There's a new restaurant in Newport that may very well give the expression "tsk-tsk" new, enthusiastic meaning. Tsk, as Thames Street Kitchen likes to be called, is appealing in so many ways that a description of dining there could serve as a pocket handbook on how to run a restaurant right.
It opened in May and had a successful summer — not automatically, since they're located way down the un-busy end of Thames. So it's yet to prove itself viable year-round. If the quality and inventiveness of its dishes are any indication, it will be widely discovered and, hopefully, thrive.
But so much strikes you as right before you get to the food. The atmosphere is interestingly informal and subtly food-oriented. Painterly photographs, such as interesting countryside building textures, are on the walls. The one near our table was from Simmons Farm, in Middletown, one of several local suppliers they rely on.
Instead of flowers on the table, there were two slender glass cylinders holding fresh sprigs of thyme. A row of cylinders on a long communal table displayed additional herbal textures and colors, but the vegetal display that won me over was in the bathroom: two small vases of baby Romaine. Cute. Bread, from Pain D'Avignon on the Cape, was brought in a turned-down brown paper bag. Included was a stick of coarse salt-encrusted bread, which should be in every breadbasket to perk up taste buds.
The place is BYOB, another inducement, so we brought along a nice Haut-Médoc. The corkage is $2 per person and, in accord with the effort at informality, it is served in small tumblers.
In tune with the amiable atmosphere, there is even a romantic back story to the place. Chef-proprietors Tyler Burnley and Chad Hoffer, who became friends working at the New York restaurant BLT, met and married a pair of twins, Anna and Julia Jenkins, who can be seen hosting and waiting here, back in their home town. With a tale that sweet, who needs dessert?
In what could be a serious disadvantage, they have the most limited menu I've ever encountered — just eight items, including starters. It changes weekly and sometimes daily, depending on market opportunities and what they run out of. What makes the short list work is its intriguing variety. The fare on the sample menu I saw online had an appetizer of beef tongue with purslane and fried pickle, plus roasted chicken with caramelized fig. Opportunities the evening we came ranged as widely, with a poached salmon and scrambled egg appetizer, as well as duck confit and a parmesan emulsion on kitchen-made fettuccine. Both menus started with a "simply greens" salad, and both had a chicken and a lobster entrée.
We started with an heirloom tomato salad ($10). Corn kernels and triangles of ricotta salata were welcome complements, all bound with a charred onion vinaigrette. Johnnie's halibut came with fennel three ways: braised below and with both white shavings and green top tendrils above. The accompanying couscous was enchantingly seasoned.
I went for the ingenious surf and turf ($33). The shelled lobster meat, so fresh and perfectly cooked that the little claw tips weren't mealy, was accompanied by three ravioli filled with — wait for it — shreds of pork belly. The contrast worked. Paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham and trumpet mushrooms joined in, all under not sauce but beurre monte, emulsified butter carefully kept from separating. Wonderful.