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/
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.
25 State St., Newburyport. 978-358-8112, www.ceia-newburyport.com
Chef Jim Solomon is a promiscuous purchaser of local produce. He orders through the organization Farm Fresh Rhode Island twice a week. He shops at the Brookline farmers’ market. He is a big fan of Stillman’s Farm, through which he also has a personal CSA share. He gets deliveries from Allandale Farm in Brookline. He and his wife spend a lot of time in Little Compton, R.I., where they enjoy visiting local farms and picking up sweet peppers or freshly ground cornmeal for the restaurant. “I do sort of patchwork buying,” he says.
On his honeymoon in Little Compton, Solomon often made salads for his wife. A version of one appears on the Fireplace menu, called, fittingly, “Honeymoon Salad.” It features raw corn, green beans, tear-drop tomatoes, greens, radishes, and mustard vinaigrette — along with whatever else Solomon happens upon.
Locally sourced salads are a specialty at the cozily named Fireplace, from heirloom tomato to watermelon and feta to arugula with white beans. “I wanted people to know the Fireplace is a nice place to visit during the summer,” Solomon says. “Whenever I’d talk to people, they’d say, ‘We go there in the winter.’ I’d think, No, no, please come in the summer. We need you, we lighten the menu, we’ve got all these great vegetables. Then it dawned on me that we probably needed more salads. I expanded the number of composed salads to about six.”
But the local produce appears all over the menu — for instance, in a dish of Tower Root Beer-braised pulled pork with corn and green bean hash and mint and fennel slaw. Even the root beer is from the region. Currently bottled in Rhode Island, it was first made in Somerville in 1914.
1634 Beacon St., Brookline. 617-975-1900, www.fireplacerest.com
When we think of local produce, fruits and vegetables are what usually come to mind. But don’t forget about flowers. At Menton, blossoms get the chance to taste as good as they look. Chef de cuisine Wyatt Maguire takes sunflowers grown at Sudbury’s Siena Farms and treats them like artichokes — which, he says, is sort of what they look like after they’re pared down to the heart. And how do they taste? “Kind of like how a sunflower smells,” Maguire says. “They have a slight artichoke taste and a really slight bitterness. They’re very floral, to say the least.”
The kitchen takes the sunflower hearts and prepares a barigoule, cooking them slowly with wine and aromatics until they are tender. During leek season, Menton’s staff preserved local King Richard leeks, packing them in olive oil. These leeks and the sunflowers appear with rye berries prepared in the style of risotto.
Menton also uses produce from Verrill Farm in Concord and Big Train Farm and Schartner Farms in Maguire’s native Rhode Island. Other seasonal preparations include simple salads: summer squash — from zephyr to golden to pattypan — served with ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms and sliced heirloom tomatoes with anchovy-saffron dressing. “We want to showcase the vegetables for what they are,” Maguire says.
354 Congress St., Boston. 617-737-0099, www.mentonboston.com