When Kate and Trevor Smith started planning Thistle & Leek, their first restaurant, it was a different time. The couple met working at Craigie Street Bistrot, then went on to places like Le Bernardin, Ventuno, and Toro (her) and Dovetail, Straight Wharf, and Coppa (him). They were inspired by the little neighborhood restaurants they fell in love with in London and traveling around Europe on their honeymoon, and they wanted to create something similar. A gastropub, for lack of a better word, serving locally sourced, carefully considered food in a cozy, unpretentious atmosphere.
“Yes, we ate at high-end, beautiful, bucket-list restaurants,” Trevor says of their travels. “But what always charmed us the most were local little neighborhood restaurants, a lot being staffed by people who worked [at Michelin star restaurants] in their lives but were looking for a change. It fit who we are. It didn’t have to be a white tablecloth, $200 tasting menu. We could reach people at that same level doing more humble food.”
They found a location and, against all warnings from industry friends, fell in love with it. The Newton Centre restaurant, formerly Comedor, was a “Goldilocks space,” Kate says: not too big, not too small, just right. They signed the lease in late February.
Now comes the ominous rumble in the story — COVID, closure, hard choices. “We could have backed out, but we thought, ultimately, if we don’t do it now, then when will we get a shot again?,” Kate says. “This moment of ‘what do we do?’ — we’d rather just try and do what we can.”
Thistle & Leek opened in September, and eating here on the patio feels like a different time — a more normal time, when we gathered together with friends at the same table, shared food without thinking twice, and browsed cocktail lists with multiple options. A meal isn’t just a meal, but a reassuring break from change and complication, anxiety and loss. Plus, the lamb meatballs are really tasty.
Al fresco tables are comfortably spaced, many patrons masked until food arrives, a few neighborhood kids among them. (The Smiths have a 2-year-old daughter, so they alternate nights at the restaurant, one leaving when it’s time to pick her up and the other staying on to run service.) One can peek inside, at the open kitchen, dark wood banquettes, and sage green walls hung with vintage-y prints of produce and game. Thistle & Leek is installing Plexiglas barriers for its indoor seating, as well as looking into creative ways to get through winter: perhaps selling its own versions of frozen lasagna, or offering private classes in the space. Most of the restaurant’s menu is available for takeout, along with wine and some of the cocktails.
That menu is made up of small plates, all of which sound equally, confoundingly appealing. There are four to six in each category: snacks, veg, fish, meat, and “puds.” Tapenade toast or charred leeks with romesco sauce? Panzanella with squid and cranberry beans or roast hake with cauliflower, chickpeas, and piquillo peppers? Country pate with pickles or chicken with potatoes and mustard jus? How is one to choose? I vaguely remember a time when I felt a lick of small-plates ennui, and restaurants seemed to be edging away from them; after so many months of large-format dining (this sounds more glamorous than “home cooking”), the range of options now feels giddying, kaleidoscopic.
Rösti, the Swiss dish of crisp, golden shredded potatoes, is served with clam dip that is a tradition in Kate’s family, starting with her grandmother in the 1950s and appearing at most every gathering since: post-ski chalet meets chips and dip. For a simple and lovely take on the cheese course, plums are griddled until burnt in spots, then plated with house-made ricotta and digestive biscuits, the crunchy rounds that are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom.
Agnolotti are little golden parcels filled with chicken liver, the pasta served with cabbage, apple, and brown butter, autumnally savory and sweet. Crisp, golden, and greaseless, pork schnitzel is served over fingerling potatoes and cucumbers with a dollop of cherry mustard. (In his pre-Craigie days, after attending the Culinary Institute of America, Trevor bounced around Michelin-recognized kitchens for a couple of years: the Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury, England; Steirereck im Stadtpark in Vienna; the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. The schnitzel would seem to be a souvenir of his months in Austria.)
In a glass jam jar, savory pumpkin custard is topped with Maine uni, white soy, and thin-sliced scallions. This dish seems to sum up much about Thistle & Leek, its ingredients resolutely of this place and season, its inspiration (Japanese chawanmushi) on the other side of the world. And then there are those lamb meatballs, in a tomato and ginger curry with fluffy nan for dipping: a nod to Kashmiri rogan josh by way of the London curry house. Pudding time brings more choices: pear Bakewell tart with rooibos Chantilly cream; chocolate pot de crème topped with crumbled biscuits and espresso mousse; pavlova topped with coconut cream, stewed plums, and chopped hazelnuts.
The wine list is entirely European; beer hews more local, with offerings from Framingham’s Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company and Ipswich’s True North Ale Company alongside British, Belgian, and German brews. There’s also a nice selection of cider. Thistle & Leek’s cocktails include the Lady Stardust (vodka, sumac, and lemon) and the Factory Girl, a perfectly balanced combination of bourbon, Cynar, and lemon. Perhaps one of the finest pleasures of post-COVID dining, for those who partake, is having someone else make you a drink.
That’s part of why the restaurant is here: to serve its community. “Even in these strange times and with all the challenges, we’re so grateful to be running our own restaurant and doing this thing we’ve dreamed of since we met each other,” Kate says. “We hope that while people are here we can provide comfort and normalcy.”
“It’s why we’re in this industry,” Trevor says. “We’re chasing that little bit of joy we get when we can connect on a gastronomic level.”
105 Union St., Newton Centre, 857-404-0260, www.thistleandleek.com. Open Tue-Sun, 5-9 p.m. Plates $2-$19 each.