Oyster poetry and raw pleasures at Row 34

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Keli enjoys her first true oyster experience at the soft opening of Row 34 in Portsmouth, N.H.

Just had one of those once-in-a-lifetime dining experiences.

You know, the kind where one of your best friends from childhood is a lobsterman whose cousin is an amazing chef slash restaurant entrepreneur who happens to be opening a cool new oyster bar down in the section of town where new brick buildings have been springing up right and left?

Row 34 is the sister restaurant of Row 34 in Boston, and brother is it good.

Chef/co-owner Jeremy Sewall and his partners describe the original Row 34 as a “workingman’s oyster bar.” And co-owner Garrett Harker has been quoted as saying, “When we were digging out the foundation of the building, it was all oyster shells underneath.”

The new one is an upscale, street-corner pearl nestled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s swanky new Hotel District.

Shiny but not too fancy (fans of brushed stainless steel will love their rugged, construction worker condiment basket), it is an oysters and beer bar with ties to Island Creek Oysters (mission statement: “Grow the world’s finest oysters and have the best possible time doing it”).

At the May 22 soft opening, we were invited to grab a pen and write some numbers into the circles next to the names of an array of raw bar delights. Amid the sensory overload that ensued – half-shelled delicacies, succulent shrimp cocktail and scallop ceviche – my taste buds raced ahead of my mind’s ability to remember the description of the mmmm-licious smoked salmon.

Fresh-shucked mollusks from Duxbury and Great Bay made my companion’s first true oyster experience a memorable one. Love those Fat Dogs. Oysters have the most wonderful names, don’t they?

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Oysters have the most wonderful names, don’t they? A recent peek at Row 34’s raw bar menu reveals these verbal morsels – Rocky Nooks from Kingston, Sunken Meadows from Eastham and Moonshoals from Barnstable. That’s raw New England poetry.

Peeking at Row 34’s raw bar menu today, you find these verbal morsels – Rocky Nooks, Sunken Meadows and Moonshoals from Kingston, Eastham and Barnstable.

That’s raw New England poetry right there.

Artistry is also evident in the presentation and the flavors.

Served on an elevated, glistening bed of ice, the oysters are aesthetically pleasing to the eye until the moment they slide down the old craw.

Next we got appetized with their lettuce cups – fresh, soft leaves nesting a fried oyster with special sauce.

We barely saved any room for the crabcake and beer-battered fish ‘n’ chips entrées, but both were fantastic – nicely anchoring an epic seafood voyage of Atlantic proportions.

Now, I’m usually not much of a dessert guy even though I love the sweet stuff. But science teaches us that butterscotch pudding has the power to induce childhood memories. And, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with simulated 1970s-era Rice Krispies, it transported both of us back to mom’s kitchen.

The gigantic spoons provided only complemented my child-like enjoyment of this glass dish of nostalgia – pudding a sugary exclamation point at the end of an extraordinary meal.

Part of the fun of catching up with old friend Mark Sewall – who provides a direct family link to the freshest possible lobsters as captain of the fishing vessel Kelpa at Sewall’s Bridge in York, Maine – was seeing a waitress sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “Cousin Mark Sewall’s Lobsters” and two giant claws.

When no bill came (and we shared our appreciation with fun, friendly server Becky; thank you!) our best-ever Nor’easter of a seafood feast was complete. All that was left was to haul ourselves out of there and let some of that good Piscataqua salt air waft into our nostrils as we strolled toward the river, slowly digesting our bounty.

— John Breneman

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A longtime journalist, I am now branching out into freelance copywriting (bio page). Below is a piece I did for the Portsmouth Herald back in the 1990s, featuring an interview with lobsterman Mark Sewall’s grandfather, lobsterman George Sewall.

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Finally, here’s my report about one of my favorite spots on Planet Earth – on a worn Portsmouth pier that pokes out over the swift-flowing Piscataqua River.