Dining Out: Parsons Table
A Winchester standby goes downscale — and proves that comfort food can be destination fare.
CHRIS PARSONS MIGHT BE BOSTON’S most ambitious chef whose food you haven’t eaten — unless you happen to live in Winchester, where his restaurant is located. I long knew of the respect the local food community, including this magazine, has for him, but got my own sense of his talent in February, when I saw him compete in a high-pressure national contest held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He was vying to be the U.S. representative at the next Bocuse d’Or, an insanely demanding and expensive international competition to be held next year in France. He and his assistant, Nathaniel French, had spent months training. They were the only team from Boston, and did it all at their own expense.
In the event, they lost — to James Kent, the sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, many people’s idea of the best restaurant in New York City. But Parsons won third place, no mean feat given the 12 teams were facing a judges’ panel headed by Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
That same month, Parsons closed Catch, his seafood-centric restaurant in Winchester Center. It was a planned move; he’s now looking for an in-town location for Catch where he can demonstrate his skill to urban diners. After a nine-day renovation that brought in casual barnwood paneling and more-rustic décor, the existing restaurant reopened as Parsons Table, with the same staff. What had been a neighborhood favorite with outsize ambitions became a neighborhood treasure that serves the kind of food you could eat a couple of nights a week (though at prices a bit higher than you’d be willing to pay that often).
This downscaling is different from a typical trajectory. Sometimes chefs open casual places as cynical money grabs. Often you get the sense that by doing burgers and fries they’re slumming, no matter how ardently they swear they kick back with just burgers and a brew. But after several dinners at Parsons Table, I got the feeling that Parsons has thrown himself into the new, easy menu with full force, getting the best local ingredients he can — something foodies knew him for at Catch — and not slumming at all. And boy, is the burger ($14) good.
Let’s start there. This might not be your ideal burger — it doesn’t come with ketchup, or bacon, for that matter — but it’s pretty much mine. Parsons uses grass-fed meat from the Northeast Family Farms network (mine was from Paul Strobel Farm). The beef was perfectly ground, and topped with wonderfully soft, slow-roasted portobellos and a thick ring of Spanish onion steeped in balsamic vinegar and roasted for three hours. The ring held its shape and looked beautiful set on the open-faced burger, as did the melted Swiss. The juices and fat ran right into the exemplary bun, homemade by Mamadou’s, a local bakery I need to know more about; the dinner rolls are made there, too. The accompanying "PT" kettle chips, made daily with russets and fried till they’re deep brown, are good enough to order as a sideÑand you can, with homemade French onion dip (excellent with a beer), for $4.