Restaurant Review: Puritan & Company in Cambridge
Will Gilson attempts to fuse New England fare with modern techniqueâ€”and, mostly, succeeds.
The current local-everything mania ascends to a new level at Puritan & Company, the latest addition to Inman Square. For the first time, a kitchen is entirely inspired by New England ingredients and traditions, but is also embracing the latest equipment and techniques. Its goalâ€”to bring a regional style associated with the 18th and 19th centuries forward into the 21stâ€”is an admirable one, made almost mandatory today for any serious chef thanks to the global success of Noma, a fashionable Copenhagen restaurant championing the â€śNew Nordic Cuisine.â€ť
Will Gilson, a born-and-bred New Englander whose roots here date back 13 generations, would seem ideally pedigreed to create the New New England menu. Gilson has been a rising star since he was in his teens, when his father, David, would brag about him to chefs who bought herbs from the Gilson familyâ€™s farm stand at the Government Center market. In his twenties, he garnered fans as the executive chef at Garden at the Cellar, located between Harvard and Central squares, his five-year tenure at which was followed by a stint cooking at a summer-long pop-up restaurant in Truro, called Eat at Adrianâ€™s.
Puritanâ€™s menu lists plenty of dishes that echo New Englandâ€™s pastâ€”â€śhardtackâ€ť crackers, â€śboiled dinnerâ€ť vegetablesâ€”all, luckily, revisitations rather than reissues. (The crackers were buttery and flaky, unlike the fatless planks that were made for long storage on ships, and the vegetables were meticulously cut and presented.) But it isnâ€™t as dominated by newly thought-out dishes from hand-me-down cookbooks as some of the advance press suggested it would be. This is what ballsy chefs, not quaint farm wives, make, though the plates do feature ample garnishes of items youâ€™d find on a farm like the Gilson familyâ€™s, which is in Groton: home-pickled radishes and the fresh year-round herbs that cemented Willâ€™s fatherâ€™s reputation with chefs.
Certainly the feel, if not the food, is deliberately farmhouse, starting with the 1920s stove at the check stand that Gilson first cooked with in Groton (it was in an outbuilding called the Herb Lyceum, where the family hosts educational suppers) and going on to the weathered-barn-wood accents, communal wooden tables, mismatched heavy china, and lighting fixtures made of glass Mason jars encasing (the now-inescapable) glowing-filament Edison bulbs. Together, it all reads as a strongly personal statement from an ambitious chef influenced by both the local movement and the high-style presentations of Noma and its modernist successors.
The restaurant is named not for Gilsonâ€™s ancestors but for a baking company that once occupied the airy, loftlike premises. Merciful sound panels dropped from the ceiling make this the rare big, brick-walled restaurant that has pleasant, rather than unbearable, background noise. Servers are friendly, casual, and excited about their workâ€”glad to taste a number of wines themselves to see if the nightâ€™s by-the-glass offerings might meet the preferences youâ€™ve described.
With the young vibe of the staff, youâ€™ll find plenty of snout-to-tail cooking, of course. Itâ€™s worth ordering the charcuterie (minus the chewy, oily duck prosciutto), particularly the potted foie gras ($14), which is covered with a clear apple gelĂ©e and bubbles of agar-set sherry â€śbeadsâ€ť and served in a little brown bean pot (the only New England touch). It was very sweet, â€ślike the breakfast spread of a really rich person,â€ť as a guest remarked. Swordfish â€śpastramiâ€ť ($13) was more like a gravlax, but bright-flavored and a lovely way to use seldom-sold swordfish bellies.
The smoked-mackerel pĂ˘tĂ© ($7) did taste like a rustic take on a New England tradition: oily dark-meat fish (Spanish mackerel is the substitute for the New England bluefish Gilson uses in season) mixed with whipped crĂ¨me fraĂ®che and Greek yogurt. Itâ€™s freshened with Meyer lemon and a bit of chili pepper, and served on â€śhardtackâ€ť crackers. Seared scallops ($12), meanwhile, were nicely seared and naturally sweet, though the seasonal roasted-sweet-potato purĂ©e underneath was overwhelmed with salt.
In an inversion of the usual rule nowadays (in which small plates eclipse entrĂ©es in both emphasis and execution), main courses are the strongest part of the menu. Wagyu steak ($29), often a sop to the dullards who insist on a rare slab, was the best, with beef that was tender, fatty, and full of flavor. The version of pommes ana served alongside it was unexpectedly elegant: long slivers of potato layered with butter and pressed into triangular wedges, with the layers vertical rather than horizontal. The wedge was soft and buttery from the long roasting, but crisp on the outside from a plancha searing at the last minute. Gilsonâ€™s decision to foam the light bĂ©arnaise-like sauce on top, however, seemed silly and outmoded rather than an enhancement to the dish.
Chicken from the Canadian purveyor Giannone ($24) is brined and pressed to make slices of nicely flavored breast meat, but the real star is the drumstick, cooked in fat like confit, coated with cornstarch, and deep-fried. I preferred the chicken to the wood-roasted Muscovy duck ($27), but apparently other diners donâ€™tâ€”Gilson told me that Dâ€™Artagnan, his well-known purveyor, told him heâ€™d gone through 800 ducks in three months. Certainly, the rendered skin and wood roasting make for superior meat, even if the vegetable garnish we had, a long tube of woody salsify with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, was best ignored.
Despite my recollection of his seafood-heavy cooking two summers ago at Eat at Adrianâ€™s, Gilson is better with meat than fish at Puritan: Slow-poached cod with mussels ($24) was dull and mealy, the whitish foamed ham broth an odd complement. Grilled cobia ($25), always a meaty and reliable fish, was okay, but the dramatic leaves of lightly wilted green escarole on the plate were far more memorable. Barley risotto ($17), though, was the best vegetarian main course Iâ€™ve had in memory, the barley first oven-toasted and then cooked in mushroom stock, finished with butter and Parmesan, and garnished with fresh marjoram. The portion was huge, the barley made nutty through toasting, and the stock, butter, and Parmesan a better binder than the usual starch from rice.
Desserts, by pastry chef Mike Geldart, are somewhat uncertain (his breads, perhaps reflecting his experience at Sel de la Terre, are more reliable), but the two chocolate options had satisfyingly deep flavor: The fruity, pleasantly acidic notes of a little puck of unpromisingly muddy chocolate fondant ($8) made you keep swiping it across your tongue, to fully savor them. And a chocolate cake ($8), made with chocolate from the San Franciscoâ€“based Tcho, is as prettyâ€”a stack of tortelike layers with thinner layers of caramel creamâ€”and sophisticated-looking as the other desserts were not. But then, you donâ€™t go to Puritan for sophistication or fancy presentation, even if to your surprise thatâ€™s much of what you get. You go for enthusiasm, commitment to the local, and young talentâ€”and you get a lot of that, too.
Puritan & Company, 1166 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-615-6195, puritancambridge.com.
Critic Corby Kummerâ€”an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Foodâ€”has been reviewing Greater Bostonâ€™s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
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