WHO’S IN CHARGE Restaurant veterans Paul Eastman and Christina Johnson opened Phat Cats Bistro on the outskirts of Amesbury’s historic downtown a dozen years ago. Eastman, a Johnson & Wales graduate, is the head chef, while his wife, Christina, a Seattle native, oversees the pastry production.
The couple, said Eastman, consider the bistro “a neighborhood place.”
“What we’ve made here is a real relationship between customers and vendors, farmers” said Eastman. “We’re small, with an open kitchen. As the owner, and my cooks, who are local people, we really get to know our guests.”
And Amesbury knows Phat Cats. Eastman estimates roughly 75 percent of his clientele are repeat customers.
“We’re happy with the community, and we love being a part of the community,” he said.
THE LOCALE Located on Market Street as it points toward the New Hampshire border, Phat Cats is housed in a building with its own history.
“We’re in a 100-year-old building that has a lot of exposed brick and a tin ceiling,” said Eastman. “We’ve got a beautifully built wooden bar and a friendly staff. So we’re definitely trying to create a warm atmosphere.”
Phat Cats seats close to 60, and can feel a little snug on a busy evening, but the high ceilings provide a welcome sense of space. Tables are comfortable, and the bar is usually abuzz with brisk banter and laughter.
“We have a whole list of signature cocktails on the regular menu, then we have a rotating specialty cocktail list,” said Eastman. “We’ll change those seasonally, and sometimes they’ll be changed weekly, if someone is inspired.”
The experienced waitstaff was attentive without being intrusive — a great balance when catching up with friends. Reserved tables are set aside for two hours, so you won’t feel rushed.
“We have a low turnover with our staff, and we think that’s because they enjoy working here, and they enjoy the customers they serve,” said Eastman.
The restaurant is also available for functions for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
ON THE MENU The owners describe the bistro’s eclectic menu as “causally upscale,” earning kudos for “truth in advertising.”
“In the first few years we were open, we definitely changed the menu fairly often, seasonally,” Eastman said. “But it got to the point where, with the last few menu changes, regulars complained that we had to bring stuff back that we had taken off. Now, we pretty much leave the main menu, and run with specials. We always have a couple of fish specials, and a couple of meat specials.”
Lauri started with her traditional Tito’s Cosmopolitan ($11), which was dry and crisp, without being too sweet. Ideal for her palette. I was just as happy with my maple-infused Manhattan ($11). Aromatic but not overpowering, the cocktail deftly combined two favorite winter flavors — bourbon and maple syrup.
For appetizers, our party of four got an order of the lightly fried calamari ($10) with a chipotle sauce that had a terrific zing to it, and the Chicken Little’s ($9), a large serving of sesame-coated chicken tenders served with both spicy ketchup and peanut sauce. Our guests shared a large spinach salad ($9), a bright collection of greens tossed in a flavorful red pepper vinaigrette with poached pears, goat cheese, sliced almonds, craisans, and roasted red peppers. All three set the stage nicely for our entrees.
Staying with the seafood theme, I ordered the Creole Stew ($27). Occasionally, you’re lucky enough to get a dish that hits exactly the right notes. This was my lucky night. The dish featured a mound of same-day-fresh shrimp, crab, lobster, and more mussels than I could finish, simmered with andouille sausage and a spicy tomato seafood broth and served over rice. Spectacular.
The house-made Herb Potato Gnocchi Romano ($16) caught my wife’s eye. She added chicken (an extra $5) to the tender gnocchi — served in a rich pink sauce with baby spinach, roasted red peppers, shallots, and fontina cheese — and was delighted. Diners can also add sausage, shrimp, or lobster (gnocchi and pasta dishes can also be ordered in half-portions).
Our guests were in a red-meat mood, and went with Black Angus Hanger Steak Sliders ($12) and Bistro Steak ($19). The two hearty sliders were topped with cheese, roasted red peppers, and caramelized onions, and served with Ipswich Ale mustard and fried tortillas with salsa. Meanwhile, the steak was a perfect medium rare, and served sliced with roasted potatoes and truffle-seasoned mushrooms. There’s nothing quite like great food to bring lively conversation to an abrupt halt, and our table got real quiet real quick.
Eastman said diners can expect more robust entrees on the specials menu, including brazed items like osso buco and lamb shanks, through the winter.
Our waitress successfully tempted us with a dessert tray that featured a dazzling array of chocolate delicacies, cheesecakes, crumbles, and pastries (all $7). We decided to split the carrot cake, a moist, full-bodied treat complemented by a healthy scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was a sumptuous final act to a superb meal.
Phat Cats Bistro, 65A Market St., Amesbury, 978-388-2777, phatcatsbistro.com.Brion O’Connor can be reached at [email protected].