Fresh Picked: How Local Chefs Work with Rhubarb

In our new series, Fresh Picked, we show you how local chefs work seasonal ingredients into their menus.

In Fresh Picked, contributor Bernie Leed gets into the kitchens of restaurants that are utilizing the best and freshest of what’s in season. First up: rhubarb.

Colorful, roasted rhubarb from UpStairs on the Square. All photos by Bernie Leed for Boston magazine.

Rhubarb is a confounding plant, no doubt—it’s awkwardly shaped but beautifully colored; inedible when raw, but delectable once cooked. So what to do with rhubarb, and where to find it? Plenty of Boston restaurants are offering creative solutions. This week brought me to Cambridge’s UpStairs on the Square, Back Bay’s Troquet, and the multi-located Clover (though I staked out the HUB location near Inman Square, if you must know). If strawberry-rhubarb pie is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this stalky plant, let these new creations change your mind.

Ayr Muir, CEO and President of Clover Food Lab, counts rhubarb among his favorite ingredients (the rhubarb printed t-shirts the company sells are a small testament to his enthusiasm). So too are the unconventional rhubarb drinks Clover serves its many eager customers. “The rhubarb agua fresca I think is really amazing,” says Muir. “I love the flavors of it. At the beginning of the season it’s a little more grassy, a little more tangy, and as the season goes on it gets more of a berry, fruity flavor. And I like that evolution of it.” Soda water gets a rhubarb treatment too, spiked with two shots of rhubarb syrup that’s poured from a maple syrup container. The refreshing beverages are perennial favorites, with the agua fresca a springtime staple since Clover’s first season in 2008. And if you don’t catch Clover’s many rhubarb creations in their final weeks—there’s also a compote that pairs well with granola or a crispy popover—Muir reassures they’re not gone for good. “When our supplier starts trying to send us stuff from, like, Oregon or Canada, is when we will stop doing it. But it will also be back next year at this time, which is really exciting.”

No technique is spared at Troquet, where an appetizer of Hudson Valley foie gras is prepared two ways—a torchon and a sear—and served alongside a rhubarb gelée. The rhubarb appears multiple times on the plate, often with enhancements of spiked ginger, elderflower syrup, Muscat grape, black pepper, sugar, and vinegar. The result is a dish complex and gorgeous enough to turn even the foie gras-averse into duck liver converts. But despite beautiful cuts of foie from New York’s Hudson Valley, rhubarb is no doubt the star, and chef/owner Scott Hebert (above left) looks forward to showcasing it. “The seasonal garnishes are just inspired by what’s best at that given time,” he says. “And rhubarb being a pretty good long season, we usually get bored with the winter season and jump into the rhubarb in really early spring.”

Bite into a piece of roasted rhubarb at UpStairs on the Square and your world may turn into a gilded pastel dreamland. Maybe you’ll see spots, or prancing zebras. Or maybe, you’ll suddenly realize, that’s just the décor of this very vibrant restaurant. But the food, especially a salad like this one with roasted rhubarb, is an appropriate response to the surroundings. Vibrant and kicky with black pepper and thyme-infused honey, this is one salad I wouldn’t groan to eat. But even with a generously slathered ricotta crostini topping the plate, the rhubarb stood out. Executive Chef de Cuisine Alison Hearn (above left) revealed the secret: “The thing that always used to bum me out about rhubarb is that when you cook it, it releases a lot of liquid and tends to cook down into a mush. So I read about the technique of roasting it, which keeps it actually whole and intact and preserves its beautiful color and also its texture and its flavor.”

Hearn divulged a few helpful tips for those that would like to attempt roasting at home: let batons of rhubarb macerate for a half hour in a bit of sugar and Muscat (or any dessert wine of your choice) in order to counter the tartness of the rhubarb and better prepare it for some time in the oven. When the dish leaves the menu, I’ll try that at home. But for now I’ll enjoy the effort from one of UpStairs’ cushy dining rooms.

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