Brockton General breaks every rule in the food-service business. They give you almost no choice about what to eat - one main course, that's it, unless you go on Saturday, and then you have a choice of two. Sundays and Wednesdays, they don't even have a full dinner menu. They hardly ever answer the phone. And the servers! Two of the three are the restaurant's owners, first-time restaurateurs. Servers relate to customers on the level. Servility is dead. You want wine? Don't expect them to offer it. You might have to ask.
The no-choice business recalls Ruby Watchco, where I resented the absence of food choices, but at Brockton General I am too blissed out to mind. One night, the main course is St. John's organic sourdough bread with walnuts sautéed in brown butter, wine-soaked golden raisins, and a broken poached egg topped with dandelion greens. Reading it on paper, I was not excited. It sounded like what happens when I clean out the fridge. But in the hands of chef Guy Rawlings (ex-chef at Cowbell, sous at Il Mulino and pastry chef at Célestin) these humble ingredients join and take flight, the sweet raisins balancing the tang of brown butter and the bite of dandelion, and the egg yolk softening the whole-wheat bread just enough to recall sentimental childhood mornings with Mom, dipping toast fingers in soft-boiled egg.
Heston Blumenthal, the revered maestro of molecular gastronomy at Fat Duck in England, believes that much of taste is built on memory. His whole oeuvre is based on recreating happy taste memories of childhood such as sardine-on-toast sorbet and bacon-and-egg ice cream. Minus the techno-flights of molecular gastronomy, Mr. Rawlings is borrowing a tune from Mr. Blumenthal's playbook in the sense that his cooking is elemental; he uses old-fashioned ingredients and plays them like a first violinist on a Stradivarius.
For instance, his turnip salad. By what alchemy does this guy make the lowly turnip into a thing of beauty and joy? One night, three kinds of turnip are lightly dressed and shaved thin: One delicate, with a pink centre and white edge, one pink and lightly pickled and one the standard white.Another night the turnips are joined on the plate by shaved radishes and the dressing is jazzed with anchovy. Each night's menu is hand-written on a roll of brown paper hung from one wall. There's just Guy Rawlings in the kitchen. No helpers, no kitchen brigade. 27 seats. This is an ideological commitment to simplicity - but of production, not of outcome. They're charging $3.50 for a bowl of big fat white limas stewed in smoked paprika oil. Every week, Chef does a different meat or fowl mousse in a small mason jar. His potted chicken is a mellow, high-flavoured delight. Another week's mousse is pig liver, wine-y pork velvet with lightly grilled St. John's white bread. His anchovy, white bean and garlic mash will be seen as an overstatement by those who are not anchovy lovers; but epicures who perennially pine for more anchovies in salade nicoise will sigh with pleasure.
Weekends, Chef offers a few more choices. One Friday, he fried fat potato slices and draped them with guanciale sliced so thin you could read the paper through it. He dotted the plate with green sauce made by charring tomatillo and jalapeno and then smoking the jalapeno. His house-made maltagliati (the name is Italian for "badly cut" noodles) came with toasted almonds for sweet, dandelion greens for bitter, and pan juice made from Long of Naples pumpkin. That night's meat was blood-red duck breast draped over cabbage pickled partway to sauerkraut, with big fat mustard seeds plumped in vinegar, sugar and pickling spice.
Chef Rawlings is human. He makes the occasional error. His pickled green bean and cucumber is all brine and no vinegar, which deprives it of bite. One night the otherwise sublime crostino with super-creamy celeriac-root puree is ruined by a topping of celeriac stalk and leaves, which are too tough to eat. This is where I part ways with the ideology of nose-to-tail.
Chef did a pastry stage at wd~50, an important New York restaurant, and you can taste it in his rhubarb dessert, a triumph of old-fashioned simple ingredients cleverly combined for sizzle and snap: The base is fine-textured honey cake, topped with two kinds of rhubarb - sliced raw and steeped in a bourbon-based Manhattan, and poached in simple syrup with bay leaf. The bite of rhubarb is mellowed by goat yogurt, the theme reprised with a few crumbles of aged goat cheese, and the entire opus held together with drizzles of rosewood honey. Another evening he played with the honey cake by adding dots of creamed buttercup squash, smoked nougatine (like smoky almond candy) and catnip! (Which tastes pleasantly like floral mint.)
That the small room is a barely made-over Portuguese sports bar is evident in the scuffed wooden chairs and plain oak tables, the dark old oak wainscotting and the photographic miscellany on walls. There's no backlit onyx long bar here, and the beautiful people are elsewhere. Among the mismatched garage-sale china on every table, my favourite piece is the Centennial souvenir plate. It seems, in its kitsch and sincerity, both quintessentially Canadian and very Brockton. As with the choice to serve a very limited menu and to really only serve dinner Thursday through Saturday, having anti-décor is part of the Brockton philosophy, of independent artisans in creative mode, not service workers catering to the market.