Restaurant Review: Puritan & Company in Cambridge
Will Gilson attempts to fuse New England fare with modern technique—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 goal—to bring a regional style associated with the 18th and 19th centuries forward into the 21st—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 “New Nordic Cuisine.”
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 family’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 Adrian’s.
Puritan’s menu lists plenty of dishes that echo New England’s past—“hardtack” crackers, “boiled dinner” vegetables—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 isn’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 you’d find on a farm like the Gilson family’s, which is in Groton: home-pickled radishes and the fresh year-round herbs that cemented Will’s father’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 Gilson’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 work—glad to taste a number of wines themselves to see if the night’s by-the-glass offerings might meet the preferences you’ve described.
With the young vibe of the staff, you’ll find plenty of snout-to-tail cooking, of course. It’s worth ordering the charcuterie (minus the chewy, oily duck prosciutto), particularly the potted foie gras ($14), which is covered with a clear apple gelée and bubbles of agar-set sherry “beads” and served in a little brown bean pot (the only New England touch). It was very sweet, “like the breakfast spread of a really rich person,” as a guest remarked. Swordfish “pastrami” ($13) was more like a gravlax, but bright-flavored and a lovely way to use seldom-sold swordfish bellies.
The smoked-mackerel pâté ($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 crème fraîche and Greek yogurt. It’s freshened with Meyer lemon and a bit of chili pepper, and served on “hardtack” crackers. Seared scallops ($12), meanwhile, were nicely seared and naturally sweet, though the seasonal roasted-sweet-potato purée underneath was overwhelmed with salt.
In an inversion of the usual rule nowadays (in which small plates eclipse entrées 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. Gilson’s decision to foam the light béarnaise-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 don’t—Gilson told me that D’Artagnan, his well-known purveyor, told him he’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 Adrian’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 I’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 Francisco–based Tcho, is as pretty—a stack of tortelike layers with thinner layers of caramel cream—and sophisticated-looking as the other desserts were not. But then, you don’t go to Puritan for sophistication or fancy presentation, even if to your surprise that’s much of what you get. You go for enthusiasm, commitment to the local, and young talent—and you get a lot of that, too.
Puritan & Company, 1166 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-615-6195, puritancambridge.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
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