Remember the goody-goody you loathed in grade school for being cuter than you, tidier than you & quicker than you, with spiffy penmanship, a firm grasp on the multiplication tables & a smug mug in your direction whenever the teacher chewed you out? I’d have bet, especially after reading the high-toned and spell-checked vision statement on its website, 10 x 10 bucks Potager was the restaurant equivalent of Tara Little.
But I’d have been happier to lose all 90 (heh—I kid, I did finally memorize the correct answer, 110), because the repast I had there recently was a refreshingly snappy retort to my snide assumption. Coming from “a waitstaff that…takes pride in [its] techniques and expertise,” our server did ask whether we’d dined with them before—my least favorite tableside question after the oafish “You still working on that?”, leading as it usually does to a righteous harangue; but she proceeded to keep it long on the smarts & short on the self-satisfaction.
And then she proceeded to bring the Director the best gnocchi I’ve had in years, literally—me, an Italophile who’s traveled half the Boot, who gladly bled herself dry paying rent in one of the nation’s most celebrated Italian neighborhoods (Boston’s North End)—& who hasn’t, with the exceptions of Panzano & Bonanno’s joints, been largely overjoyed by the Italian options offered me by the Mile High City (granting that I’ve yet to take it up on too many, & emphasizing too that what I’ve lost in some cuisines I’ve gained in others—that’s just the way of the geographical world).
And as the best, it’s the very picture of Potager at its best—of what chef-partner Teri Rippeto apparently does best: put the ultrafresh, microlocal, sustainably produced ingredients she’s so committed to in service of deceptively simple, good solid cooking. Developing with the movement toward locavorism has been a somewhat disingenuous tendency on the part of many chefs to repeat ad nauseum the mantra that their goal is to acquire the best ingredients they can and do as little to them as possible. Really? Because, you know, I can do that. I call it staying home & making a salad (more on which below). Meanwhile, I go to restaurants to experience the technique a talented & trained chef can bring to bear on her materials. And if Rippeto truly, per the Lanza del Vasto quotation on the menu, seeks “the shortest, simplest path between the earth, the hands & the mouth,” I’m glad she doesn’t seem to have found it yet. Instead she seems to be treading the most thoughtful one—which is indeed sometimes short & simple, but hardly always.
So her gnocchi unfolded in soft little bursts of earthiness, punctuated in ideal measure by the tang of capers, fried breadcrumbs, & bits of broccoli, olive & parmesan.
And the generous bite of lobster—roasted in basil butter, then set in a pool of peach soup atop a corn souffle & salad of grilled peach, corn & prosciutto salad—one pal gave me proved a total gotcha. On paper it had looked to me like an error on the side of congruity, a mere ditty of sweetness minus the depth a little dissonance provides. But in my mouth it sang a more complex tune, which just goes to show the power of a) multitexture & b) proper seasoning.
Not going quite as constantly gaga over mussels as The Director does, I also didn’t expect to be titillated by ogling them naked in a steambath of corn, cream & marjoram. But in fact it was a bit of a orgy, all the seemingly mild-mannered ingredients coming together, teehee. Those babies got sauce.
And the zucchini carpaccio served as a rejoinder to my regular assertion of bold tastes over subtle. Julienned, speckled with toasted almonds, parmesan & fresh mint & drizzled with a distinct olive oil, it’s the kind of dish that makes you a better eater, encouraging you to think about each bite & the intriguing, crunchy-smooth, green goings-on therein.
Of course, at a place as persistent about produce as Potager, the odds that something would fall off the tightrope of subtlety to land on its back in an embarrassing spotlight of blandness weren’t all that low. If you know how much I dig great gobs of salad, you’ll get how bummed I was that the Big Salad (as it’s called on the menu) of mixed leaves with chicken, feta, almonds, olives, peaches, cukes, green beans, tomatoes, red peppers, basil & corn didn’t amount to much, underdressed & lacking cohesion. Was the chicken poached? Was all the rest raw? Somewhere, an opportunity was missed to grill a thing or two, roast a thing or two, season a thing or two, just enough to catalyze the latent oomph of the whole.
The rather similar appetizer I preceded it with was somewhat more successful, if too light on the La Quercia** prosciutto, especially in proportion to a wonderful sheep’s milk ricotta that proved once & for all “milky yet pungent” is not a dumb thing to say except about somebody’s mama. It too came with almonds & peaches mixed with lettuces, though in this case I detected (imagined?) a harmonizing touch of honey.
And if the fresh pappardelle with goat cheese, green beans, pine nuts, capers, currants, garlic & basil lacked the magic of the gnocchi, it was this close to capturing it. A few more crumbles of cheese, a sprinkle or two more of S&P, & voilà, I bet.
But then, given my streak in this post so far, I’d better not bet on anything beyond the fact tha
t I bet I’ll be back at Potager ASAP. That one I know I can win.
**whose website strangely doesn’t come up amid the hundreds of slavering mentions on Google…