It’s hard to package creativity in tiny little boxes. It shines on ceramic plates handmade by a local potter friend. It grows amok in jars of miso and containers of kimchi. It flourishes in community, when likeminded experimentalists come together to make things, and share them with those who appreciate the wild things they make. Creativity is the way of life at Jamaica Plain’s Brassica Kitchen + Cafe, and this year the people behind the restaurant — people who also don’t fit well in tiny little boxes — are working hard to sustain themselves, those around them, everything they’ve built.
A decade ago, Jeremy Kean had just returned from a lonely stint growing weed on the side of a mountain in California when he connected with Philip Kruta. The two chefs — Kean had worked at Rialto and No. 9 Park, Kruta at L’Espalier — formed a pop-up called Whisk that gained a cult following. It was the proto-Brassica. When a space across from the Forest Hills T became available, they moved in and set up shop with Jeremy’s older sister, Rebecca Kean, who manages the restaurant.
By day, it’s a cafe, serving coffee drinks, sandwiches, and baked goods, everything made from scratch. At night, things get wonderfully weirder, the menu rich with the kitchen’s riffs on miso and tamari; “black fruit,” incubated in the style of black garlic; and everywhere little bits of this and little bits of that whipped into butter, steeped in leftover wine, and otherwise reengineered to taste delicious and new while getting rid of as little as possible. At Brassica, the goal of producing zero waste is both a main focus and a major driver of invention.
“What I’ve built culture-wise and with our team over the last few years has been a place of community and family and shared passion,” says Jeremy Kean. “Really taking the time to figure out who people are and what their language is and talking to them in that language; figuring out where they want to grow and creating positions and facilitating that growth — that’s where my passion stands, besides making stuff that people like.”
This has been a challenge over these last months. “It’s been heavy,” Kean says. “Keeping this alive, we’re changing the goal to now we just want to see people working. To see all that growth and passion disappear has turned the environment into something completely different. I don’t know if any of us would take the position we have now, in a regular world. There are a lot heavier issues. Our emotional state as cooks doesn’t totally matter. But that doesn’t change that it’s there.”
And yet Brassica still feels like Brassica. The menu is always in flux, adhering to some basic concepts: There will be fried chicken — with salty plum maple syrup and cabbage; in several iterations of sandwich, from Buffalo chicken with blue cheese to General Gao’s; over waffles for weekend brunch, which also brings a full complement of egg sandwiches and Hong Kong French toast. There will be a Wagyu burger with smoky daikon; Brussels sprouts with maple, lemon, and miso; the endive salad Kean mentor Jody Adams used to serve at Rialto.
And courtesy of another partner, beverage director Noah Todoroff, there will be intriguing wine selections and cocktails incorporating ingredients that don’t tend to show up in cocktails: soy milk, fermented peppers, ras al hanout, spirulina, the algae staining the perfectly balanced, whiskey-based Meguro #1 a charming, alarming deep blue-green.
Kean and Todoroff recently launched a new project, Juice Box Ferments, selling monthly boxes of fermented juice and other oddments. January’s offering is already sold out. “The reason I believe in what Noah’s doing so much is he has the brain of a cocktail builder. He’s trying to build fermented juices in the same way as building cocktails. I’m not going to say it hasn’t been done before, but I haven’t seen it,” Kean says. In addition to fruit wine, the box might include a loaf of bread, kimchi, apple butter, miso: “I have probably 100 different misos spread out all over my life.” Kean is also working on a collaborative pop-up that will bring together chefs from all over Boston. The concept: Never do the same thing twice.
On a recent weekend, my household orders something called The Ride for 2, plus a kid’s dish of buttered noodles. The Ride is aptly named, a whirlwind tour of flavors and ideas: Earthy beets cloaked in yogurt, with pistachios and snipped herbs. Popcorn chicken, crunchy nuggets that deposit a mellow heat in the back of the throat. A dish based around A4 wagyu beef that defies category while maintaining deliciousness. There are caramelized onions in there, and endive, mushroom, Parmesan, thyme. It’s not a salad. It’s … a savory composition, based around really good, really tender meat.
There’s a take on Thai pad krapow, with chicken, sweet potato, squash, and coconut rice. Cassoulet is secretly Thai food, too. There’s cod and a decoratively incised link of lemongrass sausage with roast fingerlings and prosciutto in red curry sauce, a brilliant dish leaning heavily toward fieriness. And no one is mad to find in one box a cannoli doughnut, the bulky, yeasty bun rimed with confectioners’ sugar and filled with sweet-sour goo, like a more liquid form of cream cheese frosting.
Even the noodles are great, long, kinked, chewy strands buttered generously, a tub of coarse flaked Parmesan on the side.
It’s hard to package creativity in tiny little boxes. It’s hard to make takeout feel like a surprise, an adventure. It’s hard to communicate a vision when the product is delivered practically contact-free: Customers dash in, pick up, wave goodbye. But it feels as though Brassica Kitchen + Cafe is finding ways to do all of that, even if it doesn’t always feel that way to the people doing the finding.
“We are noticing, through the emotional strife, that we are figuring out a little more about ourselves and what we want, how to share that and achieve it together. We are figuring out how we come out on the other side of this passionately,” Kean says. “It is a huge silver lining.”
3710 Washington St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4519, www.brassicakitchen.com