February 2, 2006

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Forget formal dining, head to the bar

Small-plate menus and new rules about service mean a great meal in the lounge

By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

Once upon a time, chefs and restaurants would offer only nuts at the bar.

They wanted you in seats at tables ordering double-digit entrees with a la carte sides. Today, the thought of an idle kitchen staff and empty tables makes restaurants eager to feed.

The tapas-meze-cichetti craze has helped to raise the profile of the appetizer or starter menu at restaurant bars. Forget the tired jumbo shrimp cocktail, chicken tenders or crab artichoke dip that hold a spot on almost every menu and look to real plates of entrée quality eats, just smaller.

Lounge dining has benefits. It can balance the effects of all the alcohol you consume when out with friends and coworkers, is less of a commitment than a sit down meal when on a blind date and keeps you on top of the score (it is always a playoff season isn’t it?) because even the nicest restaurants have a plasma on the wall somewhere.

In years past, bartenders mixed cocktails, servers served food. Today, just as servers know drinks, bartenders know the menu inside and out, and rickety vinyl padded bar stools have been replaced with bar chairs designed for comfortable dining and inebriating.

And just when you thought you understood the whole small-plate thing, there is a new trend coming down the pike: “snacks.” A snack is somewhere between a side dish and a starter. Snacks are for nibbling on while perusing the menu or waiting for fellow guests to arrive. Fody’s Great American in Nashua already has the category on its menu. Watch for more to come.

Here is a guide to some of the best bar food around, so pony up to the bar and order.

Bedford

• The Bedford Village Inn (off Route 101):The cozy Tap Room has an old English style bar and country inn feel straight from a Bronte novel. Try the cured sturgeon, beet Napoleon with horse radish mousse ($12), the braised veal shortribs with crispy sweetbreads, crepes and orange powder ($12) or gratineed cauliflower cappelletti, white truffle fondue ($14).

• CR Sparks (18 Kilton Road, 647-7275): Curved brick walls, granite bar and warm woods make this bar cozy. Try the Big Blue pizza ($ 10.95) with gorgonzola cheese, grilled chicken, roasted butternut squash and sage pesto or the Maryland style crab cakes ($9.95) which are pan roasted with red pepper jam and crisp cucumber salad.

Concord

• The Centennial Inn (96 Pleasant St., 227-9000): The Staircase Bar has the feel of a barista’s library. The menu at the inn pulls from many international flavors, but is not fusion. Look for Lumpia, an Asian spring roll of bok choy, ground pork, shallots and ginger served with a peanut dipping sauce ($6), vegetable Samosa, an Indian pastry filled with peas, potato, onions and traditional Indian spices served with a tzatziki sauce ($7), the country pate served in a baked brioche accompanied by grain mustard and apple compote ($8) or the Duck confit pizza with the inn’s signature barbecue sauce with fresh chevre, sweet peppers and onions ($8)

Derry

• Depot Square Steakhouse (East Broadway, 437-4200): High-back mission-style chairs and a cool granite bar make for a comfortable setting in this converted train depot. Order up St. Louis Ribs, a half rack of slow-cooked pork ribs, brushed with homestyle barbecue sauce and char-grilled ($9.99) or maple-glazed fresh sea scallops wrapped and baked in hickory-smoked bacon ($8.99).

Londonderry

• Jay House Asian Cuisine (Crossroads Mall,123 Nashua Rd , Londonderry, 437-5600): The beauty here is that there is a dual Chinese and Japanese menu. Spring rolls, scallion pancakes and chicken fingers can be nibbled along with more exotic Japanese fare and sushi. Try the fried, marinated soft shell crab served with spicy sauce and caviar ($5.50) or the beef Negimaki, broiled beef rolls with scallions and teryaki ($6.25).

Manchester

• Cotton (75 Arms Park Drive, 622-5488): The bar at this award-winning restaurant is comfortable, just like the food. Try the chicken satay ($7.50), wild mushroom winter rolls ($8.50), which are crispy fried twin rolls filled with wild mushrooms and Boursin cheese served with a cabernet demi glace, or the pan-seared scallops ($11) surrounded by mixed greens, pistachios, crumbled bleu cheese, tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette.

• Baldwin’s on Elm (1105 Elm St., 622-4981): The bar is small here, but it is the perfect way to indulge in some of this restaurant’s award-winning cuisine. Try the grilled quail ($12) served with roasted fingerling potatoes, chestnut fondue and cranberry sauce or the braised oxtail ($12) puff pastry with wild mushrooms and reduced braising liquid.

• Hanover Street Chophouse (149 Hanover St. ,644-2467): The bar is polished and the food is stellar. Try the braised English-cut short ribs with a sugar pumpkin polenta, porcini mushrooms and natural sauce ($9), Kobe beef Carpaccio with shaved truffle and Grana cheese ($11) or the cold poached whole baby lobster with a tomato concassée, micro lettuce and Green Goddess dressing ($19).

Merrimack

• Giorgio’s Ristorante & Martini Bar (Pennichuck Square, Route 101A, 883-7333): Stone, wood and offbeat artwork that looks like cave wall renderings make Giorgio’s endearing. Slide up to the roomy bar and order Pancetta-wrapped jumbo shrimp grilled and served with a baby arugula & shaved red onion salad and sweet balsamic syrup ($8.50), garlic oil and blue cheese-crusted grilled pizza, herb-roasted mushrooms, spinach, mozzarella ($9.95 / $6.50 half), grilled chicken skewers marinated in lemon, garlic, oregano and Greek olive oil and served with toasted ciabata bread and spicy tomato relish ($7.50) or the “Ouzo Cream” fresh sea scallops sautéed with roasted fennel and plum tomatoes, flamed in Ouzo liqueur and finished with fresh cream, baby spinach and Romano cheese ($8.95).

• Ya Mamma’s (75 DW Highway, 578-9201): The appetizer menu here is ripe for tasting with many options beyond the usual suspects. Look for; artichoke hearts stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and seasoned bread crumbs, served with lemon butter ($8.95) and house favorite Lumache Miscuglio, a medley of snails, shrimp, and artichoke hearts sautéed in olive oil with garlic, finished with white wine, lemon, and butter, served with garlic bread points ($10.95).

• Silo’s Steakhouse (641 DW Highway, 429-2210): Housed in a former dairy barn, this bar is rustic elegance. Favorite bar food includes a jumbo portabella mushroom stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, chopped red bell peppers and Gorgonzola cheese. ($4.95) and Silo’s steak tips, a hand-cut combination of sirloin, Delmonico and filet mignon ($13.95) in flavors such as Cajun bourbon, Tuscany or maple mesquite.

Nashua

• Michael Timothy’s (212 Main St., 595-9334): At this urban jazz bistro, the food is sophisticated and regional. Try the grilled quail spring rolls ($9) with jalapeño dipping sauce, smoked salmon ($9) On potato crisps with horseradish sauce, onions and capers or the baked Nova Scotia oysters ($10) wrapped with prosciutto and oven-dried tomatoes then topped with spinach hollandaise. Or the chef’s favorite, the spicy Sambal chicken pizza ($16) with peppers, onions, smashed avocado, cheddar, sambal oelek and sour cream.

• Villa Banca (194 Main St., 598-0500): The bricked wall piano bar in this former bank is comfortable and fun. Try the seasoned butternut squash wrapped in filo dough ($7.95) and served over a marsala chestnut alfredo sauce, or artichoke hearts filled with seasoned lobster ($7.95) and cream cheese, breaded, flash-fried and served with sherried lobster-spinach cream sauce, or finally Villa Banca’s famous sausage recipe served over a white wine garlic sauce with portabella-scallion relish and topped with onion crisps ($6.95).

• Manhattan on Pearl (70 E. Pearl St., 578-5557): A Spanish tapas bar with a killer martini list masters small plates. This bar is urban and slick. Try the chorizo frito ($6) pan fried chorizo sausage tinted with a red wine sauce, grilled scallops with a saffron cream sauce ($9), a pot of creamy cheese fondue with garlic shrimp for dipping ($15) or a flatbread pizza with chopped clams, crisp chorizo sausage, crushed red pepper and cheddar and Parmesan cheese ($15).

• Del Vaudo’s (112 West Pearl St., 598-8007): Need a break from the office? The lounge has Wi-Fi available from noon to 6 p.m. For snacks, try the baked asparagus in puff pastry with prosciutto, and Fontina cheese ($6) or the Helix escargot beurre blanc served in puff pastry($11).

• Fody’s Great American Tavern (9 Clinton St., 577-9015): Try the chicken lollipops with smoked pepper glaze and yogurt sauce ($8), salt cod fritters with citrus aioli ($8) and the lobster BLT ($19) served on toasted bread with smoked bacon.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com  



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