Portsmouth, New Hampshire residents are lucky that, almost six years ago, Julie Cutting unknowingly lived out a famous quote from “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

When Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” his characters intended something more hedonistic than real estate, but listen to Cutting, the sole owner and head chef at Cure Restaurant, tell her business’s backstory, and you can tell how hard she fell for the seductive curves of one particular brick storefront.

Cutting had just appeared on Food Network’s competition program Cutthroat Kitchen, which meant locals were buzzing about her.

“The woman who owned this building told her broker she wanted a female business owner to go into the space. More than that, she wanted me.” Cutting said. “I had committed to work at another restaurant in Kittery. But the building’s owner wouldn’t let up. She knew I’d fall in love with the space and kept urging me just to do a walk-through. I mean, what young chef doesn’t want their own restaurant? So I went and saw it and said, ‘Let’s sign the papers tonight!’”

Although the space was already outfitted as a restaurant, the formal, pseudo-Provençal vibe did not match Cutting’s more casual vision for the shotgun-style duo of interconnected dining rooms. So she mounted curvilinear metal sculptures and oversized photos of cattle on the walls, concealed the “drastic” yellows and greens with powdery, desaturated tones and made features of exposed brickwork and tin ceilings.

Today (apart from characterless chairs that look like they were nicked from a Chipotle), the space reads as homey and rustic, in harmony with a menu focused on comfort food — dishes that evoke Cutting’s New England and French-Canadian heritage, but frequently with an impressionistic twist or two.

Take her duck confit poutine ($11), a sensible, fist-sized portion of crisp fries topped with oozy Maine cheese curds and glistening shreds of duck leg slow-poached and cured overnight in its own fat. Despite an unnecessary drizzle of white truffle oil, it’s a terrific dish, one Cutting dreamed up as a whimsical Restaurant Week special to riff on the confit duck drumettes she serves buffalo-wing-style on the permanent menu ($12).

Cure server Jeff Ellis delivers drinks to a table on a Tuesday night. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Or Cure’s autumnal hand-pie filled with local apples simmered with brown sugar, lemon juice and allspice ($6). As traditional as the filling sounds, the rest is anything but. In place of a short pastry crust, the kitchen swaddles the stewed fruit in a white-flour tortilla, then flash-fries the bundle like a Chimichanga before rolling it in cinnamon sugar. Thanks in part to an accompanying scoop of Shain’s of Maine vanilla ice cream, it’s an oddball reimagining of a classic American dessert that actually works.

When infrequent blunders occur, they tend to be mistakes of proportion rather than conception, like a goopy excess of gorgonzola-and-mayonnaise dressing on the grilled romaine wedge ($10) — a deconstructed salad of charred lettuce, cherry tomato, hard-boiled egg and crunchy Kellie Brook Farm bacon ends from Greenland, New Hampshire. Or the red wine floater that capsizes the balance in Cure’s Bulleit-bourbon-based New York Sour cocktail ($12), introducing too much sweetness and an unpleasant tannic astringency.

Service also offers a mixed bag of genuine warmth and enthusiasm combined with (almost certainly) unintentional misinformation. My server raved about how the perfectly enjoyable grilled bread with butter and rosemary salt ($2.50) was prepared with local sourdough (it is not), then incorrectly ventured that the salted caramel cider (a cocktail special, $10) “might not actually have any cider in it.”

On the other hand, the host that evening doted on nearly everyone in both dining rooms. When a couple nearby thanked her for her attention, she let slip that recent online reviews had also mentioned her stellar service. “I don’t need Yelp to validate me, but I like it when it does,” she said, adding with a laugh, “And Yelp does it a lot!”

Generally, that’s because Cure delivers on its comfort food promises, especially when it comes to larger format dishes. Pork tenderloin ($26) is not always on Cutting’s menu, but it deserves to be, particularly when she marinates it in maple syrup and bourbon and roasts until the interior surrenders only a memory of rosiness. Buttery whipped sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts that resist the tines of your fork … barely … signal the season in the most appealing fashion I can imagine.

Cure’s Braised Short Rib with au gratin potatoes and bacon, grilled broccolini and beurre rouge sauce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Still, Cure’s best menu item is practically a culinary collage of Cutting’s childhood memories growing up on a cattle farm in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, where she would sometimes play her flute to the black angus cows grazing nearby. Boneless beef short ribs, slow-braised for eight hours in onions, red wine and beef stock ($24) are the star of the dish, yielding and suffused with umami. But just as wonderful are butter-slick tendrils of broccolini and a bacon-sprinkled disk of cheesy, mandolin-sliced Yukon potatoes bathed in cream.

My dinner guest was the one who ordered the short rib when I visited last week, and now is my chance to admit that, when we swapped plates for a taste, I convinced him to let me keep it. Temptation, after all, is the only thing I can’t resist.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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