Four Reasons to Revisit Bergamot
Bergamot’s Keith Pooler has had the kind of storied culinary career most chefs could only dream of having: a stint at Michael O’Keeffe’s River Café in Brooklyn, extensive training with Gray Kunz at the luxurious Lespinasse, and turns at Excelsior and Scampo under Lydia Shire. But there’s one blemish on his résumé that has usurped all the accolades and success stories and driven him to become the chef he is today.
“Ilo was probably the best restaurant that never made it,” Pooler says, of chef-owner Rick Laakkonen’s now defunct Midtown spot, formerly located inside the Bryant Park Hotel. “It was a who’s who of today’s industry. I trained Jeremiah Bacon, who now runs Macintosh in Charleston. We had Kim Anderson doing the wine program. We had Patrick Coston doing pastry. I mean, we had Francisco Magoya as an assistant pastry chef. I couldn’t put that team back together if I tried. We got this awesome three-star review. We made the back page of Gourmet magazine. We were winning all the awards we were supposed to win. Then 9/11 happened and it chopped the restaurant right off of its foundation.”
The rare chocolate tempering machine, the tableside service, the climate-controlled pastry room; none of it made a difference. Even Anthony Bourdain’s book release party for a A Cook’s Tour inside Ilo couldn’t undo the damage wrought by 9/11. So, Pooler decided to come home.
“My end all goal was always to come back to Boston, so I made up my mind to come back to Massachusetts and establish myself,” says Pooler. “I’m not bitter about what happened at Ilo. In fact, I’m grateful for the opportunity. But it did give me something to strive for.”
After graduating from Shire’s kitchens, Pooler opened Bergamot in 2010 and began the process of reassembling a staff that could compete with his crack team of “movers and shakers” at Ilo. Four years later, Pooler finally feels like he’s captured that same remarkable camaraderie.
“I’m definitely in my happy place,” Pooler says. “It’s always going to be a work in progress, but we’re getting there. I’ve surrounded myself with people who care and take this seriously. There’s a distinct line between what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s no real gray in what we do. We’re shooting to be perfect.”
Here are four reasons why you should be revisiting Bergamot.
1. Reinventing the Classics
Inspired by a creamed mushroom dish mentioned in the Colman Andrews autobiography, My Usual Table, Pooler has been playing around with classic techniques and forgotten flavor combinations. In his first homage to these vintage recipes, he’s combined chanterelles, maitake mushroom, and the last of the season’s peak morels with pickled Red Torpedo Onions and grilled pugliese bread from Nashoba Bakery. On top he places delicate pea tendrils and a rich cream sauce that’s been reduced down with shallot and thyme.
“I want to get back to more basic food, more classical food,” Pooler says. “That’s an avenue not many people are exploring because they don’t have the knowledge nor the skills to do them anymore. People miss them! One of the things I like to do is create dishes people can relate to, but execute them with the finesse and skills of someone who has been cooking professionally for 20 plus years.”
Sous chef Dan Bazzinotti launched the Bergamot charcuterie program three months after opening with a handful of recipes handed down from Pooler. Now you can find any conceivable pâté, rillette, or mousse thanks to Bazzinotti’s encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. One evening you’re wowed by a pigs head pop-over, pickled green strawberries, and pork belly butter. The next you’re swooning over duck salami, Kabanosy-style Polish sausage, and his “Not Yet Award Winning” head cheese. Bazzinotti’s restless energy, not to mention his seemingly boundless repertoire, make it possible for him to swap out an entire charcuterie menu nightly, if not twice during the course of service.
“I knew even at the beginning that I wanted to do something different, something that would set my plate apart from the many others in the city,” Bazzinotti says. “One unique thing I started to do was pair items with non traditional garnishes. That soon evolved into three classic items and what I deemed a “wow factor” item; some crazy and creative item that I put on the plate to surprise the guest and keep them guessing.”
Variations have even included a meatless menu with beet mousse, vegetarian chorizo, and white bean pâté. Pooler is so impressed with his sous chef’s immersion in artisanal salting, smoking, and curing, that’s he plans on making it a focal point of BISq, his upcoming new restaurant in Inman Square.
3. A Better Way to Imbibe
Two Craigie on Main veterans have turned Bergamot’s eight barstools into the most coveted places to enjoy a cold one. Wine director Kai Gagnon’s list—with bone-dry Normandy ciders, vintage oxidative wines (a 1968 madeira?), and grower champagnes—is always enthralling. Then there’s bar manager Paul Manzelli’s fantastic cocktail selection with house-made syrups, soda, and vermouths. “We move with the seasons,” Manzelli says. “Just like the beer, the wine, and the food in the kitchen, it changes frequently.”
A summer rose vermouth and raspberries are currently being whittled down and replaced with peach-infused brandy, strawberry syrup, and a quaffable milk punch. And in between that Le Québécois (rye, dry vermouth, Punt e Mes, and Luxardo Maraschino) and Bergamot’s immensely popular “I’ll Have Another” (Four Roses bourbon, mint, lemon, ginger beer) Manzelli often doles out his boozy version of an amuse-bouche. These gratis treats have included house-made amaros, experimental vermouths, and a bitter liqueur made from dried orange peel, herbs, and roots. “They’re designed just for fun,” Manzelli says. “It’s my little way of saying thank you.”
4. Savory Desserts
Kelcey Rusch describes herself as an “accidental pastry chef,” her favorite ingredient is salt, and she admits her most popular desserts are also her most divisive. “I’m a very textural person that’s obsessed with non-sweet flavors,” Rusch says. “Often I approach building plates like writing an essay. All of the parts—thesis, supporting statement, and conclusion—have to be present. For me, the essentials are usually creamy, crunchy, acidic, nutty, and what I call the ‘fifth element,’ that last keystone that isn’t necessary, but makes the plate come alive.”
Rusch’s predilection for weaving in savory elements can be found in combinations like her tomato sorbet paired with goat cheese cheesecake; pumpernickel cake peppered with beets and pistachios; and deconstructed banana pudding with sliced bananas, burnt-caramel chocolate ice cream, chocolate wafers, peanuts coated in cinnamon and salt, and a butterscotch puddings finished with white miso.
“I have two tactics, one of which is to find one or two flavors I feel really strongly such as peaches and parmesan, and flesh out the plate with complementary flavors and interesting garnishes,” she says. “The other, which you see exhibited in the banana pudding, is just to take something classic and tweak it enough to make it my own and make it memorable.”
118 Beacon St., Somerville; 617-576-7700 or bergamotrestaurant.com.