Not all that long ago, it was unusual to find chefs shaping their menus around what was available in area farmers’ markets and fields. Then “local” and “seasonal” became buzzwords, a form of marketing for restaurants wanting to attract discerning diners. Now the buzzword phase has passed. From hotel restaurants to tiny, independently owned bistros, four-star properties to neighborhood joints, it’s a matter of course: Everyone is serving dishes that incorporate fruits and vegetables grown in New England.
Right now, we’re at the peak of the season. It’s a favorite time of year for those who love to eat; tomatoes and corn, eggplant and greens, peaches and melons, brightly flavored herbs and spicy chilies are all available. How are restaurants serving local, seasonal ingredients this year? We check in with a few to find out.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has its roots in Hong Kong and properties all over the world. Despite this international scope, executive chef Rachel Klein, who joined the hotel this year, is working to introduce local ingredients. At restaurant Asana, she features ingredients grown by the likes of Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth and Sparrow Arc Farm in Unity, Maine.
Klein loves to pair chicken with Sparrow Arc’s baby vegetables, from tiny potatoes the size of pebbles to miniature leeks, as well as carrots in vibrant purple and orange. Also on the menu is a summer salad of watermelon, heirloom tomatoes, and feta with mint, cilantro, and mizuna. It’s dressed in a funky vinaigrette made with dried musk melon, chilies, ginger, and Indian spices.
Bringing in locally grown produce is more of a challenge in an operation of the Mandarin Oriental’s size; it’s easier to do so at Asana than with, say, the hotel’s banquet program. But Klein and executive sous chef Andrew Beer are working on it. “I’m trying to get more farms into the Mandarin,” Klein says. “I’m just starting up some relationships.” She regularly prowls the nearby Copley farmers’ market to see what’s there, and she hopes the hotel can eventually grow some of its own ingredients on site. The Mandarin isn’t alone in its openness to small, local purveyors and sustainably grown ingredients. “You see hotels with bees and gardens and living rooftops,” Klein says. “Hotels can do a lot of things if they choose to do them.”
776 Boylston St., Boston. 617-535-8800, www.mandarinoriental.com/boston/dining/asana
We long all year for native tomatoes, so different from the store-bought version they almost seem another species. Rodney Murillo, executive chef at Avila, enjoys featuring them on his menus, particularly heirloom varieties. “The zebra tomatoes are my favorite,” he says. The stripy fruit’s lime color inspired him to riff on the Southern classic of fried green tomatoes.
The sliced tomatoes are marinated in a rub of local chilies, parsley, and mint, then cloaked in a very light, tempura-style batter and fried. Murillo serves them beneath pan-seared halibut, with local greens and lemon jam. Avila also gets some of its baby greens and tomatoes from Eva’s Garden.
Murillo likes heirloom tomatoes for their appearance as much as their flavor. “They aren’t consistently round and boring. They have different colors and textures,” he says. “I like them because they’re ugly tomatoes.”
1 Charles St. South, Boston. 617-267-4810, www.avilarestaurant.com
CEIA KITCHEN + BAR
At this cozy, brick-lined Newburyport restaurant, executive chef Patrick Soucy prepares dishes inspired by the cuisine of coastal Europe, using New England ingredients. (The name, pronounced SAY-yuh, means “supper” in Portuguese.) Working closely with nearby growers, such as Applecrest Farm in New Hampshire, he creates a new menu every eight weeks in order to make the best use of what is in season.
The latest version, launched last week, showcases the bounty of late summer. A salad of fresh herbs with citrus dressing changes daily, depending on what comes in from the farms. The same goes for the vegetables in cataplana, a Portuguese stew made here with rabbit, clams, and rice in ham broth with vinho verde. Tuscan kale appears in a riff on the Caesar salad. Seared Hudson Valley duck is complemented by nectarines, roasted turnips, and foie gras butter. And if you don’t like peaches (what’s wrong with you?), you might want to wait a few weeks before paying the restaurant a visit. The sweet, juicy fruit appears in everything from crostini with lardo and lavender honey to a salad with burrata, guanciale, and fig-balsamic glaze to a main dish of wild salmon with corn-and-farro ragout and Swiss chard. The corn and greens, of course, are local, too. Continued...