Crave in Amesbury

Photo credit: Raphael Brickman

Diners had best make a reservation to get a seat in the main dining room at Amesbury’s Crave—as early as 5:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, disappointed patrons learned that a table might not be available for hours. And on most nights, every seat is filled with convivial crowds enjoying chef Sam Schmidt’s modern American cuisine.

So it was good news when owner and Amesbury native Sean Toomey added a casual gastropub expansion late last year, serving up a menu of small plates and sandwiches and sharing a kitchen with the main dining room. The centerpiece of the new space is a 20-seat bar salvaged from a 1930s steamship, and it seems right at home in the renovated 1850s Boston & Maine train station that houses both restaurants.
Whether you have a reservation or elect to join the amenable crowd next door, take some time to choose a cocktail from Crave’s extensive list. Available in both the main dining room and the pub, the cocktail menu is heavy on whiskey drinks, which hold a special place in Toomey’s heart. Crave offers some 36 bourbons, about a dozen each of scotch and rye, and half a dozen Irish whiskeys, along with some Canadian brown spirits and a few eccentricities from Texas and Kentucky. Wine lovers will find Crave’s by-the-glass list changes fairly frequently, with occasional special pours on offer.

But no one can live by craft cocktails alone, so it’s a good thing that the food rises to the occasion. Both the dining room and the pub are helmed by Schmidt, whose resumé includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and a stint in Park City, Utah, where he worked as sous chef at acclaimed Asian fusion restaurant Shabu. Hints of that Asian influence can be seen in everything from the arugula salad, dressed with mung bean sprouts, crispy wonton strips, and sesame-miso dressing, to the seared tuna with soba noodles.

Schmidt has clearly made his stamp on Crave since joining the restaurant under Toomey, who purchased Crave in 2013. However, he also fits well into the Amesbury dining scene, crafting a menu that balances classic American cuisine with some challenging influences that the community is learning to embrace. Take, for example, the panzanella salad, a rustic Italian dish that some patrons are initially surprised to find is mostly bread, in keeping with its Tuscan origins. For Crave’s spin on the salad, Schmidt uses hand-cut croutons (grilled to order) tossed with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumber, and a scrumptious balsamic-tarragon vinaigrette. From the kitchen’s perspective, the salad is time-consuming, especially for a starter, as everything is done to order, but the results are worth it—and are a reminder that warm weather is just around the corner.

Another starter, crispy tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, lives up to its description. Tomatoes are coated with panko bread crumbs and then fried until crunchy on the outside, layered with cheese, and topped with a vibrant basil cream sauce.

For main courses, Schmidt puts a New England spin on a traditional French peasant dish with his seafood cassoulet, which swaps out the classic duck confit for fish. The thick and hearty stew of white beans and chorizo is packed with perfectly cooked mussels, scallops, and cod, making it an ideal bridge between the depths of winter and the coming spring.

Meat and potatoes lovers can’t go wrong with the blue cheese–crusted beef tenderloin, a choice cut topped with a patty of blue cheese, panko, and cracker crumbs.

Desserts are crafted by pastry chef Aubree Wollitz, formerly of Newburyport’s Eat Cake. Her specials make terrific use of local fare; a winter offering, for example, included a bread pudding made with donuts from nearby Cider Hill Farm. Or choose from the menu, featuring items like a tasty trifle with layers of brown sugar pudding and chocolate cake, topped with crushed chocolate-covered pretzels.

Artistic expression goes beyond the kitchen, too. A collaboration between the restaurant and Paula Estey Gallery in Newburyport brings regularly changing works on canvas as well as photography to the historic space, creating a vibrant scene on the walls to complement the scene on the tables. So order a whiskey and soak up the vibe.

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