January is traditionally a month for new adventures and hijinks. (Isn’t that one of those words you want to find an excuse to use sometime even it makes you feel like a cartoon super hero?) Last week, I started back at America’s Test Kitchen as a Social Media Intern with the Test Kitchen Feed. Moving from the buzz of the test kitchen to a primarily editorial role certainly constitutes change.
Another new venture? I had heard about a group of food bloggers in the city that call themselves, appropriately enough, the Boston Brunchers. I’d wanted to join in previously, and now seemed the perfect time to get involved. So when I saw the latest announcement posted on the Brunchers site, I promptly entered for a chance to win a FREE brunch at Newburyport’s Ceia Kitchen + Bar. NEWbury: yeah, see. It is a sign.
I didn’t think I would be selected to attend (my track record for winning any sort of contest is pretty abysmal), but sure enough, I was notified last Thursday that I would be joining 14 other brunching bloggers for a field trip on Monday.
I had high hopes for this brunch after reading some background on Ceia and its team. Ceia’s specialty is coastal European cuisine, meaning it traverses Portugal, Italy, France, and Spain. (The restaurant’s name translates to “supper” in Portuguese). Proprietor Nancy Batista-Caswell brings a wealth of hospitality experience to her own establishment, and is a fellow Johnson & Wales graduate. Executive Chef Billy Brandolini (“Chef Brando”) is also a (well) seasoned toque.
At the same time that I was optimistic about the talents of both the front of the house and the kitchen, I was a bit hesitant about the menu.
And here, I make a confession that baffles many people. I have an irrational fear of eggs.
Let me clarify. Eggs are an essential emulsifier in baked goods (think lecithin) and for that reason, as a pastry cook in training, I am eternally grateful to the many contributions that they have made to the world of desserts. We wouldn’t have an airy trilogy of genoise, pate a choux, and meringue, just to name a few of our classical delicacies, were it not for eggs.
However, eggs on their own have always troubled me. I fear the quavering and gelatinous mass of eggs on a brunch plate. I fear oozing golden yolks. It would even take a miracle for me to choke down a hard-cooked egg. I’ll eat omelets or scrambled eggs, but usually only when I’m sick. Despite my rules, there are always exceptions. I do love a well-executed quiche, frittata, or tortilla Espanola. I know . . . I stopped trying to figure it out a while ago.
But what did I say earlier about the New Year? This wasn’t a time to shy away from opportunity or let old prejudices serve as obstacles. I was going to eat that poached egg if it killed me. Or at least try it.
You laugh, but for the two days before the brunch, I did some positive visualization. I pictured myself lifting up a perfect forkful of poached egg, placing it in my mouth, and smiling. I was like a runner visualizing the finish line of his marathon. (Hey, I never promised that I was sane!)
Upon my arrival in Newburyport (which looks a little bit like Portland, Maine), I was immediately at ease despite the fact that it was 15 degrees outside. I met some of my fellow brunchers, a smiling and convivial group, and ducked into a nearby coffee/bakeshop, as we were just a tad early. This was a supportive group for a first-time poached egg experience.
Soon enough, it was 11. Time for the main event. Bring on the eggs! My immediate impression upon entering Ceia was warmth. Autumnal and earthy hues, bronze table tops, exposed brick, and wooden booth backboards. They set a tone of welcome–a stay-here-and-get-comfortable message.
We started off the meal with a St. Germain cocktail (Tanqueray, St. Germain elderflower liquor, and sparkling rose). Admittedly, I’m not so fond of gin, so the Tanqueray tone of the cocktail was perhaps a little resinous for me, but once conversation began to flow, I took more frequent sips until the glass was eventually dry. Our attentive server wouldn’t leave us hungry for long. I used my rolls as a convenient vehicle for sponging up a beautifully bright tapenade of tomatoes, olives, and roasted garlic–a great warm-up for our introductory course.
All my fears melted away about the impending meal when I tasted my amuse bouche of oyster escabeche. With a prelude this good, I knew I was in capable hands. The oysters were plump, and although fresh, not overly briny. They were prepared in the style of a ceviche 24 hours in advance: citrus notes were prominent but didn’t overshadow the bivalve. A perfect little supreme of blood orange kissed the top of each amuse bouche and released a nice sweet acidity as a complement to the oyster.
Just when I thought it was impossible to top the amuse, we were presented with a triumph of an insalate that resembled more of a painterly canvas than a pedestrian salad course. I marveled at the verdancy and the composition for a bit before I could bring myself to take a bite. The insalate brought together cold-smoked and earthy shaved asparagus, a delicate fresh mozzarella, shaved cipollini onions (no pungent sulfur compounds detectable here that can typify raw onions in too many careless restaurant salads and mar them), mache (or “lamb’s lettuce”), aged balsamic and a truffle vinaigrette. I have had too many forgettable salads (even in otherwise good restaurants). I have to say that this one both restored and elevated the genre.
And for a closer look:
And before I knew it, it was time to face the music. The poached eggs with quail Bearnaise perched triumphantly above a nest of sweet potato and linguica (a Portuguese cured pork sausage) hash was simply too exquisite to fear. Not to mention that in my mind, sweet potato is one of those additions, like bacon, that makes almost everything taste better. The textural contrast between the tenderness (no gelatin-like ouef here) of the poached egg and the slightly crisped exterior of the sweet potato made for a perfect mouthful. The exuberantly hued and flavored Bearnaise simply tied it all together.
At this point in the meal, the very affable Chef Brando came out to greet the Brunchers as they feasted on his perfectly poached eggs. Needless to say, he received rave reviews.
We concluded our meal with an amber-hued late harvest Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a raspberry coconut pain perdu pairing. When I think of pain perdu, I usually equate it with heavy bread in my stomach, but surprisingly, I managed to finish every bite on my dessert plate without feeling overstuffed. Bread pudding is honestly one of those desserts with which it is difficult to go wrong, so probably for me, the lightness of the dessert was probably more notable than its actual (pleasant) taste
This last observation merits some further comment. I will say that in general one of the great sleight of hands accomplished by the Chef and his team was that they transformed what is undeniably quite caloric fare such as pain perdu and Bearnaise into delicate and deceivingly light (yet satisfying) courses.
My only regret? That Ceia Bar isn’t one of my neighborhood restaurants, or I would be a regular. I know the brunch is superb, but I could also see cozying up to the bar after work for a glass of red wine; or bringing my spouse here for a quiet and romantic dinner. There is quite a bit of charm and ambiance in those bricks and wood, and of course, the warmth of the attentive staff highly recommends Ceia as a dining destination.
I look forward to exploring Newburyport more . . . when the temperature reaches above 40 degrees. I’m sure it is breathtaking in the summer. I’m also eager to visit some of the historical sites. Namely, Newburyport was the birthplace of the fervid abolitionist and elocutionist William Lloyd Garrison and therefore holds some special interest for me.
Any other regrets? Maybe, just maybe, I wish I had given poached eggs a chance prior to this occasion. But then, as one of my fellow brunchers pointed out, I might not have had such a pitch perfect poached experience my first time around.
Disclaimer: As disclosed above, Ceia Kitchen & Bar provided us with a gratis brunch. Boston Brunchers only paid gratuity for the meal. Writing a review of the brunch was optional for all attendees.