Following our noses to Portsmouth Gas Light Company

Our Gourmet
New Hampshire Union Leader
March 21. 2012 9:11AM

Portsmouth Gas Light Company
64 Market St., Portsmouth
430-9122, 430-8582

Serving: From 11:30 a.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. weekends.

Prices: (Street-Level menu) Apps, soups, salads:$ 6.95-$12.95; sandwiches $9.95-$13.95; entrees: $17.95-$26.95.

Our Gourmet: If you ask me, there is no better smelling spot in New Hampshire than the corner of Market and Bow streets in Portsmouth, epicenter of the Seacoast dining scene. The aromas of garlic, grilling meats and wood smoke fill the air, making me hungry every time I walk or drive by.

On a recent Saturday, The Dining Companion and I followed our noses to the primary source of that magical smell: Portsmouth Gas Light Company. Our Teenage Bottomless Pit passed in favor of hanging out with friends. (He'd much rather dine out with us on Sundays, when apparently his friends don't do anything interesting.) But in the boy's absence, TDC and I were able to enjoy something of a date night in a great location.

Atmosphere: 18/20

Portsmouth Gas Light has two distinct dining areas. The basement is a brick-oven pizzeria and pub, with live music on weekends, while the streetlevel restaurant features a full lunch and dinner menu. (There's also a nightclub space upstairs and an outdoor deck in the back, where musicians liven up summer nights.) We sat at street level, drawn by the menu. Even here, there's a casual pub atmosphere as the room is dominated by a large bar. Booths and copper-topped tables fill the space, which is an engaging mix of old-time Portsmouth (brick walls and exposed ceiling timbers) and contemporary fun (driftwood-style carvings of various forms of marine life decorate the walls and ceiling).

We were seated right beside the hostess station, which made for a lot of traffic and noise and some chilly drafts from the front door when guests came and went. Next time we'd hold out for a different table.

Appetizers: 13/20

OG: The menus for both appetizers and entrees are of manageable size, but with enough options to please everyone and still make decisions challenging. Among the apps, there's a grilled chicken quesadilla, mussels in cilantro cream sauce, Thai spring rolls and more. I chose Lobster Cakes ($11.95), two cakes of roughly golf ball size served on a drizzle of chipotle aioli. The cakes were nicely browned outside, moist inside. The lobster was present in small bits, but it was completely overwhelmed by the binding mix's strong flavors of herbs and chopped red pepper. 6/10

The Dining Companion: I opted for the Fried Calamari ($11.95) which is served with roasted tomato sauce and garnished with smoked pepper relish. There was a hefty serving of lightly dredged perfectly cooked rings and tentacles. The smoked pepper relish was very good, but the roasted tomato sauce was too heavy and a bit bland — I would have preferred it with a marinara sauce. I also had to ask for lemon; I would have expected it on the plate as a garnish. 7/10

Entrees: 12/20

OG: Gas Light's menu features a half-dozen wood-fire grill offerings covering beef, chicken and seafood. Like I said, I was drawn in by the aroma of woodsmoke, garlic and grilling meat, so I went directly for the New York Sirloin ($24.95). The 12-ounce steak was tender, slightly smoky, well seasoned and perfectly grilled. It was just what I was expecting — a perfect match for the aroma that drew us in.

It was served with grilled potato wedges, seasonal veggie, two large onion rings and a dollop of herbed butter. While the steak was excellent, the potatoes and veggies (a sauteed slaw of shredded carrots and onions) were too heavily seasoned (salt especially) and buttered. With everything so boldly flavored, it made it hard for the steak to stand out as much as it deserved to. All in all, I'd give it 7/10.

TDC: When on the Seacoast I just have to have fresh seafood. I chose the Lobster Stuffed Haddock ($23.95) — a fresh haddock fillet wrapped around lobster stuffing and baked. It was served with wild rice and sautéed baby spinach, finished with a light lemon butter sauce. I was a bit disappointed when the plate arrived and I took my first bite: The lobster stuffing appeared to be the same mix as the lobster cake that OG had ordered for his appetizer, and which frankly I did not care for (though OG liked this iteration much better than the lobster cakes.) In addition to the strong herbs and red pepper, I also found a floury aftertaste.

The fish was cooked well and the spinach was delicious. The wild rice had a very distinctive taste — almost bitter. The lemon butter sauce that landed on part of the rice made it a tad better, but I've decided wild rice is just not for me. 5/10

Dessert: 15/20

OG: Ever the gentleman, I let TDC order dessert first, and naturally, she chose what I would have ordered. My second choice was the seasonal cheesecake ($6.95), which tonight was caramel. It was light, subtly flavored with caramel in the filling, and pleasing. 8/10

TDC: The dish I usurped from OG was Chocolate Decadence ($7.95). I've had it served as Chocolate Lava Cake and Chocolate Fondant, and I'm sure there are a dozen other names out there. This is a chocolate lover's dessert by any name! Mine may have been in the microwave a bit too long, as when I took my first bite, it burned my tongue.

The oooey-gooey fudge was very delicious (once it cooled down a bit) but there needed to be more of a cake or solid presence. It was almost like eating a bowl of hot fudge sauce. What “cake” there was seemed a little too crystallized, like the sugars had not cooked enough during the first cooking process. Next time, I think I might order the Brownie Sundae instead. 7/10

All the rest: 14/20

The smell is fantastic, the atmosphere is great, the steak was terrific. But overall we were disappointed. The service was friendly, but too efficient — our entrees arrived about halfway through our appetizers, and we had to quickly rearrange our table to accommodate. The kitchen was heavy-handed with the seasonings. The prices are on the high side: Our tab, with one glass of wine and three courses for two, was $122. With its two distinct menus, we'd be willing to try the Gas Light again for pizza or sandwiches (and definitely for the summer deck) but for dinner, we'd probably head to one of the many other restaurants in the neighborhood. 14/20

Total: 72/100

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