See star ratings at the end of the article.
The suburbs are still hungry.
The past few years have seen the opening of more and better restaurants outside the city, where costs are lower, competition gentler, parking easier to come by. Each opening brings an outsize burst of speculation and excitement from those who live in the area. The message is clear, from north to south and east to west: We need this.
I hear it on a recent night at a new restaurant in Franklin. "This is really the only place to go that feels like eating in the city," says a dining companion and resident.
I hear it on a recent night at a new restaurant in Lexington. "I hear good things," says a hopeful longtime local with her ear to the ground. It is the middle of the week and the place is full.
The two are sister restaurants, spinoffs of Artistry, a catering and events company. In Franklin, AK Bistro is part of Artistry Kitchen, which also comprises a specialty-food market and a space for demonstrations and tastings. In Lexington, Artistry on the Green is attached to boutique lodgings, the Inn at Hastings Park. Both restaurants opened this year, the former in February and the latter in April.
That is a lot of moving parts, a lot of potential for things to go awry. AK Bistro chef Rachel Miller (Bondir Concord) departed last month, joining the staff at Clio in Boston. The search is underway for her replacement. In a landscape of loud restaurants, Artistry on the Green stood out as deafening; acoustic ceiling tiles have just been installed to soften things. But though both places still feel a little wet behind the ears, what impresses overall is how smoothly things run. (Artistry owner Trisha Pérez Kennealy is a Harvard MBA who left investment banking to attend Le Cordon Bleu. Perhaps that explains something.)
Run by managing partners Elissa Vancura and Martha Collins, Artistry Kitchen is a lovely, modern space with cream-colored paint, artfully worn floorboards, and stylish glass light fixtures. There is a cozy place to sit by the fire; customers share drinks and snacks at the ample bar. The bistro's menu is stocked with upscale comfort food and clean new American fare — wild mushroom flatbread, a burger; hearth-roasted chicken, short rib with horseradish cream. The wine list supports it, blandly classy, with an emphasis on California cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Staffers look sharp in vests and ties. Everything gives off the low glow of good taste.
"You're back," says a server, seeming genuinely pleased to recognize a repeat customer. "Thank you for bringing your friends." He returns with cocktails — the summery Milan Spritz, gin and Campari with prosecco and lemon; the English Channel, a Pimm's cup variant; a classic martini made with local Wire Works gin. A board of cheese and charcuterie soon follows — Tarentaise and Danby, raw-milk selections from two different Vermont cheesemakers, along with thin-sliced fennel salami. Accompaniments include honey, jam, and crostini, but none of the promised pickles.
A goat cheese tart with turnips and almonds looks pretty but proves to have a liquid filling. When cut, the unset center runs everywhere. A simple salad of roasted beets and goat cheese lacks flavor; we find ourselves cherry-picking the fried capers and leaving the rest.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese is served with pork ragu and a dollop of rich ricotta. A stauncher noodle might stand up better to the hearty meat sauce, but the flavor is good. A halibut dish is elegantly conceived and presented. The white fish stands out against a pool of spring-green sauce. (Is it made from peas? Ramps? Its flavor is so mild it is hard to tell.) Flour-based gnocchi Parisienne, roasted onions, and a bit of lemon relish round out the plate. Roast pork loin is cooked a touch too long, but the meat is still tender and juicy, served with potatoes, fava beans, and mustard creme fraiche.
Dessert brings chocolate pave with hazelnut-praline crust, caramel ice cream, salted caramel sauce, and a cocoa nib tuile. It is a grown-up's candy bar, with a bit of crunch that evokes the Krackel. Buttermilk panna cotta is rubbery, but caramel-plum sauce helps smooth things over. Spruce and whey sherbet is strange, invigorating, and delightful — almost too sweet but not, balanced by the piney flavor. (A variant sampled months ago at Bondir Concord, made with juniper and whey, was much less successful. The recipe must have been fine-tuned.)
An even better version of that chocolate pave appears at Artistry on the Green. Sous chef Christophe Gest, who is primarily responsible for producing the desserts, has been training the Franklin team to make them, too.
But there isn't much overlap between the two restaurants. In Lexington, the aesthetic is Colonial modern — black Windsor chairs and white tablecloths, paintings of Minutemen astride horses and American flag tapestries, gray paint on the coffered walls giving way to lushly patterned wallpaper in the still-developing bar area.
Executive chef Matthew Molloy previously worked at Beacon Hill Bistro and Lumiere. His menu is filled with riffs on French and New England classics — duck confit galette, Yankee pot roast. A ramp vichyssoise one evening is almost too rich, flavors mellow and balanced, served with a bit of smoked salmon, radish, and cress. Caesar salad is made with wan, brown-edged lettuce, but the fantastic anchovy dressing packs a flavorful wallop. And New England clam chowder is one of the best versions I've had in a long while, creamy but not overly so, flavored with salt pork, and brimming with quahogs and potatoes. This is why people like chowder.
Seared scallops are served, again, with gnocchi Parisienne, along with asparagus and lobster — a fine combination, although the gnocchi seem extraneous. "What are these?" the owner of the plate wonders, turning one around on his fork. Halibut is nicely cooked, with cauliflower, apples, currants, and curry brown butter vinaigrette made with too much cumin. A braised lamb shank is unusually tiny, although tasty enough served with polenta, tomatoes, and pearl onions; the plate could use crunch and acid for balance. Strip steak doesn't seem like strip steak at all — it looks and tastes more like prime rib. Either way, it is fatty, overcooked, and underseasoned, disappointing despite sides of mushrooms and potato gratin. But roasted duck breast is everything it should be — rosy meat, warmly spiced, with carrot puree, roasted carrots, golden raisins, capers, and pine nuts. It is excellent.
If only there were something more interesting to drink with it. The wine list is dull and unadventurous — "having all the panache and verve of a 1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass," as a wine-loving friend quips. Service here has its awkward moments, but our well-traveled waitress makes the meal better with her bright enthusiasm.
AK Bistro and Artistry on the Green don't offer perfect experiences. But they are run with professionalism, decorated with good taste, and staffed by serious chefs. It is clear from local residents' response: They need this.
14 East Central St., Franklin, 508-530-7440, www.artistrykitchen.com. All major credit cards accepted.
Prices Appetizers $9-$14. Entrees $15-$31.
Hours Tue-Thu 11:30 a.m.-midnight, Fri-Sat 11:30-
1 a.m., Sun 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Cheese and charcuterie board, pork loin, spruce and whey sherbet.
ARTISTRY ON THE GREEN
2027 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington, 781-301-6655, www.innathastings park.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $9-$17. Entrees $14-$31.
Hours Dinner Sun, Tue-Thu 5-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-9:30 p.m. Lunch Tue-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Brunch Sun
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Breakfast daily 7-10:30 a.m.
Noise level Loud.
What to order New England clam chowder, duck breast, chocolate pave.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.