On the entranceway of The Pantry restaurant in Natick is a quote from Julia Child: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” That seems to be what the chef here is going for. That, and a sense of playfulness with the menu, which is refreshing here in MetroWestland.
The Pantry is based at the Verve – Crowne Plaza Natick, a high-end modern hotel restaurant that attracts travelers and the local business crowd for power breakfasts, social lunches, and business dinners, while on the weekend, girls’ nights out, wedding events, and parties that begin with dinner and travel from the Pantry to the Violet Thorn metro-swank bar, which has this cool metal-beaded curtain and cave lighting; a DJ plays on the weekend, and dancing has been known to break out in the corner. If you live in this area, and you want Boston-quality food with free parking, this is a fun place to go.
The hotel itself has a funky sense of humor. There’s dozens of lava lamps in the entranceway; the lobby has modern furniture with fuzzy pillows, and LEGO-filled activity tables. The Verve is owned and managed by the Distinctive Hospitality Group, and led by Lou Carrier, who also developed the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando and Las Vegas; and launched BOKX 109 American Prime, the steakhouse at Hotel Indigo in Newton, and the Wit Hotel in Chicago.
The dining room is styled so you feel like you’re dining in the chef’s own kitch-y kitchen, the kind that has a TV on the counter. From our table we could also watch the lobby’s video screen, which was showing popular YouTube clips, such as Boo the World’s Cutest Dog. The music? ’70s hits. On mute, two TVs alternated sports broadcasts with clips from Julia Child, The Galloping Gourmet, Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals and Emeril Live. There’s spoon and fork chandeliers, fake old-style fridges, a kitchen island, a floor is made of recycled wine-corks, and aprons serve as artwork.
The table is stocked with popcorn, a nice change from bread. The menu had local faves and twists on classics. Sometimes the chef likes to surprise the table with an amuse bouche before the meal: We had a sample of the scallops atop rounds of panzanella, with asparagus and lemon oil, and Maldon salt. The caramelized scallops were tender, and I think it’s worth getting as a full entree.
Such nice details; this is why I eat out. It always makes me happy to be fed by a chef who loves to play with ingredients, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. And eating here felt comfortable, indeed like I was eating in someone’s homey kitchen. At least a little. Everything is made and muddled in-house, except for dessert, only two dishes are made in-house, the strawberry shortcake and the Frittelle. Off-menu, ask for the tiramisu, made with Cabo Wabo tequila. We just didn’t have the room for it.
In the kitchen since he was 13, Alastair McLean is a native of Perth, Australia, where he received his culinary degree. He apprenticed at Perth’s high-end Coco’s, which served such international clientele including former President Bill Clinton. At 22, Alastair worked in London for a while, then landed the executive chef’s role in St. Anton, Austria, with a luxury vacation planning group that created custom menus for VIP families staying at the chalets. On the side, as a white-rafting instructor, he met his future wife, who was from Boston. And that’s where they settled down. He landed a coveted spot in the Mandarin Oriental’s kitchen in Back Bay, where he expanded his knowledge of molecular gastronomy. Now, as Executive Chef here, he aims to develop fun ideas for new dishes, in between consulting with other restaurants in the chain, including Chicago, Madison, and Mystic, CT.
The chef is Italian on his mother’s side, hence the raviolo and tiramisu. But, he adds, “We don’t offer pasta; that’s Olive Garden. But here, I do get questions about things, like, what’s an aranchini?”
So it’s a balancing act for a chef is excited about serving items he considers risky for Metro West, like the chicken liver mousse (which I would have LOVED to order, but I would have been the only one eating it…).
But his favorite dish on the current menu is the halibut, with bacon lardon. “I’m Australian, we love fish…Most of the dishes aren’t complex, just a few components.”
He also makes the apps from the Violet Thorn, which offers specials. For $60, you get all 6 small plates from 5-7 daily, parties of 2 or more can add 4 draft beers, for another $10; for “date night” couples, they get 2 signature cocktails, 4 small plates and a dessert, also for $60. There’s other specials too. For the beer lover, this offers more craft brews, including Clown Shoes Galactica, Jack’s Abby Hopponius, and a nice imported beer selection. They just hosted a Cabo Wabo tequila dinner, and are looking at hosting dinners with themes for beer, spirits, and rum.
For what we ate, see my slideshow…