Jolly Old Port City: A Holiday Tour of Portsmouth
Step back a couple of centuries for Strawbery Banke's Candlelight Stroll during a weekend of shopping at Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth.
At 106 Kitchen, Big Easy meets Yankee. Local seafood is interpreted New Orleans-style, resulting in our dinner of delicately seasoned crabcakes served between layers of tangy fried green tomatoes and drizzled with a chipotle sauce, and chicken seafood gumbo blending pulled Cajun chicken, shrimp, mussels and oysters sautéed in lobster broth with Andouille sausage and okra. Cajun seasonings spiked even the sacrosanct chowder. There was nothing Yankee about the pecan pie, though.
Our cushy Club Level room at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel included a continental breakfast of fresh-baked pastries, fruit and hot oatmeal before we set out Christmas shopping. The hotel sits right on Market Street, where nearly every doorway leads into a selection of fine handcrafts, smart gifts or unusual wearables. At G. Willikers we found more creative toys and children's books than will fit under the tree, and at Tulips we had as much trouble narrowing choices of handmade clothing and jewelry. NJM Gallery's collection of contemporary art glass was pure eye candy and a detour down narrow Commercial Alley turned up books and vintage jewelry.
Market Street leads into Market Square, where the sign – a loaf of bread with a gold halo – enticed us into Me & Ollie's Café. I ordered the cup-of-soup-and-half-sandwich and got a surprisingly generous bowl of steaming, creamy fish chowder and Ciabatta bulging with flavorful ham, salami, provolone, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and their own olive relish.
Between morning shopping and an evening stroll, we opted for an afternoon of sitting indoors at a lively Celtic concert in The Music Hall's historic theater.
After the Sheraton's complimentary hors d'oeuvres (another club perk), we hopped aboard the Vintage Christmas trolley for Strawbery Banke's Candlelight Stroll. Houses are decorated for the holidays as they would have been in each period, and "family members" welcome guests into their homes. The wealthy Goodwins have decorated their home in the latest mid-1800s fashion and their daughters share the anticipation of following colored ribbons to find their gifts. We pause for a harpsichord concert in the Chase's parlor, chat with a tinsmith making lanterns and discuss potato latke recipes with Mrs. Shapiro as she prepares for Chanukah. Sounds of fiddle music and the fragrance of woodsmoke drift through the brisk air as Puddle Dock neighborhood comes magically to life and horse-drawn carriages again ply the streets.
Dinner at Black Trumpet Bistro
Chef Evan Mallet's menu based on local seasonal ingredients easily maintains the fine tradition of 29 Ceres Street, almost a pilgrimage site for its quarter-century as James Haller's Blue Strawberry. To sample a maximum of choices we selected several "Medium Dishes," beginning with fried local pork and pistachio pâté with spicy brown mustard and tender agnolotti filled with braised rabbit and tossed with pecans, broccoli and dried tomato. We finished with chèvre and carrot cheesecake with carrot caramel.
Sunday Brunch in Harbor's Edge, the Sheraton's window-walled restaurant, always gracious affair, takes on a particularly festive air with holiday decorations and live piano music. The buffet board groaned under hot entrées, but I ordered their signature Eggs Oscar – poached eggs on grilled English muffin with fresh asparagus, Maine crabmeat and Hollandaise.
Since we weren't there on a Sunday when Nutcracker Suite is presented this year (December 11), we headed back to follow up on a sign we'd read outside Pitt Tavern the previous evening. This brief account of an incident in the Seacoast's slave-owning past led us to follow the rest of the fascinating Black Heritage Trail.