A fine focus on a meal done right
80 Thoreau’s well-crafted menu lets the ingredients shine
Let us now praise concise menus.
At 80 Thoreau, which opened in the Concord Depot in April, chef Carolyn Johnson keeps things short and sweet. Rather than dizzying diners with options, she lets them - and the kitchen - focus on a few.
There are seven appetizers: one soup, two salads, a crudo, and three dishes that are knock-your-socks-off, lick-your-plate delicious.
Tiny gnocchi, about the size of Chiclets, are seared until their sides are chestnut brown. This crisp surface contrasts with the dumplings’ soft innards. They are served with earthy morel mushroom, peas, herbs, and artichoke cream. The dish strikes the perfect balance between rich and light, comforting and exciting. The textures of the gnocchi are addictive. It is hard to stop eating, until they are gone.
Duck leg confit is a completely different dish successful for many of the same reasons - contrasting textures, bright flavors played against mellow ones. The skin crackles, the meat melts. On the plate are bits of hazelnut, sweet-tart cherries, and a little salad.
This is the time of year to enjoy soft-shell crabs, and it would be hard to find a better version than the one here, fried in light batter, bursting between the teeth, juicy and essential. A mouthful of crab is complemented by small, sweet hakurei turnips, fried chickpeas, and the warmth of harissa. The combination is exotic yet familiar.
There are eight entrees, each carefully composed, inventive but without unnecessary froufrou. Johnson has worked at Rialto, Arrows, Icarus, and Salamander. She lets ingredients shine, but not to the point of oversimplification. The dishes feel mature rather than showy.
Grilled lamb is served in slices, ruby rare at the center, with pea greens and fava beans. The meat is accompanied by two phyllo dough turnovers filled with braised lamb shoulder, apricots, mint, and other herbs. There is an underlying sweetness to the filling, lent by Lillet. This preparation will disappear when the peas and favas do. This is the sadness of seasonal eating, but also the thing that keeps us returning for more as the menu shifts and diversifies. What will we love next?
Perhaps fresh pappardelle, the noodles tender and golden, with herbs rolled ornamentally into the dough. They’re accompanied by the vegetables currently growing in and around Concord, and topped with generous pieces of braised veal.
Or seared scallops augmented by braised fennel, rhubarb beurre blanc, candied pistachios, and a pale green quenelle of the Greek puree skordalia, made here with pistachios in addition to potatoes.
To end the meal, there is a selection of local cheeses and four sweet offerings. A strawberry Napoleon is a transient pleasure, here while Verrill Farm’s strawberries are available. (It’s now being made with blueberries.) The fruit is layered with crisp rectangles of phyllo and strawberry fool. Profiteroles are impressive pastries filled with luxurious cinnamon ice cream and accented by coffee anglaise and a drizzle of maple caramel.
The offerings feel succinct rather than scant, a poem instead of a novel, saying simply what needs to be said. Each time I visit, the people with whom I’m dining remark upon how nice it is to find a carefully curated menu. There are so many choices in life. What to eat for dinner should not furrow one’s brow.
While the cooking here is serious, the mood is not. 80 Thoreau is incredibly, insanely loud, the other thing upon which everyone remarks. This is a prime location for commuters, right by the train station, and it doesn’t have a lot of competition in Concord. A space of white walls, wood floors, and dark beams, the restaurant is bigger than it at first appears. The bar area is always jammed, perhaps because of the excellent gin and tonics, mixed with house-made tonic water. One can also sit at a counter beside the open kitchen to watch the staff at work. Occasionally, there’s the rumble of a train going by.
The prevailing mood is country club casual. Guests wear madras shorts without irony. On a bench, blond girls sit in a row, tan and clad in white dresses, goddesses of summer. A man in a navy jacket and stiffly coifed hair reads the menu with wire-rimmed specs perched on the tip of his nose. “It’s very Concord,’’ whispers a dining companion.
Indeed, general manager and co-owner Ian Calhoun went to high school here. He and co-owner/maitre d’ Vincent Vela met at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. Calhoun went on to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, managed preppy hangout Bar Martignetti in New York, and went to Harvard Business School. Vela worked at New York restaurants such as Per Se and Craft. At 80 Thoreau, they merge their Manhattan experiences into one aesthetic - part clubhouse, part fine dining. There’s a burger on the bar menu, but the waiter inquires politely whether you’d prefer your tap water with or without ice. Still, the service hasn’t entirely caught up with the ambition - it’s attentive, with all the right lines, but occasionally awkward. One evening we get the same jokey spiel about the cheese plate twice - word for word.
Can the same establishment serve a community as both neighborhood and occasion restaurant? 80 Thoreau makes it seem possible. The dining room is just formal enough, the prices just reasonable enough. The wine list covers a range of tastes and budgets - a $32 rosé for a casual supper, a $130 Burgundy for a celebration. Bottles are listed by grape first, then appellation. If you don’t know St-Julien, you may not realize that “cabernet blend’’ is a Bordeaux. Here, pedigrees are understood, not stated.
80 Thoreau also offers about 20 half-bottles to complement a minimalist by-the-glass selection. Microbrews are from Massachusetts. The bar menu makes regular visits possible, offering affordable snacks such as gougeres and duck rillettes with brioche toast, along with a few bigger plates (a soft-shell crab sandwich, pan-fried skate), to bolster the after-work cocktail.
Sometimes variety, that spice of life, tastes like overseasoning. At 80 Thoreau, dinner is a well-edited pleasure.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.