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Our Gourmet: Puddle Dock makes most of old and new

New Hampshire Union Leader - Published Sep 22, 2021

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a chef, a restaurant owner and Our Gourmet walk into a bar?

A memorable meal.

The Puddle Dock Restaurant is across the street from Portsmouth’s Prescott Park, nestled alongside the Strawbery Banke outdoor history museum. That likely accounts for some of the time-tested offerings that pepper its menu — spiced apple pandowdy, Yorkshire pudding, rarebit, brown bread, pease porridge.

The day that OG crossed the threshold, chef Derek Clough and restaurant co-owner Ryan Lent were talking near the bar. The two were recognizable thanks to Puddle Dock Facebook postings, and were intently discussing that night’s specials.

One of those turned out to be a Heirloom Tomato Tarte ($13) that featured three kinds of tomatoes from Clough’s garden, according to our server.

OG and the Primary Dining Companion (PDC) are tomato fans (especially when they’re in season) and happily agreed to try the tart. It was not only beautiful but sumptuous, the crisp pastry overlaid with goat cheese custard and perfectly grilled tomatoes. It was just the right size to split.

As we ate, OG sipping an 1806 Old Fashioned ($11) and PDC quaffing a Tuckerman’s Pale Ale draft ($6), we surveyed the light-filled room and open kitchen, bedecked with fairy lights.

The space was formerly occupied by Mombo, which closed in 2020. OG remembers it as the Dunaway Store, which Strawbery Banke ran for years; its fudge counter was the bane of all parents.

The structure began life as a barn in Dover. Its beams were used to construct a New England country store for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The building was moved to Strawbery Banke in 1967.

So it seems appropriate that a building with antique origins and a modern history would be home to a restaurant that serves a “modern Colonial” menu.

Our next appetizer choice was the Portsmouth Chowder ($12), which featured clams, cod, oysters, bacon and fingerling potatoes. The tiny oysters were a treat, as was the velvety broth.

“Ridiculously good,” said PDC, who generously shared the bowl with OG.

The chowder came with toothsome homemade crackers. Our server said customers have been known to ask if they can purchase some to take home. (The answer is no.)

We were served a complimentary bread basket that included baguette slices as well as a brown bread — it was moist and fruity with hints of molasses.

OG had eyed the menu ahead of time and settled on Hamburg Steak and Gravy ($21), a prime beef patty served on cheddar-griddled toast with bacon, onion and mushroom gravy and a sunny-side-up egg on top. It came with super-crisp fries in a shiny copper cup, and homemade sweet pickles.

PDC decided to try the Butter-Fried Skatewing ($28), a fish popular in France. Chef Emeril Lagasse is credited with popularizing this dish in America, and we were curious to try it.

As often happens, the two of us took a few bites of our entrees and then switched, with OG loving the skatewing and PDC very happy with the hamburg.

“It’s a sexy patty melt,” PDC said. “Dressed up to go to the prom.”

The base note of medium-rare beef was overlaid with the sweetness of caramelized onions and the earth tones of mushrooms — tender and savory.

The scallop-like flavor of the skatewing was enhanced by a delicate lemon-mustard butter. The filet sat on a bed of fingerling potatoes of various hues — red, white and blue. It’s something OG would definitely order again.

Our server tried to tempt us with a dessert menu. The cinnamon-rum bread pudding ($10) with cinnamon custard, vanilla ice cream and rum caramel was particularly appealing, but we couldn’t eat another bite. Perhaps next time.

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