We settled into the curvy, high-backed banquette overlooking the Piscataqua River, the Sarah Long Bridge, and busy Portsmouth Harbor. Rays of the setting sun bounced off tiny whitecaps and lit the bows of fishing boats heading home. As if on cue, one of Portsmouth’s iconic red and black Moran tugboats slowly chugged its way into port. Inside, the restaurant was hopping; guests clustered around the bar, tables were full, and conversation and drinks were flowing.
It was a typical night at Surf, the lively contemporary restaurant on Martingale Wharf with widescreen water views and fresh-off-the-boat seafood. The eatery, which seats 125 people, including seating for 30 at its large, center-stage bar, is the latest brainchild of chef-owner Michael Buckley and his wife, Sarah. “When we first set out to design the space, we wanted it to be airy, fun, and make you think of the ocean,” says Buckley. The Portsmouth restaurant was modeled after the Buckleys’ original Surf Restaurant in Nashua, by Sarah and Maine artist Elizabeth Whelton. Tables surround the focal-point bar, with banquettes, evoking ocean waves, along the back wall overlooking the river. The restaurant is decorated with colorful original artwork. In addition to a wide selection of microbrews, the bar at Surf offers an array of handcrafted cocktails, including The Lotus, made with orange vodka, blood orange puree, Cointreau, Pama liqueur, and splashes of cranberry and orange juice, and the Rain Hitting Rhubarb, with blackberry and rhubarb–infused vodka, cranberry juice, ginger, and blackberry puree.
As you’d expect, seafood is the star in Buckley’s creative repertoire. The raw bar has been an ongoing hit. The Raw Sampler, presented on a three-tiered platter, offers a tasting of the most popular raw bar items, accompanied with a variety of sauces and pickled vegetables. Fried Jonah Crab Cakes come topped with a Louisiana-style remoulade.
Signature dishes include the simply prepared Sesame Seared Yellowfin Tuna, served over creamy wasabi mashed potatoes, and the grilled Miso-Marinated Salmon served on a jasmine rice cake. The popular Portuguese Seafood Stew is chock-full of haddock, mussels, scallop, shrimp, clams, and chorizo sausage, simmered in a heady wine-tomato broth.
Other top entrees include the Shrimp Vindaloo, featuring a flavorful, slightly spicy sauce swimming with sauteed shrimp, and the Horseradish-Crusted Haddock, served on a potato pancake. Buckley says that these two dishes “exemplify what Surf is about, a mix of familiar tastes, in a comforting style, but still creative and fresh.” On the casual side, try the Surf Fleuben, prepared with lightly battered and fried flounder and served on rye bread with traditional Thousand Island dressing and house-made slaw, or the Fish Tacos, with just-caught, crispy-fried haddock and homemade mango salsa. For dessert, enjoy the Espresso Crème Brûlée, or the popular Surf Bananas Foster, topped with rum caramel and served with sugar sticks. They’re perfect accompaniments as you watch the sun slip below the horizon and the city lights shine on the harbor.
The waterfront location of this Portsmouth restaurant not only rewards diners, it also inspires Buckley daily. “It’s a subtle reminder of the beauty of nature,” he says. “And even though we want to be as creative as possible, when you see the lobstermen and fishing boats coming up the Piscataqua, you realize the importance of showing the seafood in its own light.”
99 Bow Street