Good Eats – Vasa
Vasa is the newly opened waterfront restaurant and bar just across the Merrimack River from Newburyport. The space was previously known as Stripers Grill, but once Sean Toomey, owner of Amesbury eatery Crave, knew it was available, he leaped at the opportunity. Toomey bought the operation in September, remodeled it and opened Vasa late last year.
Perhaps you think “Vasa” is some foreign word for water? I did. In fact, it’s the name of a 17th century Swedish warship that held
an unopened bottle of rum when it was raised from the depths in 1961.
That shipwrecked bottle of rum seems have inspired Vasa’s decor — nautical colors, art and bric-a-brac, as well as its sense of maritime comfort. A large rectangular bar dominates the main room as you enter, with two dining rooms and an outdoor deck to your left. I suspect you will need a stun gun to work your way onto the seasonal 125-capacity deck when the Newburyport area hits high tourist season. Indoor seating capacity is 275 year-round.
Vasa has been open only since December, but we had the kind of meal that proved good things are already happening there and that the spot should be swarming with “fair weather friends” when warmer temperatures roll around.
The small bowl of New England clam chowder ($7) wasn’t exactly a bargain, but the piping hot item was a pleasing variation of the classic recipe, spruced up with bacon and thyme. I like being able to actually recognize clams in my chowder, not just potatoes, and Vasa’s version gets good marks all around.
The mussels appetizer bowl ($13) is exactly the kind of order people should be devouring on Vasa’s outdoor deck. The generous helping of Prince Edward Island mussels was served in a light white wine and cream sauce accented with small bits of chorizo and various herbs.
The mussels were plump, done right and remarkably free of grit. My one disappointment was that I could have used more than the two grilled mini-baguette slices to sop up the leftover brew.
The dinner menu is tightly focused: 10 entrees, including a catch of the day. Still, there is enough variation for most palates, including a vegetable tagliatelle ($18). Salads, plenty of appetizers and sandwiches are also available, along with a long list of beers, cocktails and wine.
Any waterfront dining establishment better get the seafood right or it is going to have a heap o’ trouble. The grilled sea scallops ($27) passed the test. The four large scallops were smartly seared but still tender and with plenty of body.
They were escorted by a mushroom/leek risotto, butternut squash puree and Swiss chard. Some dishes are supposed to slap you in the face. Others seduce you with their subtleties. The scallops succeed in the latter category.
The Boston strip steak ($26) should satisfy visiting carnivores. Exactly medium-rare as requested, the beef was tasty and textured. The roasted potatoes and oyster mushrooms held their own, while the brandy rosemary cream sauce effectively tied everything together.
How good was our waitress? We ordered an “Irish Brownie Sundae” ($7) on her recommendation — a Guinness brownie, whiskey sauce, and Baileys Irish Cream ice cream. Another server brought the dessert to our table, but as our waitress walked by, she noticed that we had only a few dabs of whiskey sauce on our dish, not nearly the usual amount.
She quickly returned on her own with a small bowl of the sauce that really completed the dessert. The mix of flavors and textures was no small hit, thanks to her eye for detail.
Vasa may be new to the Salisbury/Newburyport scene, but there is no need to delay your visit. It’s already found its niche and it’s a good one.
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Bar open until 1 a.m. Monday-Saturday and midnight Sunday.