WHO IS IN CHARGE When Swan Chocolates closed, Michael Buckley saw an opportunity. The restaurateur, who owned the eponymous steak house next door to the Merrimack, N.H., chocolatier and café, saw a chance to open a bakery to consolidate the preparations for his restaurant network, which also includes MT Local and Surf in Nashua and Surf Sushi Bar in Portsmouth, N.H. But he went one step further. Buckley’s Bakery-Café also serves entrees, sandwiches, salads, and sushi in a comfortable, unpretentious spot that has become a classic third place — a location that is not home, not work, but an ideal local hangout.
THE ATMOSPHERE The ambience is country casual. Downstairs, glass cases display a gorgeous array of pastries. A refrigerated case has mouth-watering salads, sushi, and sandwiches. There is also a self-serve station with soups du jour and the day’s entrée, which is sold by the pound. A large window looks out of the kitchen, where workers wear black caps sporting the gold B Buckley logo. An upstairs seating area is light and warm, with long, family-style dining tables, bistro sets, and some couches and easy chairs around a large fireplace. With its cool, contemporary colors and free Wi-Fi, upstairs has become a congregating place for those who like to noodle on their computers while they nosh.
ON THE MENU The beauty of Buckley’s is that you can grab fine food to eat in or to go, quickly and at very reasonable prices.
We did both. At one visit we helped ourselves to the entrée of the day — the red-wine-braised beef with herb-roasted potatoes ($8.95 a pound) and chicken stir fry with jasmine rice ($7.95 a pound). The self-serve entries allow the diner to choose the proportion of veggie to meat. Both dishes were excellent. The beef was fork-cutting tender with a rich, deep-flavored sauce and earthy mushrooms. While the quality chicken breast slices were the center of the stir-fry dish, the aromatic rice and farm fresh peppers and carrots, in a delicate sauce, were equally savory.
We also tried the café’s soup. Each day there is a vegetarian and nonvegetarian offering. We sampled two — tomato pepper and white bean ($5.75), and chicken with andouille sausage ($7). Both combined a peppery broth with farm-fresh veggies, and in the case of the sausage, locally sourced meat. Both were hearty and satisfying, although we would have liked a more robust slice of one of the bakery’s breads rather than the anemic piece offered.
We don’t ordinarily order sushi when it arrives in a plastic box, but we were more than pleasantly surprised at its quality and cost. The eight-piece serving of yellowfin tuna ($7) was as good as any in the finest Japanese restaurant. Equally amazing was the black pepper-seared yellowfin tuna salad ($10) on a bed of fresh greens, with artichoke hearts, pickled onions, and a scallion dressing.
Buckley doesn’t put sell-by dates on his salads and sushi because it’s made fresh every day and discarded if not sold by closing.
The bakery also makes fresh sandwiches and panini including an excellent Italian sandwich ($7) and a vegetarian panini ($6.50) with marinated mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, and arugula and a side order of spicy cucumber salad. And we couldn’t resist the gooey slabs of Sicilian pizza ($3.50 a slice), which were also exceptional.
And heaven knows you can’t forget dessert. We loved the coconut brioche ($1.25) and the almond Florentine ($2).
Buckley’s Bakery & Café, 436 Daniel Webster Highway, Merrimack, N.H. 603-262-5929.
Tom Long may be reached at email@example.com.