IN THE KITCHEN Executive chef Justin Shoults, 28, oversees the kitchen in this cutting-edge eatery specializing in oysters, chops, and crudo, or raw seafood of various kinds. After studying high-end cooking at New York’s Culinary Institute of America, he worked in the restaurant business in Nantucket for five years, then moved to Newburyport.
A softspoken Ohioan, Shoults is not one to cut corners when he cooks. After eating at Brine, we called him and asked how he got the lemon dressing on our spinach salad to taste so amazingly lemony. He described marinating sliced lemon rind in its own juice with a little oil and white wine for a couple of weeks, then using that as the springboard for a vinaigrette. We won’t be trying this at home.
THE LOCALE Brine opened two years ago in the brick-walled space on State Street formerly occupied by its sister restaurant, Ceia, which moved across the street. (Both are owned by Nancy Batista-Caswell.) The intimate, high-ceilinged space has a large bar along one wall, with plenty of room behind for the bartenders to operate.
“Our kitchen stays open the latest in Newburyport,” Shoults said. Closing time is 10:30 p.m Monday through Wednesday, 11:45 Thursday through Sunday. That appeals to commuters, including one of us. Because of a recent Friday night train that balked at operating in frigid weather (surprise!), we showed up at Brine for dinner at an hour — 9 p.m. — when other places are typically getting ready to close. The dining room when we arrived was lively if not crowded, and remained so throughout our meal.
ON THE MENU Brine offers pricy treats for those who can afford them (a large tower constructed of raw and poached seafood will cost you $64, for example, or you can swallow a half-ounce of Caspian caviar for $95), but there are cheaper goodies, too. “On Thursday nights during the summer,” Shoults said, “we offer ‘buck a shuck’ — dollar oysters — from 9 p.m to 11:45 p.m., and we’ll pack the place.” On winter Thursdays, buck a shuck is earlier, 5 to 7 p.m.
For appetizers, we enjoyed the aforementioned spinach salad ($9) and four spicy broiled oysters ($14) served in the shell with creamed jalapeno peppers and mustard butter topped with buckwheat crumbs. A $9 bowl of clam-and-pork chowder was also tangy and good. The littleneck clams were not terribly abundant, but the broth was creamy and rich. Submerged in it were thin-sliced potato and a large and succulent helping of crispy pork belly.
From the crudo menu, a $12 plate of yellowfin tuna was an edible sculpture. The raw tuna chunks were arrayed on a slate shingle and featured crisp discs of roasted cabbage leaves sticking up like dorsal fins. The arrangement was decorated with pomegranate seeds and dabs of squid ink. Drizzled across the slate underneath like a graffiti undercoat was a whitish cabbage puree. It was beautiful, and it was delicious.
We splurged on a $35 entree: an eight-ounce filet, which was tender and cooked exactly as ordered, medium-rare. The steak came with charred kale, large pieces of what tasted like pickled mushroom, and a lasagna-like square of celery-root-and-potato gratin. Yes, this is labor-intensive cuisine, but our taste buds told us it was worth the effort.
Brine, 25 State St., Newburyport. 978-358-8479, brineoyster.com.