Right in the heart of Boston's famous bustling North End - just down the street from the jam packed Mike's Pastry and the long lines at Giacamo's - lies a quaint little wine bar that you could almost miss if you were walking a bit too fast (which I'm often guilty of doing!).
Take a peak inside, and you'll see unique, hand-curated wine bottles lining the entire back wall. On the window, a hand-written menu describes the menu for the week. This tiny place - eight tables in total - feels cozy, romantic, and totally invites you in.
And that's when you realize something is a little different.
On August 1, 2013, the popular wine bar called Volle Nolle transformed into a pop-up restaurant called Whisk at 351. Unlike most other restaurants up and down this famous street, Whisk 351 is doing things a little bit differently.
We enter the quaint wine bar and immediately notice that the food is different. A quick look at the menu (African basil, corn truffle demiglace, and foie gras creme brûlée?) confirms that this is not your typical, old-world American Italian restaurant on Hanover Street. Whisk offers tasting menus that showcase local, seasonal ingredients using a combination of classic French techniques and more modern "avant garde" techniques.
We meet the owners of this pop-up, Executive Chef Jeremy Kean and Executive Pastry Chef Philip Kruta, who have a wealth of experience between them. Kean handles the savory portions of the menu, and has worked at Aquitaine, Garden at the Cellar, and Rialto. Kruta is the pastry guru, and trained at L'Espalier under pastry chef Jiho Kim. They have "popped up" at several cafes in Jamaica Plain, as well as at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Though the food is most certainly a highlight of Whisk (and I will go into their dishes in gory detail below), what I find most intriguing about Whisk is its commitment to helping those who have spent time in correctional facilities. Whisk partners with Haley House’s Transitional Employment Program, hiring and training interns by giving them real world experience working at Whisk.
We manage to catch Jeremy for a few minutes to chat a bit about this program.
Jeremy has a heart for these people for a few reasons. First, he admits that he used to get into trouble, and he himself spent a bit of time in jail in a former life. He sees a lot of potential in these folks, many of whom come out of prison 15-20 years later for drug-related offenses they committed in their teens. When they are released, they have absolutely no job skills and have no idea how to re-integrate into the real world.
Jeremy really enjoys training these folks, and has had over ten people go through his training regimen. He says his "success rate" is about 30%, which is remarkable considering the difficult job he is taking on.
Jeremy's eyes light up as he describes some of his experiences. "The first guy I ever trained - this is a great success story - I ended up placing him at Meyers & Chang, where he now works as a line cook."
Jeremy's dream is to set up a couple restaurants: a more casual one where trainees can learn basic cooking skills (e.g., how to fry an egg); and then a more upscale one (like Whisk 351), where the more advanced and passionate students can train even more rigorously.
Jeremy looks at his watch and realizes he should go prep, since a large wave of guests will soon be arriving.
Torri immediately makes us feel welcome by offering us a drink to start off the evening. She's just as impressed with these chefs as everyone else. We ask her whether she's tried all the food.
"Absolutely. And it's really good."
She's still amazed at how everything worked out so well. You see, it just so happened that Torri's chef was going on vacation the month of August. She found out from reading Eater that the Whisk guys were looking for a semi-permanent place to set up.
After a few conversations, Whisk at 351 became a reality. Now, three weeks later, Torri is amazed that the time has gone by so quickly. The popup is going full force and has been very, very popular.
We're so deep in conversation we hardly notice the amazing waft coming from the kitchen. They've just taken several hot loaves of bread out of the oven.
"We make all of our bread from scratch. It's baked right here."
There are two different loaves being served: a sunflower seed pistachio bread and a date thyme lemon bread. Both are served with a black garlic miso butter.
The server says to me, ""Phil's an amazing baker - his bread is incredible."
After one bite, I am hooked. The bread is indeed fantastic. Usually I don't try to fill up on bread, but in this case, we get seconds, and then thirds. It's deeply flavorful, soft and chewy, and has that perfect hard crust. How does he manage to pack so much flavor in a piece of bread?
And then the courses begin to come. We start with a Peasant Tomato Salad which includes roasted tomatoes, truffle corn, prosciutto, fennel pollen, mozzarella, and African basil. Artistic drops of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic reduction decorate the plate. Wine pairing: Dibon Cava Brut Reserve NV.
According to Jeremy, "except for the prosciutto, which is imported from Italy, everything else on the plate is local."
We both love the freshness of all the ingredients on the plate. The flavors come together nicely, and overall it is a lovely summer dish.
The next course is a single Sea Scallop served with corn three ways: crispy corn, crumbled corn shortbread, and corn purée. A single sesame topped crostini is sprinkled with "Thomas Keller garlic chips". Crispy pancetta and a creamy corn truffle demiglace complete the dish. Wine pairing: 2011 Domaine Talmard Chardonnay.
The dish is fantastic. The scallop is perfectly cooked, and I love the textural contrast provided by the crispy crostini, pancetta, and cornbread contrasting the soft scallop and the creamy demiglace.
The third course, a Beef Tartare, is served with a crispy crostini topped with a sunny side up quail egg, ginger crisp, and ginger cream. This is accompanied by a salad of brown butter capers and chives. A smear of tomato jam on the side completes the dish. Wine pairing: 2011 Tracce Nero D'Avola.
The beef tartare is well seasoned and very fresh. Bryan is pleasantly surprised at how "gingery" the ginger cream + crisp taste.
"I'm not used to restaurants adding so much ginger to a dish. I like it."
And then a fun, extra "off-menu" dish arrives. These are Mini Beef Caprese Prosciutto Sliders, which come with a tiny side of truffle fries. Wine pairing: 2008 Rimbert. The truffle fries really reminded me of the ones I love from Garden at the Cellar (which may not be an accident considering Jeremy used to work there). The sandwiches include "Phil's sourdough bread", which some publications have referred to as "the stuff of legends." The burger is simple yet delicious.
We then move onto a unique Gorgonzola Gnocchi, which comes with an oxtail marmalade, pickled apples, apple butter, and mustard seeds. Wine pairing: 2010 Donati Claret.
The gorgonzola sauce is not overly strong (which I like), yet it does add a unique element to an otherwise traditional combination of ingredients. I especially like how the apple butter and pickled apple pieces (which seem to have been compressed using molecular gastronomy techniques) add brightness and tartness to the rich and savory dish.
Chef Jeremy then comes out and personally presents us the next course.
"This next dish is a collaboration between myself and Phil. It's not a savory course, and it's not dessert. It's the bridge that ties them together."
This is the Foie Gras Creme Brûlée, which is paired with a 2011 Besitos Moscato.
Not only does the creme brûlée itself have a pleasant foie gras flavor, the dish comes with a seared lobe of foie gras on top. Additional accompaniments include strawberry "paper" (a thin, dehydrated sheet of strawberry), fresh strawberries, and white balsamic jam. Even though I don't really like foie gras, even I have to admit this dish is excellent. Bryan absolutely loves it and finishes the entire thing.
For our first "true" dessert, we enjoy a lovely Chocolate Hazelnut Praline Mousse, which is served with chocolate ganache, lemon curd, candied hazelnut, and brown butter. This is paired with an Infantado Ruby Port, which turns out to be a lovely pairing.
And finally, for our last course, Pastry Chef Philip finally comes out.
"I really wanted you to try this one."
This is a modern deconstructed Cherry Cheesecake, which includes a pile of graham cracker crumbs on one side and a caramelized white chocolate pistachio "sandwich" on the other side. Delicate, wafer-thin meringue slices hold together a flavorful pistachio flavored cream. It is not only elegantly presented, the flavor combinations are subtle but sophisticated.
We had arrived early, right at 5:30, to room with eight empty tables. By the time we are ready to head out, the tiny dining room is completely filled up.
We finish the meal sipping on Milla grappa, an unusual after dinner drink that is made by infusing chamomile into grappa made by Nebbiolo grapes. The chamomile most definitely cuts the harshness of the grappa, and overall I find the drink to be herbaceous, soothing, and a perfect way to end the evening.
It's quite clear to me that an incredible amount of labor - mostly of love - goes into each of these meals. You can tell these guys are pouring their hearts into each course. The two dedicated chefs show up in the kitchen at 8:30 AM every morning to begin prepping for the evening's meals. Because everything is made from scratch - from the bread and the flavored butter to the sauces and components of each dish - the chefs regularly work 16-hour days. It's absolutely crazy, but I have a feeling they are having the time of their lives right now.
It's not exactly clear how long this pop-up will be around. We know they are confirmed for at least the month of August and supposedly have this semi-permanent location through September. Where they will be next is anyone's best guess.
They are changing the menu once a week, so you could still go this week and next week, and experience something completely different. Do keep in mind that you have to reserve the 7-course tasting ($75) in advance, though you can still experience the 3-course ($45) and the 5-course ($65) without prior reservation (though why risk walking in when the entire restaurant only has eight seats!). Additional wine pairings can be added for $20, $30, or $40 respectively, or can be ordered by the glass or bottle (you are at a wine bar, after all!).
Considering how much work goes into a meal like this, they are charging a very reasonable price for this meal. Most restaurant serving food at this level are charging much more (e.g, No. 9 Park's 7-course tasting is $112; L'Esaplier's 3-course tasting is $90; 6-courses for $110; 80 Thoreau's 5-course tasting is $75; Craigie on Main's 8 course is $118; T. W. Food's 7 courses is $85). A three-course for $45 is only a bit more than Restaurant Week, and the food is so much better than a typical Restaurant Week meal.
Whisk at 351 is open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner. You can reserve at their website here.
Disclaimer: Whisk and Volle Nolle covered the cost of the meal and alcohol for this dinner. All opinions are my own.
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