Simplicity and sensibility
At Parsons Table, comfort food with a touch of class
Catch may have been the best local seafood restaurant people often forgot to remember. Located in Winchester, inland from harbor and bay, for many it was out of sight and out of mind. Earlier this year, chef Chris Parsons made a wise decision. He closed the place, which he plans to open anew in Boston or Cambridge when he finds the right location. And in March, he reopened the space as Parsons Table, the restaurant Winchester really needed.
Although seafood is still a strong presence, Parsons Table offers a more general menu of well-made, ingredient-driven comfort food. This isn’t a novel concept these days, but Parsons shows us how it should be done. The menu isn’t condescending or gimmicky or predictable. The ingredients are high quality. The cooking is top-notch. Parsons took third place at the Bocuse d’Or USA culinary competition in February, matching skills with chefs from esteemed restaurants around the country. He is a talent in the kitchen, where he appears night after night, visible through a window that opens onto the tiny bar.
The restaurant has been redone with reclaimed wood, dark red walls, and rustic accents. A barn star hangs on one wall, a blackboard with specials on another. Candles flicker in glass holders on the tables, and Ray Charles and Emmylou Harris play over the sound system. The place is full midweek.
It should be. Parsons’s dishes feature strong, clear flavors confidently prepared. Wellfleet clams are roasted on salt, then presented strikingly in a skillet alongside seared lemon slices. The clams’ briny flavor is complemented by bread crumbs flavored with chorizo and mojo, an herb-based sauce, here made with oregano. It’s clams oreganata by way of Spain.
Mussels, too, pair well with chorizo’s smoky flavor. It’s amplified by the addition of smoked tomato to the lobster broth in which the shellfish is steeped. The mussels are plump and perfect, but it’s this broth that makes the dish special, worth slurping by the spoonful.
An entree pairs trout with Maine potatoes and cipollini onions, the vegetables placed in a line and scattered with a confetti of pancetta cubes. The trout’s skin is incredibly crisp, the flesh incredibly juicy. The dish gets a lift from a sauce of grainy mustard and a sprinkle of chopped chives. It’s perfectly simple.
A swordfish special one night is similarly wonderfully seared and juicy, if slightly oversalted. It’s paired with Anson Mills grits and morels. The person who orders it declares, “This might be the best fish dish I’ve ever had.’’
But, truly, this isn’t just a seafood restaurant anymore. The kitchen shows its skill with other proteins, too. Chicken ballotine features tender medallions of rolled breast meat, served with brown butter risotto (surprisingly lemony), English peas, and pea leaves. Spring chicken!
Steak is perfectly cooked, served with cress and truffled mashed potatoes. There’s also a great burger, a foundation of delicious, grass-fed beef topped with roasted portobello mushrooms, balsamic onions, and Swiss. Both the pickles and potato chips are made in house. The burger is served on a not-too-squishy, not-too-hefty, just-right bun from Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery, also in Winchester. The excellent floury rolls that start each meal come from Mamadou’s, too.
Vegetables are an event at Parsons Table. There’s a lovely beet and goat cheese salad, boosted out of the ordinary by the inclusion of golden beets, mache, and pomegranate seeds. It’s a small serving, beautifully composed. Parsons Table’s portions are designed to sate not stuff.
Fiddleheads come as a side, flavored with lemon and ramp butter. One night, there’s a special of broccoli rabe flavored with anchoiade, the garlicky anchovy dip from Provence. Its balance of salt and bitterness is artful.
Of course, there is macaroni and cheese, available as a side. This is comfort food we’re talking about. It’s a very good version, made with Shelburne Farms cheddar, Niman Ranch ham, and a crispy bread crumb topping. The other pasta option on the menu is a letdown. It features hand-cut fettuccine, smoked chicken, tomato confit, and mascarpone. The pasta is slightly mushy, and the dish lacks the visual appeal of others here.
Dessert is a worthy end to dinner. There’s fondue, made with chocolate from Somerville’s Taza, served with cubes of cake and berries for dipping. Rice pudding is no homey classic. It tastes more like Asia than America, flavored with coconut, served with a lovely, pure pineapple sorbet.
Servers are friendly and mostly knowledgeable, affably admitting when there’s something they don’t know rather than trying to fudge the answer. Parsons Table’s pace is leisurely. Even when we’re the last people here, no one rushes us.
Like the menu, the wine list is small, well put together, and reasonably priced. A Christian Moreau Chablis is a very good seafood wine, mineral with a lemony tartness. Margerum M5, a Rhone-style blend of five grapes, is bursting with sweet, ripe fruit. Unfortunately, it’s served slightly warm.
Wine can be ordered by the half-glass, meaning one can have white with an appetizer, red with a main course, and still drive home safely. Selections are sustainable, organic, and biodynamic, from small vineyards — an appropriate accompaniment to the food, sustainably and humanely raised by small, often regional producers.
Parsons Table isn’t just the restaurant Winchester needed. Making comfort food interesting, combining a locavore sensibility with easy-to-swallow prices, it sets an example for others casting themselves in this mold.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.