By James Pouliot
---- — European bistro Ceia Kitchen and Bar has received two “Rising Star” awards from StarChefs.com, a restaurant industry trends magazine.
Competing against more than 150 coastal New England culinary masters, executive chef Patrick Soucy has been honored in a category with 13 other chefs, while owner/founder Nancy Batista-Caswell received the magazine’s sole restaurateur award.
Ceia, Portuguese for “supper,” is a relatively recent addition to the Newburyport landscape, having opened in 2010 at 25 State St. After packing the house for several years, Batista-Caswell decided in 2012 that Ceia had outgrown the 52-seat space. Her husband, Jeff Caswell, offered up a new location across the street, where he owned The Rockfish.
Ceia pulled up stakes and began construction that year, opening in January 2013 with 150 seats, a third-floor bar and an intimate alleyway entrance. In its place, Batista-Caswell built Brine, the oyster bar that she continues to own and operate.
Ceia pulls its menu largely from regional farms and suppliers, following an internal motto of “Treat it like you grew it,” according to Soucy. Soucy regularly visits his suppliers’ farms and watches his ingredients grow, even before their seeds are sown.
“When I get the harvest and I bring it to the restaurant, I really drive my staff: ‘You can’t screw that up. I’ve seen this thing grow,’” he said. “There’s not a disconnect where it just came off the truck and it’s on your plate.”
With a menu that changes every eight weeks, it’s important that Ceia stays ahead of the season, constantly checking on upcoming harvests.
“If you’re not paying attention to when the strawberries are going to be ready ... by the time you get the ball rolling, they’re going to be out-of-season,” Soucy said. “You just cheated your customers out of that because you didn’t have an idea.”
Equally important is the atmosphere at the restaurant, engineered by Batista-Caswell as a “story,” with customers being pulled in from the first floor and gradually migrating to the third-floor bar.
“Instead of looking at the building as three floors, I looked at it as each floor being its own-style restaurant, the fluidity of telling a story in that way,” she said. “The second floor can offer the extension of the kitchen, watching the chef work ... then the third floor being that one-stop, either moving from downstairs up to enjoy, or just having another couple stools at the bar.”
According to Batista-Caswell, diners regularly request to be moved upstairs after their meals to enjoy the social bar scene and the windows overlooking State Street.
The road to the award began a year and a half ago in New York, when Soucy cooked for StarChefs CEO/Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Bruno at a James Beard Foundation event. Pleased by Soucy’s nine-course offering and eager to see several other chefs in the city, Bruno decided to visit Newburyport during her “Coastal New England” culinary tour of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
It was a rainy Saturday in July when Bruno arrived to rate Soucy and Batista-Caswell. The StarChefs process requires four dishes: two currently on the menu and two “future” pieces that test the limits of the chef’s abilities and might later be added to the menu. Soucy answered the challenge with a salad featuring a cantaloupe-scented “pheasantback” mushroom that he had foraged with his children.
“It was a lobster, (veal) sweetbread and octopus salad with asparagus and pheasantback mushrooms,” he said. “Lobsters and mushrooms are best friends, sweetbread texture versus a lobster texture is really nice. ... So veal, lobster and octopus, which is really such a porky flavor. We cook it with a bacon stock and ... it worked.
“(Bruno) knows food, she knows food well,” he said. “So I was under a lot of pressure cooking for her. She eats the best food in the country, around the world ...”
Also on the day’s menu was a stuffed rabbit leg, known as a ballotine, with house-made rye bread, smoked cherries, ramps, gnocchi and foie gras, an item that was also available to customers.
Though Ceia’s food is inspired by Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, Soucy roots his creations in the unique topography of the North Shore, a region that he sees as separate from New England as a whole.
“If you look at a map, you’ll see kind of a special region between farms, mountains and sea,” he said. “It’s really rich here with farmland, rich with grass-fed beef and seafood and foraging and wild edibles. This is, I feel, the Provence of America, minus the temperature difference. It’s a very bountiful place.”
Batista-Caswell and Soucy will officially receive their awards at a gala for all of the Coastal New England Rising Stars Awards winners on Tuesday in Providence, R.I.
Though she was honored to be recognized by StarChefs, Batista-Caswell called the awards a victory for Newburyport as a whole.
“We’re located in a great community where there are foodie people who can support it and understand it, who drive us to do more,” she said. “If we were in a small city that didn’t understand it, we wouldn’t be able to do it. Our success has really been about the commitment and loyalty and regular clientele that we have.”
Below, Soucy shares one of the recipes he prepared for the James Beard dinner.
Preserved New England Corn Sformato
Makes 10 4-ounce servings
1 quart bechamel sauce
11/2 cups ricotta cheese
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup fresh frozen corn puree
1 cup fresh shaved corn kernels
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
Pinch fleur de sel or gray salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slightly beat eggs and ricotta cheese. Add the remaining ingredients.
Pour mixture into 4-ounce buttered and breadcrumb-dusted ramekins. Place ramekins in a roasting pan, and pour in hot water so that it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins to create a hot water bath.
Bake for 35-40 minutes or until set. Turn over onto plate and serve.