The restaurant’s devotion to local products extends to liquids as well. The drink list includes the nearby Cambridge Brewing Company’s seasonal beer, mead from Green River Ambrosia in central Massachusetts and an entirely New England martini list. It features spirits such as Greylock Gin, named for the tallest mountain in Massachusetts and made in the Berkshires. That gin is used in the Dilly Bean Martini, a riff on the dirty martini using pickled green beans (a Vermont favorite) and their brine in lieu of olives and olive juice. Also on the list are local vodkas made from three “wicked” New England ingredients: apples, potatoes, and maple sap.
Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge serves regional comfort food like Yankee pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, but other Boston farm-to-table restaurants are inspired from afar. Chef Phillip Tang of East by Northeast prepares local meat, seafood and produce in the Chinese style he learned from his family, which own restaurants in Washington, D.C. As I spoke with Tang, he scarcely looked up from rolling dumplings for that night’s dinner at his intimate 25-seat restaurant. A bouncy ball-round scoop of ground Vermont pork mixed with locally grown cabbage, a twist of the fingers, a puff of flour, and he’d be on to another. These were steamed, topped with red cabbage slaw and served with an apple and onion puree, proving that the clever restaurant name isn’t the only thing that’s delicious.
Because Tang is largely influenced by northern Chinese cooking, his creations are light on rice. Wheat is the preferred starch, making appearances in the chef’s own noodles, dumplings and breads. Tang’s flavors are delicate, his presentation precise and his noodles toothsome. The hearty wrappers on his shumai, an open-top dumpling, put the defrosted, pre-fab version you find at most restaurants to shame.
He also serves in-house pickled vegetables, the selection varying with the season. A plate in mid-autumn included razor-thin discs of pickled summer squash, bright yellow cauliflower florets pickled with curry powder, snappy whole green beans (escaped from a martini?) and rectangular sticks of slightly sweet rutabaga, all sprinkled with sesame seeds. The dish is colorful, the flavors bright, the vegetables a pleasure to crunch. It also conveys another tenet of the farm-to-table movement: if there’s something dedicated chefs can create in-house, they will.
At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, chef Tony Maws makes sure you know where your food comes from. The menu arrives with a roster of the restaurant’s local suppliers, about 20 different vegetable and meat farms, orchards, shellfisheries and dairies, plus a smokehouse and a mushroom hunter. Maws has earned a reputation for preparing those ingredients with a few tricks from the molecular gastronomy school of cooking (dusts, foams, gels, etc.) to make the ordinary extraordinary.
To create his legendary hamburger, Maws mixes grass-fed beef with marrow, suet and dehydrated miso for a tender, flavorful patty that tastes more like a hamburger than you thought possible. To cut the richness, the burger is served with red wine pickles and celery root slaw. To enhance the richness, it comes with a tangle of perfect, skinny fries. If you’re in the mood for something more complex, try the roasted milk-fed pig’s head with Peking pancakes, spicy pumpkin sambal and boudin noir hoison sauce. If you want simpler, there’s always fried pigs’ tails.
Those crisp pig’s tails are available at Craigie’s attractive bar, which sits about 40 miles from the site of the original Plymouth Colony. Today’s chefs have access to far more ingredients than those early cooks, including imported staples such as olive oil and coffee that even the staunchest farm-to-table restaurants can’t seem to part with. Yet there is a celebratory regressive streak in the return to local produce. In supporting local, small food producers, the chefs eschew the industrially produced food that has become the default at other restaurants. Yet these chefs are quick to remind you that they’re not necessarily doing something new. As Maws has said, “These are ideas shared by about 90 percent of the world’s grandmothers.”
For more farm-to-table restaurants, visit the member search at guide.chefscollaborative.org or just ask the folks wearing puffy pants at the farmers markets who they cook for.