Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gone Country: A Night of Fresh Food and Fine Dining at the Herb Lyceum

Living in a city like Boston, opportunities for culinary adventure abound. These days, there are excellent chefs working their magic in just about every neighborhood of town, and representing just about every type of cuisine. Nonetheless, it's possible to sometimes find yourself in a bit of a restaurant rut. You've been to your favorite spot a few times too often, you don't feel like gambling on the fancy claims of the newest hot spot, you need a new spin on the flavors of the season...what's a foodie to do?

Head to the country, I say. More specifically, head to Groton, Massachusetts, where chef Paul Callahan (formerly of L'Espalier, Sel de la Terre, and The Butcher Shop) is working his own brand of magic at The Herb Lyceum at Gilson's. Chef Callahan, who has been at the restaurant for two months now, is clearly in his element, appearing after each course to explain the dish and chat with diners. "No one's a ticket any more," he said when asked what's different about working in this unusual setting. And, in addition to this new relationship with his guests, he also has a new relationship to the producers and vendors he works with. "I can't tell you the last time I called to place an order," he says. Instead, local farmers and vendors call him when they have a bumper supply of squash or short ribs, and he willingly takes it off their hands, working to design a menu around what's fresh, seasonal and local. Being slightly off the beaten path affords Callahan that luxury, and those who find their way to Groton are in for an inspired night of dining that is as sustainable as it is delicious.

The barn, built around 1900 and restored in the 1990s using original materials, provides a lovely setting for a dinner--as you enter through the door, warmly welcomed by David Gilson himself, you're transported to a place that seems much further than an hour from the city. The charming decor is filled with home grown plants and herbs, as well as old time tools like the mortar and pestle pictured here. And, the warm welcome continues inside with Kathy Gilson making sure everyone can get comfortable and get a glass of wine if they've brought it (the restaurant is BYOW). The combined effect is as though you've stepped into someone's old time dining room, one that's cozy, intimate, and inviting.

Although for most of the night it seemed wrong to disrupt the atmosphere with flash photography, I did manage to sneak one picture with a flash early on in the evening. You can see the lovely table settings here, as well as a couple bottles of wine brought by other diners. The communal tables are a key feature of the Herb Lyceum. As Chef Callahan said, "it's like going to a dinner party." It's a lovely sentiment, and we did enjoy the company of some very nice neighbors that night. However, we also had a couple of neighbors that were not so nice. In fact, they were very not nice, but I will leave the (overly drunken) details to your imagination--I like to think that they were far from the norm. Suffice it to say that if you are one who doesn't like to take a gamble on making new friends over dinner, you might consider bringing a big enough group to take up one of the smaller tables (6 being the smallest) or at least insulate yourself from the possibility of unpleasantness. That way you can put most of your attention exactly where it belongs: on the wonderful food.

Although my flashless food pictures were all sadly dark, I had to include at least one. This was our main course, an Herbs de Provence Braised Short Rib Wellington, with local, grass fed beef from Springdell Farm nearby. The beef, wrapped in homemade puff pastry, was tender and juicy, and very well accompanied by the spinach, mushrooms, and foie gras that were bundled up with it. Along side were a smoked potato fondue (brilliant!) and a sauce Perigueux, as well as a little tower of squashes, including Hubbard, Acorn, and Delicata. We also enjoyed an incredible Roasted Chestnut Bisque that evening, with a cranberry compote made with port wine and rosemary. The tart, woodsy flavor of the berries made an unexpectedly delicious pairing with the rich, creamy bisque. Indeed, this was the beauty of most of Callahan's creations that night--a wealth of bold ingredients that somehow came together as a marriage of clean, simple flavors. Even the dessert, a Grilled Upside Down Quince Cake with vanilla chantilly and bourbon caramel (yum), was topped with a few leaves of thyme, which somehow complimented the whole rather than distracting from it.

All in all, it was an evening of fabulous food, good wine, and (mostly) wonderful company. When the weather warms, I hope to return for another culinary adventure, one that includes a walk through the lovely grounds, which we missed in the November dark. I recommend you do the same!

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