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.
The deliberately casual stuff impressed me more than the menu’s more-upscale offerings. With the exception of dry, dully flavored swordfish accompanied by asparagus and tasty grits ($24), the kitchen shone with its fish dishes, as you’d expect when the chef’s flagship was and will be called Catch. Wild striped bass ($26) was expertly pan-seared, the flesh firm and meaty but not overcooked, the thick and somewhat tough skin — as it usually is with bass — a crisp and dark. The ratatouille on the plate was meticulously made, the vegetables cooked separately and then heated together to meld the flavors. But the tapenade served alongside was a little dull and not salty enough, an unusual complaint from someone who usually rails on about salt.
I mention this because the dishes are uniformly unchallenging in conception and seasoning, which makes eating here both pleasant and unexciting. Even the hits of salt and cumin in a really, really nice appetizer of roasted clams covered with crumbled, air-dried chorizo and bread crumbs ($7), and the fresh-flavored steamed Maine mussels with chorizo and smoked tomato ($9), are mild-mannered. Still, I can’t remember liking roasted clams so much, or frankly the last time I saw them with crumbs on a Boston menu.
The details and the sides are where Parsons shows his chops. The simple stuff is exceptionally good. Those plates are much better than a place like this would lead you to expect or would typically deliver, and they’re what make Parsons Table worth a trip. Ward’s Berry Farm creamed corn ($6) was creamy (with both milk from the cob and crème fraiche), and was neither heavy nor overcooked, two common errors. Pan-roasted cauliflower with almonds, capers, and golden raisins ($4) is one of those dishes that even skeptics order a second round of. (It joins the local cauliflower pantheon, whose only other member is Toro.) Parsons isn’t afraid to put an iceberg salad ($7) on the menu — sans bacon, but with homemade blue cheese dressing and pickled shallots that cut the richness. The freshness of organic beets and the sweet sharpness of both sherry vinegar and Blue Ledge Farm chèvre lifted a beet and walnut salad ($8) one rung above what has become a very humdrum appetizer. And warm frisée salad ($8) with house-made bacon, sherry vinaigrette, and a farm egg is, like the burger, a dish to come back for. Every component was done right.
Stumbles: There are some. Chicken ballottine with brown-butter risotto and peas ($21) was salty, fatty, and dry. In a dish of homemade, handcut pappardelle ($16), everything was good — crumbled, spicy (but not too spicy) lamb sausage and roasted red peppers with rapini — except the tough, almost-cold pasta.
But Parsons Table is a place to really like — a tail-wagging fuzzy dog of a restaurant, with friendly details that extend even into dessert. Somerville’s stellar stone-ground Taza chocolate is melted with Vermont cream and a bit of milk chocolate and served in an irresistible little copper fondue pot with cubes of pound cake and local berries to dip in ($9); it also appears in a chocolate sauce poured over first-rate, freshly made profiteroles filled with homemade vanilla ice cream ($8).
I want one in my own neighborhood! I’m sure Chris Parsons has much grander plans for Catch. But I’m not sure he can make a place more enjoyable than this.
Parson’s Table, 34 Church St., Winchester, 781-729-1040, parsons-table.com.