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Mass. Appeal

A Mayflower descendant puts a contemporary twist on Olde New England

Author Jolyon Helterman

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Puritan & Company, Boston

BOSTON’S DINING SCENE is lousy with eateries giving perfunctory nods to the region’s history, yielding an endless buffet of pasty “chowdahs,” saccharine baked beans and ersatz, warmed-over clam bakes. By contrast, newcomer Puritan & Company forgoes the museum approach in favor of a modern take on foodstuffs that Bay Staters actually ate—swordfish, bluefish, johnnycakes, Parker House potato rolls and even Moxie, a beloved local brand of syrupy cola—in a modern space with exposed ducts and distressed-oak floors in Cambridge’s Inman Square. Every meal ends with a gratis square of cake as a tribute to the Puritan Cake Co., the restaurant’s early-1900s namesake, which once occupied the premises.

“Massachusetts cuisine is a style that doesn’t get the sort of respect it deserves,” says chef-owner Will Gilson, whose family has lived in the state for 13 generations. “I had to put something down on paper, so I called my food ‘urban farmhouse.’ But it’s really just the dishes and ingredients I grew up with, seen through a modern prism.”

Sure enough, the swordfish here gets cured as pastrami and plated with mustard gelato. The Moxie becomes a glaze slathered onto tender braised lamb belly. To accompany rare Wagyu steak, Gilson resurrects the veggies served in a traditional Yankee boiled dinner—rutabagas, potatoes, carrots—with a clever riff that might be called not-boiling-them-to-death. Then there’s hardtack, a simple type of biscuit named as much for its taste and texture as its nonperishability, which the Pilgrims brought along on their trans-Atlantic voyage. Suffice it to say, the hardtack crackers served with Gilson’s bluefish pâté represent a well-deserved update.

While it’s near impossible to find a chef these days who doesn’t pay lip service to locavorism, for Gilson it’s not a trend but instead another nod to his heritage. Herbs and greens for Puritan & Company come from the Herb Lyceum, his parents’ farm in nearby Groton, where Gilson was raised. Eighty percent of the beer list hails from New England, including a craft brown ale brewed in Portland, Maine, that features locally sourced honey, ginger, hops and barley.

Even the restaurant’s décor speaks to authentic New England: In place of tricorns and bayonets are 19th-century kitchen gadgets and a host stand created from a 1920s gas stove. “That’s actually the stove I used to cook on with my grandmother when I was 3, standing on top of a chair,” says Gilson. Most of the vintage items, in fact, were salvaged from his family’s home.

“I grew up in very much a New England household,” he says. “We made apple pies. We ate boiled dinners. We grew a lot of the food, and then we cooked it. In the end, I’m just trying to pay homage to the way some of us ate growing up.”

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