An Artful Dinner In Dover, NH

Photo: Lobster aromatherapy (all photos: Kathy Gunst)

Lobster tails, poached in butter and then thinly sliced, are placed atop perfect segments of pink grapefruit. Tiny microgreens are scattered on top, followed by coconut foam.

Three tall, young male chefs dressed in starched whites, their faces in deep concentration, meticulously arrange these ingredients in small bowls. The entire dish is then nestled in an oversized white bowl filled with sprigs of freshly-harvested rosemary, thyme and shaved dry ice. Just before the lobster is served, boiling water is poured over the herbs in the outer bowl, creating a bubbling aromatherapy bath for the seafood. The swirling vapor produces an herbal cloud intended to heighten the enjoyment of the dish.

This bit of over-the-top gastronomy is not to be found in Paris, Barcelona or any other culinary capital. No, we are in Dover, New Hampshire, where the best food you normally can hope for is a decent bowl of chowder, mediocre Chinese food and a slice of so-so pizza. That is, until Evan Hennessey and his team opened Stages at One Washington in an old mill building on the banks of the Cocheco River.

Chef Evan Evanessey at work

We are seated at the bar, inside the Stages kitchen — front row seats for a carefully choreographed culinary performance. “We dance all night, “ says chef Hennessey, shifting my thoughts from theater to ballet.

As the evening unfolds, it becomes clear that each move has been rehearsed, each plate practiced until it is just right. By the time we show up on a recent Saturday night for a themed dinner titled “Savory and Sweet,” the team has the menu perfected.

Stages occupies a small room on the third floor of the old mill building, down the hall from artist studios and performance spaces. The dining room is spare and artfully decorated with gorgeous flower displays and photographs of savory and sweet foods in their raw and cooked states. The décor changes every weekend when the theme for dinner is reinvented. Six lucky guests get to sit in the kitchen, and feel not so much like diners as participants.

The meal begins with abalone, sautéed Maine shrimp, celery, golden char roe and warm silky sunchoke-cream foam. It’s a plate of bright spring colors, chewy and smooth textures. One bite of this dish and all your senses pop to attention. A 2010 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon from Colombia Valley, with its bright silky qualities, complements the seafood beautifully.

Next, we watch the chefs plate potato gnocchi, topping the small, white rounds with sautéed yellow trumpet mushrooms, sprigs of lemon verbena and tiny cubes of green tomato. They handle the food with long “forceps” (they look like tweezers you might use on an elephant), which help them plate everything with precision. The gnocchi is so light and delicate, almost airy, it boggles the mind. The meaty, chewy mushrooms bring you back to earth.

Next comes the aforementioned lobster course, followed by calotte of beef (ribeye cap) cooked sous vide (a method of cooking food inside tightly-sealed plastic bags over low heat in a water bath for hours) and then sautéed to order. The kitchen doesn’t have a big fancy 10-burner stove but, instead, eight separate small induction burner units. This gives the chefs the flexibility to spread the burners out so everyone has space to do the many operations — boiling, steaming, poaching – that go into complex, multifaceted dishes.

While the beef is sautéed, an organic-looking “edible soil” is placed on large white plates. The “soil” is actually a combination of dried and ground rye, black trumpet mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, dehydrated olives and almonds. It looks like moist black earth, but tastes like heaven. The beef is placed alongside and topped with roasted red grapes.

I wanted to stand out, off the beaten path
– Evan Hennessey, chef

But the chefs are nowhere near done. They have devilish grins on their faces as they prepare for the highest drama of all: eeucalyptus chips are lit in a bowl that looks like it should be connected to a hookah. The smoke is then piped over the beef and trapped in an upside-down glass compote bowl. When the dish is served, the glass dome is dramatically removed and you inhale a combination of meat, smoke and outdoors aromas. The meat takes on a subtle woodsy natural eucalyptus flavor. It’s like the best campfire you’ve ever been to, elevated to fine dining status. The meat melts in your mouth and is fabulous accompanied by a 2009 Decero Cabernet, with its own decidedly smoky overtones.

Hennessey grew up in Dover, N.H., and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu at Atlantic Culinary Academy in 2001. He spent the ensuing decade working with some of this country’s finest culinary wizards: Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, Charlie Palmer, Ken Oringer, Andrew Carmellini. Clearly, he has picked up a few “tricks” and techniques from them all.

“Why do food this sophisticated in Dover, N.H?” I ask him.

“I wanted to stand out, off the beaten path,” Hennessey answers. “Who’s to say I won’t do a follow-up place in Boston or somewhere else in the future.”

Although I’ve just eaten four courses of undeniably rich food, I feel fabulous. Really fabulous. Four glasses of wine doesn’t hurt, but there is a rhythm to the meal that works. Portions are just right, not so much that you feel heavy or overwhelmed, but just enough. A hard balance to achieve.

We watch the chefs bake cannoli shells one at a time. A salted chocolate filling goes inside, and it’s set on top of a gorgeous green basil cream with homemade burnt chili baby marshmallows. S’mors meets haute cuisine. A crunchy topping on the outside of the cannoli has us stumped. With a mischievous smile, the chef makes us guess. ‘No clue,’ we say. Unflavored pop rocks, he tells us. A-hah! The crunchy, pop-in-your-mouth texture suddenly makes sense.

Stages at One Washington has limited seating; try to score a seat at the bar. The theme changes from week to week and, at this point, the restaurant is only open on Friday and Saturday nights. The fixed-priced meals range from $60 to $125 per person and include five courses, wine with each course, sparkling water, coffee and gratuity.

It’s a lot of money for dinner, but you can’t see good theater or dance for much less.


8 thoughts on “An Artful Dinner In Dover, NH

  1. Geoff

    Hello! Dover resident here to say that the pizza is far better than so-so at La Festa and the food at Oriental Delight is not mediocre but it is top notch. I’m pretty sure your intent wasn’t to be insulting bit that’s how it comes across.

  2. Robert Unruh

    Lots of flavored foams on your menu? Is this accomplished by adding flavors from the distillation process to frogs having sex?????

  3. Sarita

    Amidst this overly pretentious writing is poor reporting and oversight. No other good restaurants in Dover? Well not if what really impresses you is “a bubbling aromatherapy bath for the seafood…swirling vapor produces an herbal cloud…gorgeous green basil cream” And how is something “organic-looking”? I’m glad the author feels “fabulous…really fabulous” after the meal, but I doubt other chefs and restaurant patrons in the area feel the same after reading this.

  4. Kathy Gunst Post author

    I’m so sorry if I’ve insulted anyone in Dover, NH. What I meant to say is you might not expect a restaurant like Stages, with its high-end culinary wizardry, to be in Dover, N.H. rather than Boston, NY, or even Paris.

  5. Chris Therrien

    Kathy Gunst,

    I think in an attempt to give stark contrast to what is being offered by Stages to the town where it’s located, you’ve missed your mark.

    Dover has been going through a slow resurgence over the past decade. Now, there are quite a few new restaurants doing wonderful things if you cared to drive 10 minutes and take a look around.

    Chris Therrien
    Owner: Silver Moon Creperie

  6. Fred

    Christopher’s 3rd St. Grill.
    Silver Moon Creperie.
    Khaophums Thai Food.
    Poppers Artisanal Meats.
    The Farm.
    Blue Latitudes.
    Just to name a few…FOR SHAME!!!