At Nudel restaurant in Lenox, a food adventure on the plate
Nudel’s creative spirit starts with its chef
LENOX - If you see something you like on the menu at Nudel, a cozy downtown restaurant here, order it now. The dish may not be there tomorrow.
But it’s easy for Nudel’s fans, and anyone curious about chef-proprietor Bjorn Somlo’s penchant for culinary invention, to keep up: the evening’s menu is posted online around 5 p.m. each day (the restaurant tweets updates on the go). Nudel turns the neat trick of garnering loyal patrons while constantly changing offerings. Its menu reflects both the whimsy and restlessness of a young chef-auteur, and the vagaries of seasonality and the irregular yield of small farms. Apple salad dressed with maple vinaigrette may sit on the menu alongside house-made spaetzle with duck confit or perhaps boar meatballs served in cherry sauce and topped with radish salad. Root vegetables, meats, and pickled items predominate during the chilly months.
“It’s not for everyone, but it’s for someone who wants to go on a food adventure. You feel like you’re getting a taste of another human being’s creative spirit,’’ observes writer Dan Shaw, a regular diner.
Somlo, 32, has emerged as an unlikely rising star since he opened this distinctive little spot in August 2009. A food service veteran since his youthful days washing trays for the church-run food concession at the Chatham, N.Y., county fair - not far from the Berkshires, where he moved as a teen - he skipped formal training to learn his craft on the job at a series of restaurants in New Orleans and the Northeast including Great Barrington’s Verdura Cucina Rustica and Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, N.Y.
Last year he was a nominee for the James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year and was a semi-finalist earlier this year for best chef of the Northeast. This month, Food & Wine magazine selected him as one of 10 finalists for its reader-voted award for the best new chef in New England.
In Nudel’s pinched, rectangular dining room, which seats 27, a single row of two-top tables leads to a handsome wooden bar where diners sit on backless chairs and peer into the open kitchen. There, Somlo - typically wearing a newsboy cap and bobbing his head to quiet indie rock or, as on a recent evening, a David Bowie-theme Pandora station - crafts his signature dishes.
The chef is a soft touch for farmers with an unexpected surplus. “He’s always up for trying anything that we offer,’’ says Jennifer Salinetti, who runs Woven Roots Farm in neighboring Lee with her husband, Peter, “and he turns any of our crops into a masterpiece.’’
The growers once brought Somlo some 10-pound bulbs of gigante kohlrabi. He responded by whipping up a Caesar-inspired salad featuring the uncommon vegetable, with purple potatoes, lentils, crushed potato chips, Parmesan, and Caesar dressing.
“If you have way too much broccoli, we’ll figure it out,’’ Somlo says of his attitude toward suppliers. That particular problem has sometimes been solved with a spicy peanut butter soup that includes the florets.
Somlo seeks to source most ingredients locally, but manages to keep the highest-ticket entrees around $25. Hearty pasta meals are a fixture. (Small plates, perhaps the heart of the enterprise, go for $10.) It helps that he enjoys the challenge of putting undervalued cuts of meat to good use; he brings a fine-dining sensibility to pig’s feet and lamb’s neck. This fatty lamb meat might be marinated in a no-frills mixture of red wine, garlic, mustard, and rosemary, then braised before roasting - or turned into confit served with saffron-carrot puree, black olive salad, red onions roasted with chili peppers and orange rind, and juicy orange segments.
David Wurth, who for years had been chef de cuisine at SoHo’s pioneering locavore haunt Savoy, assisted Somlo in the kitchen during Nudel’s first year. “It’s a very thoughtful approach to how to put a dish together with three or four or five ingredients that are all somehow going to find a way to work,’’ he says. “What he’s doing is exciting and fun and unexpected and challenging. You say, I’m just going to go in and see what happens.’’
And if the boar meatballs have vanished, there’s always tomorrow.
Nudel , 37 Church St., Lenox, 413-551-7183, www.nudelrestaurant.com