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January 10, 2013

Cooking where the big boys cook

Ceia chefs serve meal in James Beard House

(Continued)

Petite, brunette Batista-Caswell, just 30 years old, had already quietly earned solid footing in the culinary world when she opened Ceia two years ago: Johnson & Wales, work with Chris Schlesinger at The Back Eddy in Westport, and then developing and opening Bin Osteria for The Bin Hospitality Group.

Ceia’s wine list, Batista-Caswell’s personal creation, has gained the tiny restaurant a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, which hangs beside a few more “best of’s,” including Boston Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2012.

Much of Ceia’s “Coastal European” inspiration borrows heavily from Batista Caswell’s Fairhaven Portuguese roots; Ceia means “supper” in Portuguese. Her mother often shows up to advise the kitchen. The maitre D’ at the Beard House, also Portuguese, was delighted by Soucy’s elegant translation of some traditional dishes: The first course, Sopa de Alentajo — a black garlic soup served with Iberico ham-wrapped crouton and topped with a poached duck egg, set the tone of the menu, re-interpreting the Old World, retaining the best of it.

Soucy prides himself on being a farm-to-dinner chef, a challenge when preparing a serious dinner in December, but the five-course meal beautifully reflected both place and season: Iberico Porchetta with grilled clams, heirloom apples and a leek and cabbage vinaigrette. Oxtail raviolo with root vegetables. Walnut smoked rack of lamb with preserved lemon-stuffed olives. A Musque de Provence Frittelle, that beautiful pink squash revered by Italians, made into a light pancake, and served with pumpkin seed ice cream, for dessert.

At my table butter-poached Maine lobster tail served with a corn sformato elicited the loudest mumbled mouthfuls of approval. Soucy, knowing this dinner may be on the calendar, had picked the super sweet corn from Tendercrop Farm in Newbury at the peak of last summer’s season, and flash froze it. He offered a brief table-side tutorial on how carefully farmers space corn to allow the sun to hit the roots of the plant, resulting in the “super” to super sweet corn. Soucy kindly provided the luscious sformato recipe.

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