Portsmouth's Cosmopolitan Coast
While Portsmouth may be best known for seafood, there’s an international dining scene on the Seacoast that shouldn’t be missed
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of The Square magazine.
The dining room at Tinos Greek Kitchen in Hampton.
Tinos in Hampton
Tinos Greek Kitchen is the latest culinary creation by the owners of The Galley Hatch and Kay’s Café. Opened in 2015, Tinos is steadfast in their conviction of a simple mission; “It’s important to be yourself, stand by your identity, ideals and convictions and provide honest, high quality products and service,” says John Tinios of Tinios Pro Hospitality Group.
The warm bar and open kitchen fires up your racing mind. Where to sit? What to drink? What to order? First, take a chance and order the Chef’s Daily Mezze Selection; no matter what the offerings are, order it now. After you’ve expanded your horizons, head over to the Greek classic, the gyro. Specifically, The Riverslea Farm Goat Gyro. Finish up the meal with the quintessential Mediterranean dessert, presented here in miniature form, the baklava.
If this doesn’t sound like your usual Greek fare to you, then you are not alone. Tinios knows it’s a challenge to get patrons to think outside the box, or outside the gyro, but they’ve had great success so far. “Our service style is very interactive and many guests have already told us they’ve tried items like octopus and goat for the first time. We are very encouraged by the adventurous nature of Seacoast diners!” says Tinios.
After seeing Greek cuisine catch on in larger cities, Tinios joined forces with Executive Chef Mark Segal. “I started exploring the possibility of opening a place together and it seemed like a natural evolution of our brand. The culmination of our mutual love for the ingredients, cooking style and hospitality embodies Greece and aligns with the trend of eating a healthy Mediterranean diet,” adds Tinios.
Tinos isn’t your typical corner gyro shop— they cater to a contemporary clientele while remaining rooted in familial history. “Growing up in a Greek family we always had guests over who expected to be fed. My parents and relatives loved to cook their native cuisine. Naturally the classic Greek menu was always on the dinner table,” Tinios says.
Contemporary Greek cuisine exposes the consumer to a rich and full take on its culture and dynamic. “People are exposed to different tastes, ingredients, cooking methods and mediums and a different approach to food. Food is one of those items that’s both a necessity for life and a luxury. You glimpse a whole culture when you experience their cuisine, the challenge is only in the openness and willingness to immerse yourself in that culture.”
Tinos Greek Kitchen
325 Lafayette Road in Hampton, NH
La Maison Navarre
Customers check out the delicacies in the display case at La Maison Navarre in Portsmouth.
La Maison Navarre on Congress Street kicked off their French revolution in the summer of 2015, becoming the newest place to grab a sweet treat and coffee on your way into the office. Transported to Paris without the cost of an airline ticket, La Maison Navarre’s charm begins from within. Upon entering the downtown pastry shop you are immediately welcomed with clean lines, elevated ceilings and the fresh doughy aroma of impeccable French delicacies.
Flaky, sweet, fruity, buttery, goodness; French cuisine does not get a bad rap from anyone (unless you hate flavor). Manager Charlotte Reymond says, “It’s not hard to find people who want to try something new at our shop. Our main products are well known, croissants, baguettes, macarons, éclairs, etc. For the rest, we try to introduce different pastries that are more well known in France.”
One of the buzz desserts as of late is the colorful and petite treasure, the macaron. It’s no surprise they are one of the most popular choices at La Maison Navarre. “Easy to share, too!” Reymond adds.
If you are looking to venture outside the colorful box, then Reymond suggests the profiteroles. “Because it’s difficult to picture, it’s one of the harder ones to get people to try,” says Reymond. Going on to add, “It’s not easy to find people who have been trained in French delicacies. We have to spend a lot of time to transmitting our French food culture.”
La Maison Navarre
121 Congress Street in Portsmouth, NH
5 Thai Bistro
For a region almost 8,000 miles from Hong Kong, it’s surprising to find an overflowing array of options for Asian cuisine. Sushi, egg foo young, spring rolls, Pad Thai, crab rangoons, sashimi: the offerings are endless. Rounding out one of the top spots for consistent quality is 5 Thai in downtown Portsmouth. The location, which couldn’t be more downtown if you tried, is perfect for out-of-towners to do some after-dinner exploring.
Opened in March of 2013, 5 Thai incorporates authentic international cuisine with traditional Seacoast dishes. “Our offerings allow any locals or tourists to try authentic Thai food and still get a taste of New England specialties, as well,” says 5 Thai owner and manager, Nuttaya Nicholas.
Most of us are probably familiar with typical “New England” Chinese food (the egg roll, the spare rib), so, when offered Thai as an option, you might be unfamiliar with how to kick things off. 5 Thai offers the traditional staples, freshly prepared and done well. “For those who are less familiar with our food, we have staples like Pad Thai, fried rice and traditional stir fries,” says Nicholas.
If you’ve eaten Thai before, then you can safely head directly to their variety of classic dishes, green papaya salad or their larb chicken salad to name a few.
Looking to get spicy? Veggies only? Extra beef? Thai cuisine is quite versatile, granting you the freedom to get into the ethnic spirit while still inching your way into uncharted waters.
Customization is key to pleasing every customer that comes through the doors of 5 Thai. Nicholas goes on to add, “Our menu is tailored so that customers can choose the level of spice, the meat or vegetables they want in their dish, and all of our dishes are made to order to adhere to the taste and dietary requirements of each customer.”
Like any restaurant that isn’t pushing the “twin lobster special,” 5 Thai faces a challenge in getting patrons to try something new. Their simple goal, making dishes the best way they can be time and time again, is the easiest way to turn the picky into the daring.
5 Thai Bistro
40 Pleasant Street in Portsmouth, NH
If you grew up on the east coast, then you know that “Mexican night” was comprised of hard taco shells, ground beef, cold iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and shredded cheddar. As international cuisine as a whole becomes more mainstream, it’s no surprise that authentic Mexican follows suit.
Vida Cantina, which opened in May 2013, set up shop in the old Friendly’s restaurant just off the beaten path on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth. The shell still resembles the classic ice cream shoppe but inside a cornucopia of color and warmth tells a different story altogether.
First look up, yes, to the ceiling, and let in the bright pinks and neon greens hanging over your hungry head. Secondly, look down, at the simple metal tray filled with color and spice. Let me tell you what’s on it, specifically (if you’re smart) — first up the Chupacabra, refreshing and spicy this drink will set the tone for the rest of your evening. Hopefully you don’t have too many friends joining you because next up is the cheesy, gooey goodness that is the Goat Cheese Fundido. Topped with their house made chorizo, it will be hard to share this one.
Now you could go rogue and try each and every one of Vida’s taco offerings (and you very well should) but you’ll always come back to their reigning champ, the Confit Pork Belly Taco. Savory pork and sweet mango salsa come together in what can only be described as taco heaven. Try all seven, but make sure you get two of the pork belly tacos—you’ll need it.
Chef David Vargas began his journey at Vida in August of 2014. With almost 20 years of experience, Chef Vargas welcomes our lobster roll-loving roots. “We embrace the region we are in, using traditional Mexican flavors with modern technique and New England flair,” says Chef Vargas. There are some challenges, though. “We get a wide variety of people through our doors. It’s hard for some to understand what we are trying to do, we aren’t your typical New England Mexican restaurant.” Nor should they be. Vida prides itself on making you think differently about Mexican cuisine while still catering to the out-of-town seafood lover.
2456 Lafayette Road
Shalimar India Restaurant
This year will mark the 25th year for the Indian restaurant, Shalimar, in downtown Portsmouth. The unassuming location shares a wall with a local billiards bar on Hanover Street. Open the glass doors to their large colorful room, and you are greeted with warmth and spice. No one has ever said Indian food was bland. With bold colors, bright spice and plentiful accoutrements, Indian cuisine bows down to flavor lovers everywhere.
Chef and owner, Kulbir Kaur has been in the restaurant game for over 30 years now. For Kaur, international cuisine is deeply rooted. “My father owned a restaurant in India. This is an industry my family has been a part of for generations.”
At times, ethnic food can be polarizing. “I HATE sushi,” says a friend. “Oh I can’t stand that food,” says another loudly. But if you step outside the conventional pizza box, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. With Indian food there are similar strong opinions that come along. “One of the biggest challenges is getting individuals to understand that Indian food is not necessarily spicy. We cook everything in house, and though it’s true that, if you went to India, the spice levels would be different than in America, we are able to adjust the spice according to your preference,” says Kaur.
Once you become comfortable with Chef Kaur’s delicacies, she suggests ordering the Vindaloo Curry. “Since it’s labeled hot, it’s hard to get new customers to try it at first. This is a dish that needs to be served at a spicier level to get all of the authentic flavors. However, once our customers start venturing out into other menu options, then this becomes a hit!” says Kaur.
One of the best aspects of international cuisine is that the preparation is so versatile, not just spice level, so vegetarians and carnivores can both leave the table full and happy. With more and more international restaurants popping up, the competition for “new, hot and exciting” is ongoing, but Kaur has a simple and easy way to combat that. “Locals are looking for ethnic cuisine, along with tourists, and almost everyone wants to try something new. The biggest challenge is that there are a lot of options out there. So it’s very important to keep your cuisine ethnic and approachable to new customers,” says Kaur.
Food that is simple, deeply rooted and appealing — what are you waiting for?
Shalimar India Restaurant
80 Hanover Street