"After you get off Route 2, run right on Walden Street, and then turn left on Thoreau."We chuckled a bit as we listened to ourselves talk, but we weren't making this up. These are actual street names in Concord, Massachusetts, a town about 45 minutes north of Boston. In fact, the legendary Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau penned his famous book Walden is just down the street from our destination.
And yes, it's that Concord - the historic other half of "Lexington and Concord".
I was in a car with three of my other female friends. We were going out solo - without the husbands - to celebrate my friend Liz's birthday. We wanted to go somewhere special, yet we also had to take into the major consideration that Liz was very very (we're talking close to nine months) pregnant (aka no fancy sushi or grand wine pairings).
Our choices were immediately limited severely by the fact that Liz's birthday just happened to land on the day of Boston University's graduation.
Uh oh. Every single reasonably nice restaurant in Boston was booked solid. A brief search through Opentable gave very unsatisfying results.
Thankfully, Liz decided to go outside the box (and the city) and found us a reservation at 80 Thoreau in Concord. Yes, we would have to drive out a bit, but the reviews for the place were stellar, and Liz had managed to book us the most exclusive and special seats in the house.
Open since April 2011, 80 Thoreau is the brainchild of Ian Calhoun and Vincent Vala, two friends who vowed they would open a restaurant together someday while they were students at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
It didn't happen immediately. Ian spent some time in Paris before moving to New York. He finally returned to Massachusetts to study business at Harvard. Vincent spent time in Florida post- graduation before moving to New York to gain experience working with Thomas Keller at Per Se and Tom Colichio at Craft.
Finally, in 2011, they were able to come back to Concord, the historic town where Ian grew up, to open up their first restaurant. They brought on board Chef Carolyn Johnson, who has cooked at many top restaurants in Boston, such as Salamander, Icarus, and more recently, Rialto.
80 Thoreau is located right at the Commuter Rail station in Concord. Even if you don't have a car, you can take the commuter rail almost straight to the restaurant's door steps. 80 Thoreau sits right next to the train station. Some say you can even hear the rumble of trains going by on occasion (we did not hear any during our meal).
Though the restaurant's at the top of these long, menacing stairs, there's a nice elevator around the corner, which Liz was only far too happy to use.
The menu consists of New American dishes inspired by local and seasonal ingredients. Concord is actually near several farms, which allows the restaurant great access to some hyper local produce. Appetizers (or "first courses" as they are called on the menu) range from $8-$14 while entrees hover between $23-$31. There's also a bar and a bar menu, which includes both small "bar bites" ($4-$12) and "bar plates" ($14-$15) which could easily be dinner on a casual weeknight.
You can't tell from the photo, but the ambiance is lively and reasonably relaxed. The space is surprisingly large, with a reasonably sized bar area and two dining rooms.
The best seats in the house, however, are at the chef's counter. There are only four of these exclusive seats in the entire restaurant.
At the chef's counter, you get front row seats to all the action that's happening in the kitchen. It's fascinating to watch how a perfect steak is grilled, what steps are involved in making tempura lemon "confit", and why you need warm hands to form the perfect ice cream canelles.
I asked our server if there was another kitchen elsewhere, and she said no. You are seeing everything right in front of you (it's immaculate, might I add).
But the best part of the chef's counter is the access to the special Tasting Menu. The Tasting Menu is only offered on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with two seatings a day: one at 5:45, the other at 8:30. That's a maximum of 24 seats a week.
The menu changes weekly, is kept "under wraps" until service, and almost always features current seasonal ingredients created with extra oomphs of creativity. Because of the small amount of diners per week, the chef is able to use more luxurious ingredients and time/labor-intensive techniques to create some pretty unique dishes.
We couldn't wait to get started.
We began with a Pisco Sour amuse. It was bright, full of citrus, just a tad of a sparkle - a perfect way to begin the tasting menu.
Along with the cocktail came another amuse of these baby French Breakfast Radishes, which were smeared with herb-infused butter (sage, rosemary, and thyme).
"The cocktail's not too sweet," said my friend, Christina.
I'm not a huge fan of sweet cocktails in general, and I often find them to be too sweet. I agreed with Christina though, this cocktail was perfectly fine.
Christina and I are kindred spirits in some ways. We both have relatively small appetites and struggle with finishing tasting menus. We lamented about how oftentimes the last course in a tasting menu just doesn't taste good to us. It's not because it's actually a bad dish, it's usually because we are so full we have absolutely no ability to enjoy food by that point.
I told her my typical game plan, developed through the constant tasting menus I've experienced in the past several years:
1) Don't be afraid to start packing leftovers, even if you are only on course 3 of a 5-6 course tasting.
2) Eat slowly.
3) Don't fill up on bread.
Famous last words.
The freshly baked bread (whole grain and light sourdough) soon arrived. We found out it was from Iggy's in Cambridge and it was fantastic. We all especially loved the sweet, nutty wholegrain bread and couldn't get enough of it.
"I totally want to stop by Iggy's in North Cambridge and pick up a loaf of this bread."
Within ten minutes, not a single sliced of wholegrain bread remained on the table.
So much for my game plan.
The first official course, "Chilled Asparagus" came served over asparagus chèvre and topped with microgreens tossed in a truffle Merlot vinaigrette. Wild flowers from mustard and chives completed the fresh spring look of this dish.
The truffle aroma was intoxicating yet subtle enough that it did not overpower the dish. My friend Liz longed for more mustard flowers, which she felt added a unique grassy and forward element that enriched the rest of the dish beautifully.
"That is the best asparagus dish I've ever had in my life," said Liz.
The next dish was phenomenal, and my personal favorite bite of the evening. The lovely Smoked Scallop Raviolis were handmade and possessed that perfect soft but chewy texture. We couldn't get enough of that incredible scallop and potato filling.
After inquiring a bit more, we learned that the scallops are cured for two days with citrus, salt, sugar, and herbs before being smoked at very low heat over hickory chips for a long time.
We absolutely loved the intense smokiness of the scallops (it was almost like there was bacon in there, even though there was not!), which combined nicely with the potatoes inside the ravioli. The pea puree (and fresh peas!) added a lovely spring touch to the whole bite.
For our third course, we had the Seared Tilefish, which was so soft we could easily cut it with a fork. It was served over sea beans (a legume), a bed of sweet, creamy parsnip puree, and a "tempura confit lemon slice" (which we'd watched them fry earlier right in front of us!).
The flavors of this dish were quite good. We all agreed that the lemon was a necessary component in each bite, mostly for the tart balance that it brought to the dish, but also for the crunch.
The tasting menu was already screaming Spring! yet there was more to come. Our final course consisted of a Roasted Rabbit Loin that was artfully rolled up with mushroom risotto and ramp leaves with rabbit jus. This was served alongside various springtime components, such as braised morel mushrooms (yum), spring greens tossed with a chardonnay vinaigrette, and a deeply flavorful puree made from fava bean shells (can you believe that?), anise, and cumin. It was wonderfully earthy and even my friend Beata, who hates the taste of licorice, loved the fava bean puree.
The rabbit meat was admitted just a bit on the dry side, but the flavors of the overall dish were excellent. I even brought home some leftovers for Bryan to try (remember the game plan?), and he said the rabbit loin was his favorite course in terms of overall flavor.
For our "pre-dessert", we enjoyed a simple refreshing sorbet of muscat grapes over some cookie crumbs.
I'm a huge fan of olive oil desserts, so it's no surprised that I loved our final course. We had tiny little Olive Oil Rosemary Cakes which were served with extra virgin olive oil ice cream (yum!), olive oil powder, honey comb candy, and orange gel. Pastry chef Katherine Hamilburg, who used to work at Bergamot, is extremely talented and makes exquisite desserts.
I am so inspired to go home and make some olive oil cakes and ice cream. Heck, I might even whip out my molecular gastronomy kit and try to make some olive oil powder!
We had a lovely time at 80 Thoreau. The staff was accommodating to our needs and took great care of us. They made a special virgin cocktail for Liz for the first course, and answered all her questions - everything from whether the cheese was pasteurized to the intricate methods used to make certain dishes. The food is excellent and I think chef Carolyn Johnson is doing a great job exhibiting New England's seasonal ingredients in a sophisticated yet approachable way. This is definitely one of the best meals I've had in the suburbs of Boston.
We did feel that the tasting menu moved a bit too slowly. We booked the 8:30 seating and didn't finished everything until close to 11:30PM. It's one thing to spend 3 hours enjoying a nine-course or twenty-three course menu. Five courses over three hours is most certainly on the slow side. If we weren't enjoying each others' company so much, we may have gotten a bit annoyed. I think we were the last people to leave the restaurant.
Other than that, the entire experience was quite pleasant and I can totally see why this place is so popular. There aren't that many options in this part of the city, and 80 Thoreau captures the winning balance of excellent food, attentive service, and a warm and friendly ambiance.
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