Meat of the Matter

Features by Christine BurnsRudalevige / April, 2017

The culinary wizards behind the curtains (as well as those cooking in open kitchens) in coastal restaurants from Newburyport to Portsmouth to Kennebunkport are working their magic with all kinds of meats. Offerings appeal to both conservative and adventurous carnivores alike. The ocean certainly has the glorious seafood bounty our region is known for, but area chefs pay homage to land-based animals with dishes that secure their restaurants a mandatory stop along the meat eater’s must-try list.

The Seacoast does not want for classic steakhouses (see sidebar below) where porterhouse, filet mignon, and strip steaks are cooked perfectly and traditionally, accompanied by creative sauces and interesting sides. But up and down the coast, menus now feature dishes that use less common cuts of beef, celebrate all parts of the pig, promote lamb as the other red meat, shake the tail feathers out of the plain old chicken breast, present duck as an everyday food, and introduce all sorts of fowl.

According to Mark Segal, general manager and chef at Tinos Kitchen & Bar in Hampton, New Hampshire, the newest eatery owned by the Tinios Pro Hospitality Group (their other establishments include Popovers and the Galley Hatch), the strategy involved in picking interesting proteins for any menu comes down to three things: the authenticity of the regional cuisine the restaurant espouses; what’s available in the chef’s proverbial backyard; and what customers really want to eat.

So the obvious choice for the Tinos menu when it opened in mid-December 2015 was goat. “Well, maybe it’s not that obvious,” jokes Segal, acknowledging that lamb is more widely known as the Greek red meat of choice. And there is plenty of that at Tinos, in the form of Lollypop Lamb Chops, as part of the herb-marinated Mixed Grill, and featured as a flatbread topping.

But goats are also standard Greek fare because these sure-footed animals thrive on the rocky islands where there is minimal grazing ground for bigger ruminants such as cows. Ground goat, sourced from Riverslea Farm in Epping, is served inside a gyro with spicy green tomato relish, lovage, and feta, and Segal has been pleasantly surprised by how many customers have embraced the assertive meat. He plans to expand the caprine and ovine repertoire to include whole spiced legs roasted in the kitchen’s wood-fired oven.

Still, there will always be what Segal calls “a compromise protein” on his menu. In this case, it’s a Greek Style Ribeye, glazed with red wine saba and served with Greek sides including potatoes ladoregano (with lemon, oregano, and garlic) and grilled vegetables. He estimates that one in five of his customers is looking for a piece of meat they know and love. “I would never want to make that customer feel they didn’t have a safe choice on the menu,” Segal says.

Customer comfort also comes through knowing a favorite meat dish will always be offered at a given restaurant. Jethro Loichle, executive chef at Portsmouth’s Ristorante Massimo, says the Vitello alla Griglia di Molise, a grilled veal chop with root vegetable mostarda and black rice, has been one of the restaurant’s best-selling dishes for two decades. On a busy Saturday night, 20 of the 120 entrees ordered will be veal chops. Sourced from Canada, these chops garner a Prime rating from both the USDA and its Canadian counterpart. That rating means they are well marbled with fat so that the chops, rubbed with a house-made herb and spice mix, self-baste as they are grilled first, finished in the oven, then left to rest briefly so the juices redistribute themselves throughout the chop.

At Louie’s, also in Portsmouth, the menu rotates seasonally but the Veal Braciole is a constant due to customer demand, says chef Brett Cavanna. A deboned veal breast fillet is shaped into an 18-inch rectangle, stuffed with charcuterie meat, shallots, and bread crumbs, rolled tightly, then slowly braised in veal stock. The roll is then sliced into eye-catching pinwheels and served with pickled onions, carrots, and polenta.

Chefs experiment by treating less common types of meat in the same fashion as traditional favorites, giving diners the opportunity to try something new with the confidence that comes from part of the dish being familiar. For example, Louie’s buys whole lambs from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, Maine, and as matters of frugality and sustainability dictate, Cavanna makes sure they use every bit of every animal that comes into the kitchen. “We’ve taken the lamb flap and made a braciole out of that, which is very similar to our veal one, and we grind lamb trimmings to include in comfort dishes such as meatballs or Bolognese sauce,” he says.

Using the whole animal with economy and grace has given rise to a very popular stop along the meat trail: the charcuterie board. Mombo in Portsmouth has won regional accolades for its board, which comprises six selections of cured meats, aged sausages, and molded terrines, three of which are made in-house, and all of which stay in rotation for about a month, explains Sous Chef James Burnham. While pork is always represented (think porchetta, head cheese, pate, mortadella, bacon, and sausage), Burnham includes at least two other proteins in the mix, including those made from less commonly offered meats, such as baked venison salami and boar cacciatorini (a dry-cured salami).

Executive Chef Rob Martin of When Pigs Fly Pizzeria in Kittery, Maine, who has earned a reputation for his charcuterie talents, says it’s just as interesting to him to create dishes that use more well-known cuts of pork in unusual ways. Take pork loin; it’s a blank canvas, with not a lot of either fat or flavor. But each of the 10 local pigs he buys annually has two. Martin’s solution is Schnitzel, a pounded, breaded, pan-fried, four-ounce piece of loin that he dresses seasonally, as a cooler weather offering with candied fennel, spaetzle, and whole-grain mustard cream sauce.

Jeremy Glover, executive chef at Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is taking a different approach to using the whole hog on his spring menu. For one night of service, he’ll debone the 30- to 40-pound animal, setting aside the loins to be brined, and roll the remainder to be roasted like porchetta. Each serving includes slices of the suckling pig porchetta as well as a piece of the loin, seared and basted with butter.

Glover also wades into unchartered poultry territory. While duck—either seared breasts or confit legs—has become more widely represented on Seacoast menus, he has not seen much quailor poussin. Pronounced poo-SAHN, these spring chickens are butchered when they’re about a month old and are favored by French chefs for their quick cooking time and presentation since each diner gets a whole bird, typically roasted. Glover’s quail varies with the seasons, with one preparation made with persimmons, another deboned, brined in chilies and coriander, trussed, and deep-fried so that the skin crisps all over. At Tinos, Segal also offers quail, stuffed with a sour Greek couscous, and cooked in a wood-fired oven.

At Joinery Restaurant in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Chef Brendan Vesey bypasses his southern roots and employs a Korean Method of Fried Chicken in which brined and battered pieces are steamed and cooled ahead of time before being fried to order. He changes up the seasonings and the sides depending on the time of year, but it’s definitely a dish his customers come back for. “Any successful meat dish is one that customers look forward to getting time and again. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the same every time; it just needs to be good every time,” Vesey says.

Since the opening of the acclaimed Delmonico’s in New York City in the late 1800s, steakhouses have unabashedly tapped into red-blooded America’s love of red meat. “There is very little chance you’re going to leave a good steakhouse still hungry,” says Executive Chef Gerry Walsh of the Cochecho Country Clubin Dover, New Hampshire. In 1991, he helmed the now-closed Molly Malone’s Irish Steakhouse in Portsmouth, and he still recalls his best sellers: the porterhouse with all of its marbling, the twin tournedos wrapped in bacon, and the whole prime rib he cooked every single day.

Steakhouse sales have, at times, been threatened by studies linking heart disease to red meat consumption, recessions, and fears of mad cow disease. But they’ve been equally buoyed over by better economic times and slimming, steak-heavy but low carbohydrate eating regimes, such as the Paleo diet, says Bruce Belanger, who has owned The Library Restaurant in Portsmouth for 20 years. Belanger says the steadier trend he’s observed is customers demanding better quality meat and demonstrating a willingness to pay more for the USDA’s Prime grading and for grass-fed and pasture-raised animals. There is always room on the menu for a good steak, he says. The longevity of his restaurant confirms this.

here is no shortage of fine dining establishments in the Seacoast region that cater to the sophisticated steak set. From Newburyport, Massachusetts, to Wells, Maine, and stops along the way in New Hampshire, eaters looking for a thick, juicy steak don’t have far to travel. We recommend the following highlights:

3612 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth, N.H. 603-766-0001
TRY:20-ounce prime Cowboy Ribeye with Tallow Poached Fingerling Potatoes

401 State Street, Portsmouth, N.H. 603-431-5202
TRY: Gentlemen’s Cut, a 2-inch thick, 16-ounce sirloin

26 Green Street, Newburyport, Mass. 978-463-9009
TRY: KC Sirloin, a Kansas City strip steak served with horseradish brown butter

1205 Post Road, Wells, Maine 207-646-4200
TRY: New York Strip Sirloin, available small (8 ounce),medium (12 ounce) or large (1 pound)