A Seaside Delight: The Purple Urchin

By Betty Gagne

Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Purple Urchin - it almost sounds like a cartoon character who belongs with SpongeBob and Patrick, doesn't it? Not hardly. The "Urchin," as some people refer to it, is a seaside cafe, with a patio pub attached. And when we say seaside, that's exactly what we mean.

Just ask Betsy, the dining room bartender who's been with the restaurant for eight seasons. "I enjoy my location here at Hampton Beach," she says as she makes a drink. She gazes out at a calm ocean the color of well faded denim, and smiles. It's late afternoon and the sun is just setting its rays are stretching lazily across the water. "It's the most gorgeous view," Betsy says, staring out at the Atlantic. "From Boar's Head on the left, to Cape Ann on the right, with the Isles of Shoals in between," she laughs. Betsy enjoys her bar tending job. "We have wonderful clientele here," she says. "It's a great group of people."

We're not sure if she's talking about the customers, or the staff of nearly 30 who serve them. Either way, she's right. Everyone at the Purple Urchin is nice and friendly.

Besides the great location of the restaurant, which is directly across Ocean Boulevard from the Sea Shell Stage, the unique menu is quite an attraction for people, especially families. Owner Maura Fleming, whose back ground lies in a family who's been in the restaurant business forever, explains how the menu is put together: "The chef and I start early in the season - we run different specials daily to see what works. The real popular dishes will usually end up on the menu for that season." The Purple Urchin also keeps a few tried and true contemporary preferences on the list.

"We like to do some upscale favorites along with somewhat simple choices - there's something for everyone." A children's menu is featured also, and all entrees include a drink and dessert.

Christopher Misterka of Northampton, Massachusetts, and Bill Kwiatek of Danvers have been coming to Hampton Beach since they were kids. Today, they're spending some time relaxing on the Patio Pub at the Purple Urchin.

Chris has been here before, but this was Bill's first visit. "It's excellent," said Bill. "We both had the marinated chicken breast sandwich with roasted red peppers, Monterey Jack cheese and basil mayonnaise for lunch." Chris agreed with his friend. "I never ever heard of basil mayo before," he said. The two were even talking about staying for dinner. Now, that's what you call satisfied customers.

Of course, some of the attraction may have been the two waitresses/bartenders who were working the pub: Lauren Ault and Jenni Ouelette. Jenni lives in South Florida during the winter months but keeps coming back to work at the Purple Urchin in summer. As she rushes around behind the bar, she tells us, "We've made quite a few frozen drinks today."

What? Did she say frozen drinks'? Ok, so it was hot. I was thirsty, so I ordered a pina colada. Oh man, what a creation! Smooth, creamy, cold and sweet - topped with whipped cream and a cherry; it was almost like eating a pineapple-coconut mousse or something. Mmmmmmmm, what a treat on a hot summer day!!

"Yeah, this place has great frozen drinks," says Kathy Evangelista of Raymond, NH. Kathy owns a club in Manchester called the "The Bomb Shaker," so she must know what she's talking about. "We like to come here during the summer after being on the beach," she told us. With her is her daughter, Nina, and Nina's boyfriend Rob, who just turned 21. And did Rob get carded? "Oh, yeah," he said. But he didn't seem to mind, as he sipped on a luscious frozen strawberry daiquiri.

The Patio Pub opens for lunch at 11 am and the dining room opens at 5 pm; both serve a full menu until l0 pm. Afternoon entertainment is featured on the patio every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 6.

The patio is great because parents can take a break here - they can sit and relax while the kids do things in the casino. "There are many kid-friendly attractions within the casino complex, including rides, arcade games, sand art, and so much more," Maura says. A stop at the purple Urchin is a great diversion and gives everybody time out.

So, let's talk about the food at the Urchin - and the chef. "Chef Karl Patton has been with us for 5 years," Maura tells us. "He previously worked at the Exeter Inn, and also at the Three Chimney's Inn in Durham." You can tell by the look in her eyes that Maura treasures this man, who's obviously a culinary genius. "We like having Karl in our kitchen very much," she says, "We share the same vision - and we have a great working relationship." Maybe that's what makes the Purple Urchin so successful. "We have a common goal in our hearts," Maura says.

Just imagine being served a unique entree like the Star island Pork Chop: This is a chop stuffed with fresh crabmeat and drizzled with maple sauce over wild mushroom risotto. Or with toasted sirloin steak topped and crumbled blue cheese, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes. Now, that's different. Like lobster? The Urchin features a lobster salad that has a vinaigrette base instead of mayonnaise, and is served on a bed of mixed greens, with cherry tomatoes and shaved onions.

The restaurant also has several outstanding homemade items, like a tasty whole grain mustard salad dressing, and delicious rosemary foccacia bread which serves as a base for their tempting bruschetta.

If abstract food combinations don't appeal to you, then go for steamed lobster with corn on the cob and roasted potatoes. The appetizer menu contains some old time favorites like Buffalo Chicken tenders with blue cheese dressing, and shrimp cocktail with homemade sauce.

After the meal, may we suggest a new twist on an old, but popular, drink? It's served in a martini glass, but there's no gin in it. And you sure won't find an olive floating around in it, either. It's what the bartenders call a "fun" martini - and there's a whole list of them available. One of the most popular is the Tiramisu Martini, which is a combination of Stoli Vanilla, Tia Mafia, and Godiva Chocolate Lacquer. The glass is rimmed with gooey chocolate sundae syrup - it's pretty messy - but good to the last drop. Another favorite from the martini menu is the Beach Breeze Absolut Mandarin, Peachtree Schnapps and pineapple juice. This one'll make you feel like you're in the tropics for sure.

Now, most people enjoy a Margarita, but you haven't lived until you've had a Purple Urchin Margarita, which has one extra ingredient added to it to color it light purple. "We put a little Chambord in it," Jenni the bartender says. Chambord is a raspberry lacquer. The bartenders say it doesn't effect the taste of the Margarita, it just sweetens it a little and makes it that signature purple color.

Locals love the Purple Urchin, too. "It's perfect," says Michelle Cicale of Seabrook. "I've been up in the Purple Urchin - it's a great place to watch the fireworks on the beach and have a couple drinks."

This past May, the restaurant has had heat and air conditioning installed, and Maura plans to extend their season through this move. "This will enable us to open earlier, maybe in April, and stay open until October. We'll also be able to do more functions and private parties this way."

When asked if this was her final career move, Maura laughed. "Of course not! I'm too young!" she said. After thinking for a few seconds, "Sometimes I think about opening a "Purple Urchin 2" in Florida or something; or trying to go year round with this place."

If you're familiar with this very unique establishment called the Purple Urchin, then you've found one of the best kept secrets on Hampton Beach. If you've never been there, it's time you checked it out. Enjoy!