Restaurant Review: 80 Thoreau
Main courses demonstrated the same proposition: Simple is better.
Also, go for the grill and avoid the starch. Grilled sirloin (pictured, $29) was the star dish, maybe because of the sourcing (Oregon’s Painted Hills), or maybe because Johnson, who spent time working with Stan Frankenthaler (Jasper’s, Hamersley’s, Salamander), is just good with fire. The grilled salmon with mushrooms, bacon, and fava bean purée ($24) was masterly in every detail, right down to the wonderfully fresh favas. Grilled swordfish ($23) would have been equally delicious if the kitchen hadn’t put so much salt on it, and if the grilled local squid on the plate hadn’t been rubbery. That said, the distinct and very good vegetables served with the dish — gigante beans in a fresh lobster sauce, grilled Verrill Farm escarole — rode to the rescue. And that onion tart! Or, as the menu would have it, spring onion tartlette ($18). Our generally enthusiastic waiters were surprisingly indifferent when we asked about it, but the dish displayed a really admirable hand with crisp pastry and soft custard filling, its flavor subtly but powerfully permeated by several kinds of onion (scapes, scallions, leeks, roasted Vidalias — whatever she can find, Johnson told me). It showed sensitivity to seasonal flavors and a canny knowledge of how best to showcase them.
A few entrées were outright failures: seared scallops with fennel, rhubarb, and pistachios ($25), for instance, the scallops undercooked and salty, the fennel and rhubarb nearly undetectable. House-made pappardelle with braised veal breast and spring vegetables ($18) was too thick and managed to be both gummy and tough; the veal was spongy, like tripe, and underdone. Other dishes were almost really good, like the braised and roasted chicken with chanterelles and barley, sugar snap peas, and ramp butter ($21), the chicken with a perfect dry, grainy texture — which doesn’t sound perfect, but too much chicken now is soggy from desperate brining — and an immaculate jus under it that felt perfectly French. The “almost” part was too much salt.
Desserts were very prettily presented, but the flavor and skill didn’t quite match the artful plating, as with the financiers accompanied by rhubarb sauce, crème fraîche, and candied almonds ($7). The golden almond cakes and cloudlike cream looked light, but were heavy and bland. Stick with the local cheese selection ($12), which you’ll see on the blackboard when you come in, or the dark, sumptuous chocolate pot de crème (pictured, $7) with citrus shortbread and Grand Marnier.
What 80 Thoreau offers is a welcoming atmosphere, clubbiness, and not unreasonably priced food that can be marvelously focused and make you very glad to live — or at least dine out — near a lot of farms. What it needs is a bit more consistency. But it has a locally trained chef who can easily become a local star — and who’s already serving a lot of very satisfied suburbanites.
80 Thoreau, 80 Thoreau St., Concord, 978-318-0008, 80thoreau.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.