Black trumpets are unusual mushrooms. As the name suggests, they’re tall and dark and occasionally hard to find. (Foragers say you’ll miss them unless you keep your eyes peeled.) They thrive close to the water in damp, protected environments. Enthusiasts praise them for their fragrance and distinctive, rich flavor.

Black Trumpet, a bistro and wine bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is aptly named. The dark brick building stands on a quiet lane (it could easily be mistaken for an alleyway) that ends in a parking lot on the north side of town. The windows of the dining room on the ground floor, and the wine bar upstairs, overlook the waters of the harbor lapping at the base of the docks just outside. And many of the unconventional dishes here are aromatic, satisfying and flavorful.

Chef Evan Mallett, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Denise, in 2007, says the abundant layers of fragrance and taste are no accident: “I’m cross-pollinating here like crazy… I never went to culinary school but started cooking in New Hampshire, moved to Mexico, traveled throughout South America and to some extent in southern Europe and North Africa: All are inspirations for our menu. A customer once called our cooking ‘Mediterranean cuisine filtered through a geeky chef whose heart is in Latin America.’ ”

Consider the Moroccan goat cassoulet on the menu or, even better, the octopus and chorizo strata ($7), an appetizer that’s part Tortilla Espanola and part Italian strata with a few New England potatoes thrown in for good measure. Plunge your fork into the strata and you may find a cube of French bread as light as a spoonful of soufflé, or a tender chunk of octopus (it’s braised for hours) or a thin slice of fiery Spanish chorizo. This is a different kind of comfort food – warm and rich, yes, but also piquant and pungent. Mallett dusts the top of the strata with dried black olives ground with peppercorns, a garnish that makes it even more delicious.

The rabbit meatballs in rosemary cream ($9), made with rabbit from Song Away Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, seemed like a riff on another Italian favorite – coniglio al rosmarino. The meatballs – served with a smoked tomato aspic – were as soft and yielding as dumplings but, unfortunately, the flavor was flat.

Nothing eases disappointment like an ample bread basket – or a bread bowl like the one at Black Trumpet. The bowl varies nightly – it held baguettes and pumpkin bread when we visited – and pumpkin bread in particular was very good. Baked by pastry chef Tim Cronin, it’s moist, dense, sweet and substantial – just a few pats of butter shy of dessert. The pumpkin Cronin uses is an heirloom variety called long pie that Mallett grows on his New Hampshire farm along with other indigenous foods from New England.


Long pie appears again in a vegetarian entrée: Pumpkin stuffed with walnut risotto. A visually stunning dish, the small serving of pale risotto is piled atop a segment of the orange pumpkin and surrounded by concentric rings of apple-cranberry puree and golden herb oil. I hesitated before destroying the painterly presentation, but the Parmesan-scented steam rising from the risotto was hard to resist. The pumpkin flesh pumpkin was tender and appealingly sweet, and the rice was a lovely complement – creamy yet with the requisite gentle bite at the center of each grain. Mallett adds roasted walnuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to the dish just before serving. Presentation be damned, nothing remained when the waiter returned to clear our plates.

The “daily filet” on the menu turned out to be cod, and the fish was competently roasted, but the pilaf served alongside was the real star of the plate. A mixture of black lentils and buckwheat groats, the pilaf was hearty and chewy and tasted distinctly toasted. This was another cross-cultural dish, for in addition to the North American-grown groats and the popular-in-Asia “Beluga” lentils, the cod was served with a Scandinavian-inspired yogurt sauce. Every forkful revealed another layer of flavor – first the clean taste of the simply prepared filet, then the earthiness of the blended grains, and finally the tart smack of the dilled yogurt. When Mallett cross pollinates, he does it well. As my friend said, “This is the kind of kitchen that wants to play … and it works.”

One dessert on the sweets menu definitely works: It’s apple ricotta spice cake served with whipped brown butter ricotta and apple rum sauce. Like the pumpkin bread, the spice cake is dense and moist. It’s also seriously spicy, with hints of mace and ginger and allspice. In a nod to the growing number of customers avoiding gluten, the menu offers a gluten-free, vegan dessert – an almond date square with a crust made of almonds and oats, and a topping of pureed dates. It’s pretty good, just not as good as the apple cake.

A few online reviews suggest that Black Trumpet is a “special occasion-only” restaurant, but I can’t figure out why. The prices are reasonable (you can order small dishes, medium dishes, “bowls” – mainly large soups and salads – as well as main courses), service is informal and unhurried, and the welcome is warm. Perhaps it’s because Mallett’s cooking – like his favorite black trumpet mushrooms – is distinctive. And uncommonly good.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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