Dinner guests normally don’t expect to be served mustard gelato or swordfish pastrami in a New England farmhouse, but that’s what you get at Puritan & Company in Cambridge, where the chandeliers are made of Mason jars and stuffed pheasants watch over diners eating chef Will Gilson’s inventive takes on traditional dishes.
Gilson, who opened the popular Cambridge gastropub Garden at the Cellar in 2007, gets more high-end here, pairing crispy sweetbreads with shaved truffle, black trumpet mushrooms, and rich dots of bone marrow and mushroom mousse. But he knows when to keep it simple — grilling oysters in their shells and letting them swim in nothing but their own smoky, briney goodness — and when to have fun with stodgy throwbacks such as boiled dinner and hardtack crackers.
It’s an epicurean adventure and, for the most part, it’s working. Puritan & Company was a semifinalist for a 2013 James Beard award for best new restaurant.
Gilson took a page from his father’s restaurant in Groton, the Herb Lyceum, a 19th-century carriage house featuring elegant dishes made with produce from the family farm. The chef works with local farmers and fishermen at Puritan, including his parents, who supply herbs and lettuces. His family goes back 13 generations in New England, descended from ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and the name Puritan & Company reflects both Gilson’s heritage and the Puritan Cake Company that the building used to house.
On a recent Saturday night, Puritan, on the less-bustling east side of Inman Square, is the belle of the block. Every seat at the long bar is taken, and the pine-topped tables and black-and-white upholstered banquettes are all occupied. In the middle of it all, a young boy colors a picture surrounded by in-the-know Cambridge foodies while Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin play on the stereo. A butter churn from Gilson’s grandfather’s farm sits on a shelf high above the bar, a hutch from the chef’s childhood pantry functions as a server station, and a shiny 1920s stove from the Herb Lyceum is the hostess stand. The lighting, with battery-powered tea lights flickering behind the bar, is perfectly dim and glowy — revealing exposed ductwork painted the soft blue-gray of the walls and shelves stocked with meat grinders and vintage cookbooks.
We sit at the charcuterie bar off the kitchen, watching two cooks construct broccoli and barley salads and arrange oysters on beds of ice. It’s fun to see the workers create our gougeres, filling cheese pastry puffs with a cheddar Mornay sauce from a squeeze bottle. But it’s disappointing when they leave them in the toaster oven a little too long. Gilson wanders out of the kitchen several times, pencil tucked behind his ear, to inspect plates before they are taken to the dining room. A remarkable number of the male kitchen and bar staff have beards, including Gilson.
Our waitress knows her wines. She aptly describes the Huber Austrian sparkling rose’s “hint of strawberry,” and another rose’s “almond paste” nuttiness, and steers us toward a bottle of spicy Jean-David Cotes du Rhone. The beer selection is much smaller, but equally well curated, and almost entirely from Massachusetts breweries, including a tasty habanero rye ale on tap from Night Shift Brewing in Everett and an IPA from Wormtown Brewery in Worcester. Just don’t come craving a cocktail, because the restaurant doesn’t yet have a full liquor license.
The menu is a carnivore’s delight: gamy lamb belly with a pleasantly bitter Moxie soda glaze; big veal shin bones packed with soft, fatty marrow topped with shallots and lemon. The short list of “hearty” items on the menu include a meaty grilled cobia with seared-crisp leaves of escarole and pease porridge; a tender lamb chop paired with funky house-made sausage; and chicken, deconstructed into stacks of moist, crispy-skinned squares of thigh meat and slightly chalky barrels of breast meat, sitting atop a sunchoke puree and draped with salty turnip greens.
The wood-roasted Muscovy duck is a revelation — dark pink, almost veal-like slabs of tender breast covered with browned, delightfully fatty skin — accompanied by mushroomy quinoa, a long piece of salsify (a white root vegetable that tastes slightly like artichoke), and a tangle of hen of the woods mushrooms.
A few items put a fresh spin on old-fashioned cuisine. The delicious Wagyu steak does it in the form of “boiled dinner veg” that turns out to be an artful array of slender carrots, turnips, and Brussels sprouts on a griddled cake of thinly sliced potatoes. Even a seemingly simple cauliflower soup, rich with brown butter and punched up with a yogurt tang, gets an unusual touch: a stick of brik pastry sprinkled with granola placed across the top of the bowl. It’s a little tough, but beautiful.
Attempts at creativity occasionally go off the rails, as with the slow-poached cod drowned in an overpowering squash-ham broth and topped with foam. The swordfish pastrami appetizer is just plain odd: mushy, gefilte-fish-like ribbons with a smoky corned-beef flavor, a smear of pumpernickel, and a startling scoop of cold mustard gelato.
This penchant for contrasting flavors and textures flows into the dessert menu, too, in a Pavlova that pairs mouth-puckering grapefruit and sugary disks of meringue, prompting a table-mate to exclaim, “I feel like my tongue was in a street fight.” The other sweets are more successful, although beware the butterscotch pudding. It’s creamy-caramely-tangy heaven on one night, burnt and sour on another.
Gilson clearly has an affection for both modern and classic American cuisine. Diners who start the meal with bone marrow mousse and mustard gelato will end it with notecards accompanying the bill that are printed with recipes for codfish dinner or cream chicken and lobster Newburg.
Whatever he’s doing, the culinary gods approve. In addition to his restaurant’s James Beard award, Gilson, who is 30, made the semifinals for “rising star chef of the year.” The chef and his restaurant didn’t make the final cut, and he has some kinks to work out, but Gilson is not afraid to experiment, and sometimes fail, and that’s as it should be.