Handicap access: Steps up to main entry; main dining area is on the second floor up a curved staircase.
The scores for Nibblesworth Atmosphere: 18/20 Menu: 17/20 Food: 19/20 Service: 18/20 Value: 17/20 TOTAL: 89/100
Many years ago, one of our favorite hangouts was the Codfish Aristocracy on The Hill in downtown Portsmouth. The food was good, the drinks were big and inexpensive, and the entertainment was always fun.
Then we moved inland, the Codfish became the Blue Mermaid (and maybe something else in between), and the whole thing faded into distant memory.
It was by chance that we happened to be walking through The Hill the other night, on our way to somewhere else, when we noticed the recently opened Nibblesworth Wood Fire Grill in the same old house that once was the good ol’ Codfish. The aroma of wood smoke and grilling meats drew us to the doorstep, and a quick look at the menu out front convinced us to change our plans and head inside.
The buildings on The Hill are old homes that were relocated to create an enclave of history during the Urban Renewal craze of the late 1960s that eradicated most of the neighborhood around it. The one that houses Nibblesworth, the Nutter-Rymes House, is actually two identical buildings connected by the second floor, which bridges a passageway designed for carriages.
As we entered, the hostess asked us whether we wanted to sit downstairs or upstairs; we said we had no preference, so she took us upstairs, to what turned out to be the main dining area, extending into that bridge space above the carriageway. (The first floor contains the bar, with seating and an entertainment space, along with a deck for al fresco dining and drinking.)
Photos on the restaurant’s Facebook page show that an extensive restoration took place before Nibblesworth opened late last month. The atmosphere is a great blend of modern and historic, with funky Edison-bulb light fixtures and contemporary artwork (for sale) sharing space with classic old fireplaces and woodwork. Lighting is fairly low, and because there are no curtains or table cloths, it’s also fairly loud.
The menu is contained to one side of a legal-size page (drinks are on the other side). It’s divided into Nibs (starters), Nosh (salads), Knife & Fork (main courses), Side-Kicks, Hand-Helds (sandwiches) and desserts; each with five to eight items. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and dishes made from scratch. There’s also an emphasis on healthy greens and grains, with quinoa, collards and kale all playing starring or supporting roles in several dishes.
We were fairly quick in making our selections. With the aromas from outside still lingering, I knew I wanted to take advantage of that wood-fired grill. Mrs. Gourmet, on the other hand, was in a seafood mood. The menu had us both covered.
For starters, I ordered Grilled Oysters ($11) and Mrs. G chose a cup of Seafood Chowder ($4).
My order consisted of three small oysters on the half shell, each in a bit of their liquor. Kernels of pickled corn and chives were sprinkled over the top. They were good, but I was a little disappointed by the portion; I could easily have done with three more.
Mrs. G’s chowder was a brimming cup filled with bites of scallop, shrimp and lobster as well as chopped potato, onion and red pepper. We’d call it stew rather than chowder, bathed as it was in a rich, brown broth with a hint of spice that we first thought might be cinnamon. (We asked our server, who checked and found out that the flavor was actually tarragon.)
It was so good, I ordered a cup for myself. It arrived near the end of our main courses, but it was worth the wait, and it only lasted as long as it did because it was extremely hot coming out of the kitchen.
Nibblesworth offers lunch and dinner portions of its entree items; we took the latter. For main courses, Mrs. G chose the Fisherman’s Pie ($16/$18) and I went with the Koji Strip Steak ($15/$18).
The fisherman’s pie wasn’t the crumb-covered, butter-drenched casserole you might have ordered with Grandma. This version featured lobster, scallops and white fish atop a bed of collard greens. On either side of the seafood was turmeric cream and corn gastrique; perched atop everything was a big puff pastry that resembled a lobster claw.
Mrs. G, who happens to love Grandma’s buttery seafood casseroles, only liked this version. The seafood was good, and she liked the turmeric cream, but she thought the collard greens were too tart and salty.
There was nothing not to love about my steak. It was a small cut, slightly bigger than the palm of my hand, but it was perfectly seasoned, slightly salty, smoky from the grill, and cooked exactly to the “barely medium rare” that I asked for. It was served with a bit of pickled mushroom and grilled onion.
Sides are not included with the main dishes. The five that are available are creative and, if the ones we chose are indicative, they’re all very good.
We picked Carrots Dauphinoise and Grilled Delicata Squash (both $3.50). The carrots were puréed with more turmeric cream in a buttery, peppery combination that I loved. We also loved the bite sized, skin-on chunks of squash that were blackened from the grill, brightly and simply seasoned, and served on a bed of dragoncello, a pesto-like sauce made with tarragon.
Portion sizes are just about right — not too small, and not too big to keep us from sharing a serving of Ice Box Cake ($6) for dessert. Mrs. G’s family has an ice-box cake recipe that’s a holiday tradition, but it has nothing on Nibblesworth’s, which is deliciously related to tiramisu. It’s got big, round chocolate wafers, moistened with Kalhua and espresso, layered with chocolate-infused mascarpone. It was light yet rich, and a great finish to a very good meal.
Business seemed a bit slow for a Saturday night, but Nibblesworth has only been open for a couple of weeks. The staff was friendly and helpful, the food was good and imaginative, and the prices were reasonable in the context of downtown Portsmouth. We’re confident that word of the good stuff that’s going on in this great old spot will soon spread.