The hybrid Portsmouth Book and Bar really did a good job at making itself equal parts bookstore and bar/restaurant. The small bar and dining area surrounded by walls and rows of books. It can be a bit awkward getting around, but the food and drinks are good — creative and perfect for the venue and the books, well, it’s tough to stop browsing and buying.
Hopefully by the time you read this what I call the User Interface (to mix a metaphor) is better. There’s going to be a sign telling you to order at the counter soon but if there is not, here’s what to do. Stake a claim at one of the tables in the center of the room by leaving a jacket or some other personal but not too valuable object. Walk to the register by the front bar area, get a menu and order your food, wine and beer. They have a very good beer list. Sit back down and wait for the server to bring your food. Pop back up a few times to look at books. Sit back down. If you’re at the bar, just order from whoever is back there, maybe even longtime sommelier and chef Todd Cary.
It’s a bit awkward to sit in front of a wall of books if someone wants to browse over your head and walking around the tables can be tricky because they’re close to each other but in general, the feeling of eating and drinking in what seems like a big library is great fun, also the feeling of being in a museum dining area, where folks are talking about brainy things, not necessarily fluff. Although I did overhear a group of women older than I am talking about how some man they know changed his status on Facebook from married to it’s complicated. This is a good spot for meeting to chat, going out for a bite after or before the Music Hall and just writing your book, or reading one in the cushy couch section. The books have terrific prices and many are beautiful art books.
The menu is small, but mighty in creativity and execution. They make everything right behind the bar. We tried the Book and Bar Cobb, a large fresh salad with hard boiled eggs, incredibly flavorful and moist roasted chicken, ripe avocado, kalamata olives and smoked bacon in a creamy buttermilk dressing ($10). It’s a perfectly balanced and substantial salad. There is a section of “pressed sandwiches,” like panini but thankfully, more like grilled cheeses in texture. Panini can be too hard for the ingredients, but here, all the fresh veggies or meats shine through in flavor and texture. My pesto and parmesan pressed sandwich was buttery, crisp and soft enough with slices of roasted eggplant and peppers with snappy parmesan cheese and an earthy pesto sauce ($7). Other choices include a brie and quince with tart Granny Smith apple slices and one with fresh turkey and cranberry chutney.
There are specials so ask (on two visits, I was not automatically told about them). Cary makes some great cured salmon with aioli and capers and a duck confit that is tender and robust. A dish of Spanish almonds has a dash of rosemary and sea salt and makes a great snack with the soft, freshly baked bread ($4). A Spanish tortilla, served at room temperature is like a small frittata, here layered with a tangy Iberico cheese, thin potatoes and eggs with a creamy Romesco sauce and garlicky aioli ($6).
I did not try the charcuterie plate, but saw one go by and will. The serrano ham and artisan sausage is served with that soft, fresh bread again and chutney ($12). A polenta triangle with caponata of eggplant, celery, olives and capers is both sweet and tangy and the polenta is full of the flavor of sunny corn ($6).
Be sure to try the olive oil cake with lemon curd $5). The cake is moist and aromatic with a hint of olive flavor while the lemon curd gives it a lot of spark. Then linger while you enjoy that big photography book you picked out, catching up on Ginsberg’s Howl, or just chatting with your friends. It’s that kind of place, with good food, a glass of wine or beer and smart talk, you can get your brain back again.
Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Exeter. Her column appears Thursdays in Go&Do. Her restaurant review column, Dining Out, appears Thursdays in Spotlight magazine. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Dining Out: Portsmouth Book and Bar
40 Pleasant St., Portsmouth, 427-9197, https://www.facebook.com/PortsmouthBookAndBar/
Hours: From 10 a.m. daily
Food. *** and a half. Creative, casual and vibrant.
Service *** and a half. The ordering is a bit awkward but the staff is great.
Atmosphere *** and a half. A novel idea in Portsmouth. Get surrounded by books.
Overall *** and a half. A new dining and relaxing model in town. Good food and and fun vibe.