WHO’S IN CHARGE Bramble Hospitality, a family-owned company, has operated Willowdale Estate inside Topsfield’s Bradley Palmer State Park for nearly 13 years. In January, it opened the 30-room, silo-shaped Briar Barn Inn in Rowley.
In April, Bramble Hospitality opened Grove, a 100-seat barn-like restaurant, steps away from the inn and open to the public. Executive chef Ben Lightbody, who led the team at Willowdale and grew up in Ipswich, draws on local and regional farms and purveyors, whether for fish, meat, veggies, or brew. “Ben sees menu planning as an art form,” said owner Briar Forsythe.
THE LOCALE Grove is like an elegant barn by the beach. Walls, ceiling beams, and barn doors are painted in calming shades of off-white and sandy tan. There’s an earthy vibe with wooden tables, lightly stained tongue-in-groove pine ceilings, and occasional antiques. Natural light streams in through the windows, while wagon-wheel-sized chandeliers hanging overhead brighten the room at night. Outside, there’s lush landscaped gardens and a patio for alfresco dining and fire pit chats. Inside, there are no televisions.
ON THE MENU The upscale, but casual, menu is “lean and mean” on purpose, said Forsythe. Eight entrees hit all the points: fish, vegetarian, pork, pasta, chicken, beef. “This way the food is always quality,” she said. All the pastas, oyster cookie-crackers, and breads are homemade.
The bar is fully stocked. We selected a refreshing Ezekiel Punch ($11), made with light and dark rums, apricot liquor, pineapple and lime juice, and a Crop Rotation IPA ($7) from Old Planters Brewing Co. in Beverly.
Whether ordering snacks, entrees, or desserts, Lightbody’s unique twists were on full display.
We got lost in the “snacks” ($5-$12), bar bites to nibble on at the bar or table. Every table seemed to have golden, crunchy, homemade tater tots ($5) fried in duck fat. Caprese salad influenced the grilled flatbread ($8), topped with gooey mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, and basil. Also the roasted eggplant ($12), the veggie slab covered with a melted mix of mozzarella, basil, and tomato ragout.
From the appetizer-sized “beginnings,” ($7-$14), we tried the clam chowder ($8). Two thin, crispy homemade oyster “crackers” topped a creamy bowl of homemade clam chowder filled with chopped bits of clam, potato, and bacon. The summer berry salad ($14) was heavenly. A buttery, white pillow of fresh burrata (made from mozzarella and cream) topped the leafy green salad, sprinkled with soft, sweet marcona almonds and crunchy, homemade bread crisps.
For entrees, the lobster lasagna ($35) called to us. Our waitress explained it was not a typical lasagna, with alternating layers of noodle, cheese, and meat, but open-faced. Lightbody’s creation formed a foundation of folded homemade lasagna noodles, which was then topped with chunks of claws and bits (4 ounces), a sweet, pink lobster-tomato cream sauce, a sprinkle of crunchy homemade bread crumbs, and summer truffle.
The steak frites ($30), tender, thin slices of culotte steak with a dollop of herb and bone marrow butter, were extra juicy and moist. Even the basic hamburger surprised, a 10-ounce house-ground burger ($16), mixing a salty-sweet topping of bacon jam with a kick from cheddar pickled chilies, all inside a pillowy soft, homemade brioche bun.
We shared one passion fruit pannacotta ($11) — another divine dish, creamy pannacotta on a swirl of melted white chocolate, topped with a scoop of cold, citrusy yuzu sorbet and a crunchy homemade almond cookie.
One thing: call ahead. Grove is a combination venue/restaurant place, it can be closed some Fridays and, for now, Saturday nights. (Ticketed, themed dinners are held Saturdays if no event is planned.)
The inn will have a spa soon, but Grove is like a spa for the stomach and soul. Pastoral settings, light-colored buildings, and colorful gardens create a subtle vacation vibe, one that whispers, “bring an appetite, but leave your worries behind.”
Grove at Briar Barn Inn, 101 Main St., Rowley, 978-484-5166, www.briarbarninn.com/grove .
Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.