn, Bouchard’s main dining room is warm and intimate, a place where you don’t feel crowded or rushed. One look at the menu and you know that the chef and namesake, Albert Bouchard, knows his trade. I had a difficult time narrowing down my selections to anything past “the entire left page, please”. Our server was wonderfully attentive without being overbearing, and when the wine Kyle selected was no longer offered, she pointed us to a similar option without trying to “upsell” us on our price point. As we placed our order, our server let us know that they had a Grand Mariner Soufflé for desert that evening, and if we hadn’t had it before it was not something to be missed (it was advised to place that order with our entrees, as it is a bit time consuming). Done and done. We started off with the Pate de Foie du Chef and the Filet Mignon Carpaccio, each of which set the tone beautifully. For mains, Kyle had a Bone-in Veal Chop from the specials and I had the Duck Breast with Coffee Crust- there is a reason for the price point on these dishes. Chef Bouchard is thoughtful not only of each component in his dishes, but of the entire flow of a meal. For us, it was a grand slam. While clearing our entrée plates, our server inquired as to what we were celebrating, and we informed her it was our anniversary. Minutes later she came back wih two glasses of complimentary champagne, which we enjoyed over dessert. The soufflé arrived with its head held high before our server cracked the surface and poured in the crème angliase. It was an absolute perfect note to end a memorable meal on. While clearly not for the everyday (at least not on my salary!), Bouchard’s is not to be missed when toasting a special occasion.

9) Easton’s Beach Snack Bar: On the absolute opposite side of the spectrum from Bouchard’s, you will find Easton’s Beach Snack Bar. Why did it make the list? Two words: Lobster rolls. I’m pretty sure this has got to be the best kept culinary secret in all of Newport County, and I’m apprehensive to even put it on the list, for fear of word getting out! I would have never even known of the Snack Bar’s existence, had it not been for my friend and IYRS colleague Jill, who slyly turned to me one afternoon while finishing up a shift at the library and asked “Do you know about the Snack Bar???”. She proceeded to give me the full story of how this little seaside cash-only snack bar was producing the best lobster rolls anywhere (big claim, I know!). I came to find out you get not only one but two fresh-made lobster rolls to an order, served on a bed of Boardwalk Fries for, wait for it, $10.99!!! Insanity! After my first experience, I was a complete believer. The lobster meat is fresh (as in off the boat fresh) and well picked, served the right way, on a butter grilled hot dog roll and mixed only with a little Hellman’s mayonnaise (I’ll save my ode to Hellman’s for later), with just the lightest line of shredded lettuce running down the bottom of the bun for a little crunch. There is nothing like it, and I think I’ve gone every time I can come up with an excuse. As a testament, I got them once when my mother was in town, and she was even floored. Now if only there was a way to convince them to stay open through the winter…

10) Jamestown Oyster Bar: Although not technically in Newport, this little seafood restaurant on neighboring Jamestown Island is a great spot if you’re in Jamestown exploring. We had spent the day over at Beavertail, and were looking for a place to grab a light bite. Since we had walked by the Oyster Bar a couple of times in the past, we decided to give it a go. The interior is simple and clean, with a long bar running against the right wall, and bright white dressed tables scattered throughout. It was a hot night, and one of the servers recommended we take a table by the window, so we settled in and looked over the menu. Their appetizer/small plate offerings are quite extensive, and we picked out a couple to try. They have an extensive by the bottle wine list, as well as a complete bar, and their daily by the glass offerings are listed on the large “Specials” blackboard in the middle of the dining room. We started off with an order of mussels in white wine and garlic (shocking, I know), and the escargot sautéed with sweet onions and served over toast points- we were looking forward to trying the freshwater smelts, but they were out. While I admit to being a relatively adventurous eater (especially when it comes to seafood), I had yet to ever try escargot for some unknown reason, but went with Kyle’s excitement. The escargot were delicate and subtle in flavor- well complimented by the butter and sweet onion sauté- and I am thrilled to have finally had the chance to enjoy the little guys! The mussels were simple and well prepared, with the focus on the freshness of the product. For our second round, we went with 9 oysters on the ½ (our server informed us it was 2 for 1 on oysters on Sundays!) and Clams Casino. At most establishments, Clams Casino consists of Cherrystone clams topped with buttered breadcrumbs and crisp bacon. At the Oyster bar, their twist replaces the bacon with baby Maine shrimp, and it was a welcome change, even for a bacon aficionado. The oysters were of good size and notably fresh, served simply with lemon, cocktail sauce and extra horseradish- perfect! We had a fantastic night of sampling , and really enjoyed the relaxed, yet polished atmosphere of the Oyster Bar, something that will definitely draw us back again.

Phew! So that rounds out my list of “tops” in the area for dining and drinks- I think that should take care of it! I’m shooting to have my less than stellar reviews up in the next day or so, although I think it will be a shorter list. ;) If you do find yourself at any of these spots, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as no two palates are alike!

Thanks for visiting Newport!

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