I don’t think I’ve ever had a better kick-off to summer than the last three days. Schoolwork over, papers discarded, and planners systematically shredded, I’ve been looking forward to this day for a while. And starting on Wednesday, Miss Love and I embarked on a three-day eating adventure with tons of amazing eats. The theme? Summer in your mouth- rhubarb and Riesling two of the top contenders.
It all started out when we were invited to a themed strawberry and rhubarb dinner at Summer Winter in Burlington, Massachusetts, home to two bright and blonde James Beard award-winning chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier. The dinner was part celebration of the beautiful weather, greenhouse tour (yep, they have their own on-site greenhouse- not bad for a Marriott off the parkway!) and dish testing to see if any would make the cut to their summer menu. Along with a gaggle of Boston-area journalists, Miss Love and I wined and dined and ate enough strawberry and rhubarb to feed a crowd of hungry farmer’s market shoppers with.
We arrived at the restaurant a little early and decided to order a cocktail to stave off the hunger- our choice of the restaurant’s flagship libation, the Garden Harvest- spiced honey pepper vodka, tonic, and a blend of herbs sourced from where else but the greenhouse, including basil and lemon geranium. The herbs you see behind me in glasses weren’t just for decoration, but were plucked out and freshly chopped for our cocktail, a very generously boozy plethora of floral scents and flavors, with a sweet citrus and honey edge. It was well balanced and crafted and made for a great start to the evening.
For starters, we went to tour the greenhouse, strawberry rhubarb margaritas in one hand and skewers of house-cured prosciutto, strawberry, and mint in the other.
The greenhouse holds over 50 varieties of herbs and vegetables, mostly miniaturized versions of larger forms- English cucumbers, tiny tomatoes, and eggplant, to name a few. It is worth noting that due to the timing of the event, our dinner’s ingredients were not completely sourced from the greenhouse, but many of the components were- strawberries not included.
Inside, we met the head gardener, Rachel, and nibbled on our treats, fresh, zippy bites with warm, ripe berries and a kiss of mint leaves.
Inside, we started with our first course, a strawberry and rhubarb gazpacho with Vietnamese coriander, red pickled onion, and goat cheese. Exceptionally smooth texture, its creaminess was cut by thin strands of onion and a bold soapy coriander leaf, my favorite part of the dish. This was paired with an aggressively floral Allagash White- I’m not crazy about beer but this is definitely one of my favorites. With the gazpacho, the beer was aromatic and infused with a veritable garden of flavors.
We unanimously agreed that the second course was our favorite- strawberry glazed salmon cooked on a river rock (sourced from the river outside) to a perfect, jewel-pink medium rare with a rhubarb, carrot, and daikon salad. The teapot over to the left was filled with a homemade strawberry tea, poured over the top of the sizzling fish. A lover of interactive dishes, Miss Love ate all of hers and some of mine, too. The relish and fish were both tangy and sweet, with a lingering, briny salinity and rich flavor. I’ve had many a salmon dish in my day but this was easily one of the best. This was paired with a strawberry rhubarb beer from Cape Ann.
Our third and final savory course was a trio of duck, prepared in varying ways that really made it feel like three separate courses– roasted duck with duck cracklings and parsnip chips, served with a strawberry and rhubarb sake mimosa, duck confit with a strawberry rhubarb gelee, and housemade duck sausage with strawberry tarragon mustard and pickled rhubarb pieces.
The roasted duck melted in our mouths- there wasn’t a single stringy piece or frankly, any piece we had to chew. You could have served this to a toothless baby and it would have been fine. Its smoky flavor was succulent and sweet- with the tender greens, it was delicious and simple. I didn’t feel like the rhubarb chips added much to the dish, though.
The mimosa was served in a tiny cocktail glass and the sake’s bright flavors really complimented the rare duck.
The duck confit with gelee was prepared masterfully- the duck cube crisped on all sides with a thick, savory flavor, almost eggy, with rich, thick duck pieces completely front and center. The gelatinous soft cube of gelee was thick and coated the palate with its bright flavors. Paired with the confit, it made for an amazing savory and sweet dish.
The final preparation of duck sausage was also amazing- I loved how visually attractive this component was. The fattier components- fried potato and duck, were tamed with the tangy mustard. It goes without saying- I do love a good breakfasty dish!
Apparently, a love for breakfast is mutually acknowledged amongst the chefs as well- our dessert, paired with a dark, coffee-like Allagash black, came looking for all the world like a freshly made omelet with crispy bacon and crumbled bits of white bread toast! Of course, this was actually a strawberry rhubarb gratin with bruleed champagne sabayon and snickerdoodle crumbles, and it was delicious enough to eat for breakfast!
This was such a memorable dinner, and an amazing way to start the summer at that. The chefs transformed a dark, dreary evening with their popping summery flavors. They were attentive and personable, sitting with us at the end of the dinner and letting us pepper them with questions. While these dishes are not yet on the menu (crossing my fingers for that confit!!!) they used preparations that felt unique and versatile for upcoming permanent dishes. And with that greenhouse, it’s hard to go wrong! This dinner was a great introduction to the ingenuity of these chefs and I look forward to coming back and seeing what else they have in store. They really took the time to come up with some sturdy, yet inventive ideas that could easily be tweaked and updated while still feeling original. Special thanks to Summer Winter’s PR team for coordinating this- we had a wonderful time!