A Night Out In Newburyport: Ceia Kitchen + Bar

Ceia (Photo Credit: The Mighty Rib)

When it comes to my food choices, I am a simple girl. I tend to prefer foods that are prepared with a comfort feel and don’t look like they need an Ikea-like set of assembly instructions in order to be able to eat them. However, I have a confession to make — I actually really envy my friends that can pick up on so many intricacies of fine dining dishes that make them so suitable to be included in the usual “blogger” dinners.

And then one day, I got my turn. Kevin from The Mighty Rib sent me an email asking if I would be interested in attending a dinner at a small restaurant in a quiet seaside town north of Boston — Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport. One quick look at the menu and a google search of reviews later, I marked the date in my calendar to join Kevin, Tara, and Rachel on the excursion.

The restaurant itself is small, cozy, and comfortable. There is dark wood — a personal favorite — along with high-back booths, dim lighting, and glassware that quickly became a conversation piece at our table. With a space this warm and inviting, it wouldn’t have required anything too fancy to keep me happy through the meal. Especially with a great glass of wine on the side. And oh, was there wine. A 2005 Convento San Francisco Temperanillo Ribera Del Duero, to be exact. This wine was so good, I not only started googling it immediately on my phone — I had to snap a picture of the label just in case I needed it for future wine shopping reference.

2005 Convento San Francisco Temperanillo Ribera Del Duero

The folks at Ceia, including Executive Chef Billy Brandolini, took great care in designing a menu for our dinner that night, making sure to give us a well-rounded taste of their talent and creativity, while maintaining a sense of coastal European romance in their dishes. With just the first dip into the tapenade starter, I had a feeling that by the end of our meal there would be no way I could be left hungry or unsatisfied.

Salad with Beets and Butternut Squash

Next came the salad featuring baby beets and butternut squash, key flavors of the fall. I’m not a fan of beets, but in the interest of giving the dish an honest shot — and to see if maybe I could like beets after all — I gave it a go. A couple bites later, the 5 year-old in me decided that I would like the salad more sans beets and pushed them off to the side. And I did enjoy every single bite of the butternut squash with some small bites of a Cabrales blue cheese, strong enough to add just a bit of a bite to the otherwise mild flavors of the dish.

Pappardelle with Rabbit Ragout

The first of the main courses was a pasta dish — a fresh pappardelle with a local rabbit, Dijon and veal ragout, that featured a Brillat mousse and mushrooms foraged by the chef himself. This was the dish I was perhaps the most excited about — freshly foraged mushrooms? Yes. Please. A slight moment of humor came when I thought I had been cheated out of my fair share of mushrooms. However, what I had thought was the rabbit was in fact the mushrooms. Thick, meaty, woodsy-tasting, delicious mushrooms.

Cod with Garbanzo Mash (Photo Credit: The Mighty Rib)

Next up was a cod with garbanzo mash and creamed chard. This is exactly the type of dish I would expect from a restaurant with a Portuguese heritage. The cod was excellent, perfectly seasoned and seared, but I definitely expected more flavor in the chard and garbanzo mash. But again, it was a new food for me and could understand why it was a favorite for Kevin and Tara.

Ribeye

While we were expecting the restaurant’s special suckling pig, Chef Andrew Beddeos didn’t feel the dish that night was up to his expectations. So instead, we were treated to a ribeye dish. Admittedly, I was a little bit bummed that I wasn’t getting to try the suckling pig, but the Midwestern girl in me was easily mollified with the substitution dish. And what a substitution it was — in the words of my good friend Kathleen, this meat went down “like buttahhhh”. But not to be overlooked was a small bit of fresh lobster alongside the meat and a garnish of some home potatoes and an egg. While I could have done without the potatoes and egg on the side, the meat was worth the effort required to push them aside. I wouldn’t mind coming back to give this a try for brunch sometime.

Thanks to my pre-dining googling, I was kind of hoping we would have a chance to try the house’s banana brulee, about which I had read only good things. But instead we were treated to a Brillat-Savarin cheese with a garnish of an apricot chutney — different, but anyone who knows me knows that cheese for dessert is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. The cheese was smooth but strong, a perfect finish to an already exceptional meal. Add in a small glass of Vin Santo, and all was right with the world.

Brillat-Savarin (Photo Credit: Wine Me A River)

Aside from the outstanding food we had enjoyed, what made the trip even more rewarding was the careful service that was not just provided to our group, but also to the other patrons that the busy-body in me had observed in the restaurant that evening. As the stepdaughter of a successful caterer and restaurateur, one thing that I’ve learned is that service does matter. As much as I’m inclined to wipe down every dinner plate I serve, genuine care in providing service cannot be faked and will make or break the majority of dining experiences. And Ceia nailed it. Hands down.

While I typically favor things on the South Shore, it won’t take much of an arm twist to get me to make the trip back up to Newburyport. With a James Beard-recognized chef at the helm in the kitchen, I can’t even begin to imagine the good things that will come from Ceia in the future.
Wondering what Kevin, Tara, and Rachel thought of our dinner? Check out their sites for more!

Disclosure: The dinner and drinks were complimentary, courtesy of Ceia Kitchen + Bar; however the opinions and viewpoints expressed here are solely my own.

Pear Bread with Vanilla and Ginger

Once upon a time there was a girl who was obsessed with cooking, food, wine, cookbooks, and going out for brunch with her friends. Even though the girl was running out of room on her bookshelves, she knew that there were more books out there to read and new recipes to try. And then one day the girl got the chance of a lifetime — to have brunch with some of her favorite friends while being regaled by tales of cookbook publishing and surrounded by mountains and towers of shiny new cookbooks — at none other than local publishing house, Harvard Common Press.

There were delicious cocktails, a savory strata, yummy cakes and breads, and some of the freshest fruit you could imagine — at least in the middle of December. In Boston. With her plate almost piled full of other treats, she spied one last treat she just couldn’t pass up — Pear Bread with Vanilla and Ginger. There was only one piece left, so she (okay — I) moved quick. And a few bites later I was happy that I had saved some room on my plate.

The bread was so delicious and satisfying that morning, I couldn’t wait to find out which book contained the recipe to such a treasure and crossed my fingers that it was in one of the books that were piled in my arms. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. But Bruce Shaw, current president and publisher of Harvard Common Press, wasn’t going to let any of us walk away disappointed and disappeared for a moment. The next thing I knew, I had one more cookbook in my hands — this one containing the recipe for my favorite dish of the entire brunch. And I couldn’t wait to get home, recreate it in my own kitchen, and then share it with you!

Pear Bread with Vanilla and Ginger

From: The Best Quick Breads by Beth Hensperger
Makes: One 9-by-5 inch loaf
Oven: 350 degrees
Baking time: Approximately 1 hour

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups peeled, cored pears, coarsely chopped

Directions:
Make sure the oven rack is set to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is preheating, grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan — or spray it with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, lemon zest, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, in three equal portions. Beat until smooth.

Gently add in the pears, mixing just until all pieces are evenly distributed.

Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake on the center rack until the bread is golden brown and a cake tester, or knife, inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean — about 55 – 65 minutes. Turn the bread out of the pan onto a rack, and then turn it right side up to cool completely before cutting.

Additional Notes:
I am slightly obsessed with my stock of flavored sugars — from vanilla to star of anise. So for this recipe, I was happy to grab my container of vanilla sugar to help bring out that comforting, warming flavor of the bread.

While the combination of the pears, ginger, and vanilla have completely won me over in this bread, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t already thinking about what recipe I am going to try next — Avocado Bread with Pecans and Lime Glaze, Irish Soda Bread, or Black Bean Pancakes!
What is your favorite dining-out dish that you would love to be able to recreate at home?

(More) Additional Notes:
Following a puppy-related disaster with my first batch — in a nutshell, he didn’t like my favorite Fiesta platter as much as I did, but he did give the bread a giant two paws up — I was faced with recreating the bread once again. However, this time I wanted to play with things just a bit.

This time around I focused on the butter. One of the things I picked up from my time at America’s Test Kitchen is that sometimes butter is just better browned — if in doubt, just give their recipe for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies a try.

So I grabbed a skillet and let the butter brown before starting on the first step. Just a few moments at the stove resulted in adding a richer flavor and a perfect amount of crisp to the outside of the bread.

It didn’t take long for the pup to start circling the table again, once I pulled this bread out of the oven to cool. So please, do yourself a favor and learn from my mistake — once the bread is cool, wrap it up tightly and store out of reach of any misfit pups in your household. Also, if you do choose to store this in your cupboard, you may want to explore baby-proofing the cupboard doors. Just speaking from personal experience.

Food Swapping and Nerves

This one day, on Twitter, I heard something really cool. There was a “Food Swap” movement coming to Boston. My interest in Boston Food Swappers was piqued. If there’s one thing I love more than cooking, it’s being able to share my treats with others. And of course, knowing that they love what I’ve made, but discussion of that little bit of ego-tripping is for another time.

After the initial excitement over the news, I got nervous. The rules were simple & clear: bring something that you’ve grown, made or foraged (yes, foraged) to swap. No restrictions on amount or size of items. Like I said, simple. Right? Yeah, right.

My first swap event had me in all sorts of anxiety and panic. It’s such a great concept: trading amongst neighbors, building a community of food lovers, being able to get rid of your garden excess without going to waste, and exploring new recipes and culinary opportunities.

But… what if no one likes what I make? What if my poor friends and family members that I force my cooking on have just been faking it?!

Pickles (Recipe from: Eat.Live.Blog)

So I put on my big girl apron and got it together. I had a foolproof pickle recipe from Eat. Live. Blog and then some brown bananas, organic apples and carrots that I could turn into some kind of sweet bread as my “Hail Mary”, just in case the pickles didn’t work. Six loaves of vegan carrot-apple bread and six jars of spicy dill pickles later and I was ready to go. Still nervous but on my way.

Vegan Carrot-Apple Bread

Once at the swap, the anxiety started to disappear bit by bit. First, I wasn’t the only one with that completely insane fear. Second, the selection of foods to sample and “bid” on was unreal. And last, the chance to talk recipes, canning tricks and growing garlic? I was in food geek heaven.

An hour or so later, the actual swapping took place, a little bit of silent auction and a little bit of bartering. And at the end of it all, there were no pickles or bread left. It was all gone and my bag was filled with a whole new set of treats: fudgy brownies, lemon meringue tarts, blueberry caramel sauce, lemon curd, mini lemon muffins, strawberry jam, Irish stout, raspberry jam, mint chutney, fresh baked bread and homegrown garlic, cinnamon sugar muffins and scones.

One thing’s for sure, I better pick up my running mileage. Because I know I’m going back for more swapping fun.

Stout and Pickles -- Dinner is served!

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