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Corey Marcoux, Nancy Batista-Caswell, and Patrick Soucy

At Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport and its brand new sister restaurant Brine, diners enter an adventurous world of forward-thinking fare without being pushed too far from their comfort zone. By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey – Photographs by Fawn DeViney

Think your holiday season is hectic? Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor and wine director at Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport, most likely has yours topped. Two days after Christmas, Batista-Caswell and her chefs will be cooking at James Beard House in New York City-the first restaurant team in Newburyport ever to be invited to that prestigious kitchen. Four days later, Ceia (pronounced SAY-yah) will serve a sumptuous New Year’s Eve prix fixe meal, plus brunch on New Year’s Day, then shutter for a move across the street to reopen in less than a week in a new space with triple the number of seats. Then, at the beginning of February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, she plans to debut Brine, a new raw bar/chop house, in the space formerly occupied by Ceia.

It’s an ambitious schedule, but not at all daunting for the 30-year-old Batista-Caswell, who, at age 19, was working as an assistant general manager for celebrity chef Chris Schlesinger at his Westport restaurant, the Back Eddy, while simultaneously earning a degree in business with a minor in hotel and restaurant management from Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI.

“[Schlesinger] taught me that the restaurant experience should be genuine, the food should be simple, and that it should really be a group effort,” Batista-Caswell says.

That philosophy has been a winning one for Batista-Caswell. Since opening in late 2010, Ceia has drawn accolades from Zagat, Boston magazine, The Boston Globe, and, of course, Northshore for its blend of welcoming hospitality and creative cuisine.

Batista-Caswell’s focus on hospitality begins the minute a customer walks in the door. When she opened Ceia, she brought in local etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith (Smith has also been featured in our pages) to train the staff with the goal of making all guests feel welcome and important. The strategy paid off so well that she plans to invite Smith back to train the new hires in January.

“We want to recognize everyone,” Batista-Caswell explains. “Anyone who comes in the door can become a loyal customer. We [need to] win them so that when they have money to spend, they are going to spend it with us.” To that end, servers even walk guests to the door after dinner, shaking hands and thanking them for dining at the restaurant. “Our wait staff knows that these are the steps that make service memorable,” she says. “We want to know people’s names, how they heard about us, and what their experience was like.”

Of course, all of this excellent service would be useless without great food, but as the James Beard invitation proves, Ceia is indeed making its customers very happy. Executive Chef Patrick Soucy, who joined the restaurant in early 2012, is passionate about every part of every dish he creates, from the hand-snipped baby salad greens he helped plant, to the house-made mustard that blooms for three weeks before serving, and to the best pan for searing pumpkin (cast iron, if you’re wondering).

“Being a European restaurant, [Ceia doesn’t] cut any corners,” Soucy says. “Whether or not the customer knows that, hopefully when they taste [our food], they understand.”

Soucy is out at local farms just about every day, planting, tasting, and getting his hands dirty as he works hard to source the best ingredients. What he aspires to do with those ingredients is to challenge diners, bringing them outside their comfort zones just a step at a time. As an example, Soucy points to one of the menu items introduced for fall- Ricotta and Beef Lingua Ravioloni. While beef tongue, the star of the dish, is unfamiliar to many North Shore diners, this preparation is evocative of something they are very familiar with-pot roast. The house-made ravioli, served on a potato puree that forms the sauce, with roasted local baby root vegetables and aged balsamico, is reminiscent of the best pot roast you’ve ever had.

“I love the way that I’m challenged to serve beef tongue in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and make it successful,” Soucy says. “It’s marketing. It’s psychology.” It’s also where Soucy hopes American cuisine is headed. “This is what American food should be,” he says, adding. “We are a new land-we don’t even know what we’re doing yet.” Europe has had thousands of years to evolve its food culture, Soucy explains. “In coastal New England, in 400 or 500 years, we’ll know exactly who we are.”

In the meantime, Soucy will soon have a much larger audience to charm with the restaurant’s coastal European food roots interpreted through the lens of what’s local and fresh on the North Shore. Ceia will be moving across the street to the space formerly occupied by Rockfish, a popular local eatery co-owned since 2001 by Batista-Caswell’s husband, Jeff Caswell. The new space will have 150 seats on three levels, with the first floor replicating the current Ceia-right down to the copper bar, which will also be moving to the new space. Batista-Caswell envisions the second floor will feel like dining in her own home, while the third floor will be a sophisticated lounge, allowing for an expansion of the restaurant’s inventive signature cocktail list.

Brine, the restaurant that will occupy Ceia’s old space, will be somewhat of a departure from the typical Newburyport restaurant design, with a marble bar, stainless steel and black accents, and architectural lights lending more of a funky feel. The centerpiece will be the raw bar, with cooks shucking oysters and prepping other raw delicacies right out front. “I told the designer I want that to be the art-people shucking oysters and diners seeing how awesome and fresh everything is,” Batista-Caswell says.

While a traditional raw bar is familiar to denizens of the North Shore, Brine will also be introducing the Newburyport dining scene to crudo-European-style raw seafood. Chef Soucy’s longtime friend and former coworker Corey Marcoux-the pair worked together at Not Your Average Joe’s, helping the chain to open new restaurants-will be stepping into the executive chef position at the new restaurant.

“People in this area have really changed their attitudes about food,” Marcoux says, noting that he thinks the dining scene is ready for something new. “Nancy has been thinking about this for a long time. She knows what the area needs.”

That isn’t to say there won’t be a learning curve, but Batista-Caswell believes Newburyport is up to the challenge. “Crudo requires a bit of confidence from everybody to jump into the idea of eating raw fish like that,” she says. “But the educational part is the best part when you are dealing with a guest. To hear them say, ‘Wow! That was delicious.’ When you know maybe it’s the first time they’ve had that dish, [it’s] very satisfying.”

Gaining guests’ trust doesn’t come without service from a staff that is passionate and well educated. To that end, every Friday servers taste new wines destined for the specials board, which are often paired with the specials Soucy has prepared. New additions that prove popular with guests are often added to the wine list, so staff has tasted most of the wine offered in the restaurant. Additionally, every other month, Batista-Caswell holds meetings that last around three hours to educate staff on food and wine, as well as to discuss any concerns or ideas her employees may have.

While Batista-Caswell is clearly central to the success of Ceia, she is quick to give credit to her team. “All of the uniqueness and passion that our staff has [is what] created the Ceia that everyone wants to be a part of.” Batista-Caswell believes that combination has been the key to Ceia’s success and will be the key to her operation’s continued growth. “It’s really about creating memories,” she says. “Restaurants need to do that.” ?n

Bar at Ceia Bar at Ceia

Skip the Chardonnay and Pass on the Pinot

At Ceia, the mission is to open patrons’ eyes not only to new types of cuisine, but also to a whole new world of wine.

At most restaurants these days, Pinot Noir is the most popular wine by the glass. Not so at Ceia, notes proprietor and wine director Nancy Batista-Caswell. In fact, that’s way down near the bottom of what patrons drink at her restaurant, which has been twice honored by Wine Spectator for its wine list.

“I wanted to provide Newburyport and the area with wines that people weren’t familiar with, wines that would become unique to the space,” Batista-Caswell says. “We spend time with our guests, selecting a glass most suitable for their palates.” So instead of a buttery California Chardonnay, customers might be guided toward a Petite Arvine from Valle d’Aosta, a grape indigenous to Northern Italy packed with apricot and honeysuckle.

Batista-Caswell credits her upbringing for her interest in and success with wine. Her father is an importer of Portuguese wines (and provides many of the gems on Ceia’s menu), and her grandfather used to make his own wine.

These days, she says, the Wine Spectator awards have opened a lot of doors for the restaurant. “Our reputation for quality and excellence has allowed Ceia to offer wines that many [restaurants] cannot [offer],” she says, adding that this holiday season, Ceia is only one of two restaurants in all of New England pouring Henriot Rose Brut Champagne. With offerings like this, patrons are likely to be surprised by the wine-by-the-glass program, which includes many bottles unique to Ceia.

“Our wine-by-the-glass program isn’t normal,” Batista-Caswell says. “We have a lot of boutique pours that are not traditionally offered by the glass, at a price point that pairs well with our menu.”

It isn’t just the unique nature of her wine list, which is heavy on boutique vineyards of the Old World (Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain), that attracted the attention of Wine Spectator-it’s also the pricing. When it comes to markup, however, Batista-Caswell says it isn’t a set formula, but a flexible system. “Sometimes, I don’t mark up the wine at all because I want people to experience it,” she says.  “I want people to come to Ceia not just for food, but for wine.”