Foreign Affairs Market
26 Central St.
Open Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (kitchen closes 2 p.m.); Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. (kitchen closes at 9 p.m.); closed on Mondays
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
We realized that Foreign Affairs Market does things a little differently as soon as we were seated. “This is cucumber-infused water,” said our server, brandishing a pitcher. The ice water was instantly refreshing — it made us think of summer.
We imagined a high-pressure cucumber-infusion machine somewhere back in the kitchen, probably a European import. Actually, no, our server explained. She’d simply cut up a few cucumbers an hour ago and plunked the slices in the water pitchers. Well, kudos all the same.
Foreign Affairs Market, which opened five months ago on the waterfront in Manchester-by-the-Sea, was conceived as a retail market and cafe selling wine and cheese, hence the slightly confusing name. Now it’s an upscale bistro specializing in unusual beers and wines and European-style small plates. The formula has quickly proven to be a hit among North Shore foodies.
We arrived without a reservation just before 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday — one of the three nights that Foreign Affairs is open for dinner — and were immediately shown to a window table. Unfortunately, the windows here overlook the street, not the ocean. (This is probably a legacy of the space’s previous incarnation, a bar called Al’s.)
The handful of tables accommodate 40 people at most. The vibe is stylish but informal: a semi-open kitchen, arty bent-plywood chairs, a pair of angular red couches next to a faux fireplace. Images of young men leaping off a pier by local photographer Michael Prince decorate the walls.
Open for breakfast and lunch six days a week, it’s just the place to hang out “after yoga,” the website suggests.
The dinner menu is compact, with just three entrées and nine “tastings” when we visited. An appetizer of warm marinated olives ($5) came with fresh fennel and oil and a dish of very crisp crostini. The olives were abundant and surprisingly filling.
A small plate of beignets, or breaded dumplings, made with salt cod and potato ($8) came with a smear of preserved-lemon sauce and chervil. They resembled little drumsticks but had the mushy consistency of crab cakes. They were hot and very tasty. We enjoyed munching on the tempura-style lemon wedge that came on the side but wondered if we were supposed to. Yes, we were, our server said. “Some people leave it. I always think, ‘What a shame.’ ”
Before bringing out our entrées, our server brought each of us a little ball of banana sorbet to cleanse our palates. Each flavorful ball arrived on a white spoon on its own little white plate. Fresh silverware appeared at the same time. We felt indulged, the way one does when one is served one’s first tumbler of cucumber water.
A $20 entrée of pan-roasted, semi-boned chicken, spiced Basque-style with pepper and paprika, was juicy and wonderfully tender. It came with kabocha squash and a rich crimini-mushroom risotto.
The portion size, as with other dishes here, was moderate. Fine by us, but if you judge a restaurant by how much food you get to eat (or take home), Foreign Affairs might not be your kind of place.
The boneless braised short ribs ($22) came with a candied parsnip purée — very sweet, maybe too sweet — and a cream sherry glaze. The ribs were served with roasted Brussels sprouts and grapes. The slow-cooked meat was fabulous: succulent and tender enough to pull apart easily with a fork.
The prices here aren’t out of the ordinary, provided you don’t calculate them in dollars per pound. The exception is the desserts, all four of which are priced at $10. Granted, you’re not getting apple pie with a scoop of vanilla here.
Intrigued by the name, we ordered a dish of blackberry Eton Mess (as in mess hall), which involved chewy, stick-to-your-teeth meringue, fresh berries, and a blackberry coulis. A lovely treat.
A second dessert was a serving of chocolate ginger cake, which arrived as three separate squares on a long rectangular plate. Slivers of almond praline jutted up from the whipped cream on top, which was a combination of crème fraîche and crème chantilly. One of us liked it; the other would have liked the whipped cream sweeter.
With our bill came two little profiteroles, puff pastries with chocolate on top like the tips of an éclair. Another indulgent touch, and we like being indulged.