26 March 2009

Evenfall Restaurant: "Take that, you supercilious urban food snob!"

Longtime Boston residents like me have a tendency to be a little skeptical if not downright condescending about restaurants in the suburbs. I’m not as dismissive as my pal DJ Wolf, who's fond of saying, “I live in the South End; why would I ever leave the neighborhood to dine out?” But I have found myself frequently underwhelmed by restaurants that are more than a walk, subway jaunt, or taxi ride from my downtown lair.

Why do many suburban restaurants undershoot their in-town counterparts? Maybe it’s the children: the suburbs demand more family-friendly, casual, accessible restaurants. Or possibly folks just like the idea of going into Boston for an occasion dinner: their local can’t feel as special or romantic, so it doesn't try. Occam’s Razor suggests that lower population density translates into unprofitably low demand for the kind of small, concept-driven, chef-owned establishments that make Boston’s in-town dining scene so vibrant. Whatever the reason, I’ve endured many a less-than-thrilling meal beyond Boston’s beltways.

In the midst of a grim suburban dinner, I often amuse myself by tacitly enumerating The Reasons Why This Place Would Never Make It In Boston. Some past observations:
  • “Ambitious but shoddily executed; no surprise this chef isn’t in a big-city kitchen.”
  • "I've never seen a server squeeze a wine bottle between her thighs to gain leverage with the corkscrew. Impressive.”
  • “Oof: not the old simultaneous-silver-dome-lifting, voilà-your-entrées trick! That’s pretentious even by city standards.”
  • “Sushi and French bistro and pub fare out of one kitchen? No wonder it’s all mediocre.”
  • "The chef is a sweetheart, but who besides locals would bother if he weren’t a TV personality?”
  • “Gross, another hog trough: ‘small plates’ the size of entrées, entrées that could feed four.”
Experiences like these make Evenfall Restaurant a welcome surprise. It’s in Haverhill, 50 minutes north of Boston near the New Hampshire border. Chef/owner Scott Pelletier is clearly proudest of his eclectic New American fine-dining menu, driven by seasonal, local ingredients. But he's pragmatically versatile. Evenfall's dark bar is packed with folks enjoying casual comfort fare: good-looking sandwiches, thin-crust pizzas, finger foods. There’s a surprisingly cliché-free cocktail menu, and a lounge where diners relax around sofas and low tables with drinks and snacks.

A more dressed-up crowd sits in the roomy, fancier dining room, where Pelletier's gifts shine brightest. Example: the "cheese selection” appetizer ($15) is creative without being weird, putting Great Hill blue cheese and figs into a fried spring roll. Then there's beautiful local ingredients like a passel of thimble-sized Hannahbells, a fabulous artisanal goat cheese from Shy Brothers Farm that I first enjoyed at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport. And the plate shows a lot of give-a-damn with hand-crafted ingredients, like a delicious house-made apple compote, and (of all things) mozzarella sticks. Usually, mozz sticks are a Sysco-grade insult, but here the chef makes them into something lovely with hand-pulled, house-made cheese.

The lamb rack entrée ($31) suffers a bit from suburban bloat: it’s too big by half, built on a pair of huge, meaty racks where one would be plenty. But this dish, like most here, is beautifully composed and plated, and its detailed flavors accumulate with great impact. The chops boast an intense rosemary-scented demi-glace. The accompanying ravioli are fashioned from house-made fresh pasta, filled with oxtail and mascarpone: wickedly rich. (I’d happily make an entrée of five of these.) Swiss chard is braised with house-cured guanciale. There’s a cunning, piquant pile of house-pickled fresh cranberries. Much craft and care went into this dish, and though I can’t come close to finishing it, I believe it would stand proudly alongside the work of many of Boston’s more famous farm-to-table-oriented chefs. That’s one hard-working kitchen, also hand-making many other ingredients, like the excellent breads and pretty sorbets.

It doesn’t hurt that our server is an engaging and polished pro, providing a hint of pampering without being intrusive. We also like thoughtfully-chosen wines at 250% of retail, a refreshing change from the 4x-retail gouging I receive at many Boston restaurants. The place doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the dining room would hardly elicit gasps from your designer friends. But we have a fantastic time, and I consider it a great value (though I’d prefer that lamb dish 50% smaller and 10% cheaper.)

In the end, Evenfall has me thinking, “This restaurant would hold its own just fine in the big bad city.” I hope Haverhill recognizes what a good thing it has, as it’s a long slow drive into Boston, with scary parking rates at the end. In any event, I'm going to remind The Wolf next time I see him: it’s not entirely a chain-outlet culinary wasteland out past Columbus Avenue, the city limits, Route 128, and beyond. Some suburban restaurants really are good enough to make you set aside your Town Mouse prejudices, shut the hell up, and enjoy.