LEXINGTON – Sometimes the flavors a restaurant serves are so good that your taste buds will start singing. Hitting all the right notes, Vine Brook Tavern in Lexington is a two story eatery with a casual bar on the first floor, an intimate dining room upstairs, and talented servers who’ve been known to break in song. It’s all set inside a former post office dating back to the 1840s.
“The building is wonderful with the two floors. Each floor lends itself to a little bit of a different experience,” said owner Marcus Palmer. “We can find the right place for the right party, I think. And you feel comfortable in jeans and T-shirt and you’ll feel comfortable in a suit and tie.”
Palmer pays homage to the building’s past with vintage touches like wrought iron light fixtures, big wooden tables and nostalgic artwork on the walls. There are even American flags hung proudly in the windows to mirror the American fare Chef Chris Frothingham has on his menu.
“We bill ourselves as an American eatery, so it’s sort of everything American,” the chef describes. “It’s a menu that you can walk in and find the things that you recognize and, hopefully, we’ll put a twist on it so it’s something that you’re familiar with, but not something you’d make at home.”
There are throwbacks like tender Veal Pot Roast served in the old fashioned cast iron skillet in which it’s cooked.
“We got these beautiful cast iron plates. That’s the way taverns used to cook. They used to basically have to do whole dish composed, put in the oven and then serve it,” Palmer said.
The skillets are also used to sear the Roasted Chicken Breast, so the skin gets crisp while the insides remain juicy.
To start things off with some old school deliciousness, classic Boston brown bread comes complimentary with every meal.
“Some people look at it right away, and say, ‘Wait. Is this really Boston baked brown bread?’ And we’re like, ‘steamed in a coffee can; you got it,’” said Palmer.
“We bake that in cans the way it was originally done,” echoed Chef Frothingham. “It’s served warm and it sort of has that smell of molasses; really decadent when it comes out. It’s almost a meal in itself.”
New England clam chowder is done the way you remember it: not too thick, not too thin.
“Chef and I aren’t big fans of that really rich, stick your fork in it and spoon doesn’t move. I think a chowder is a soup,” Palmer said.
“So it’s not a pudding,” continued Chef Frothingham. “It’s all about the clams and the bacon and the vegetables, being able to get a little bit of everything.”
While traditional tavern fare, like the burger served with hand cut fries, definitely dominates the menu, there are some creative dishes as well, like homemade hummus topped with spicy shrimp served with flatbread for dipping; or sweet and sour tempura fried calamari spiked with ghost chills.
“Calamari. Everybody does calamari. You get the little rings and put the peppers in and you taste the fried outside batter. You don’t taste the calamari,” Palmer reflected. “So we really felt strongly that we wanted to taste calamari. So we had these nice, we call them almost steak frites. Thick pieces of calamari, very lightly battered.”
“We cut it so it looks like a large French fry and then we dredge it in the tempura flour that we season with cumin, a little bit of ghost pepper. So it has a little bit of spice. It’s very tender and it’s a lot of meat in ratio to the breading,” the chef explained.
Another original dish earning rave reviews is Vine Brook’s Quinoa Meatless Balls, served with spaghetti squash for a vegetarian version of spaghetti and meatballs.
“So the idea is taking a spaghetti squash and we roast it and when you shred it, it looks like spaghetti. So we toss that with a raw marinara that we make and then we make a quinoa meatball with chick peas and red quinoa, different seasonings and spices, and then bake that, and it almost looks just like meatball when comes out,” said Chef Frothingham.
“People are going crazy over it,” said Palmer. “People who aren’t vegetarians are ordering it as well.”
But if you do want the real thing, Vine Brook slow simmers their meaty Bolognese sauce for hours and then tosses it over fresh pasta, hand cut every single day.
“We make the dough in the morning, let it rest and we got the pasta in the afternoon and it’s cooked within hours from when we make it. So just starting with the fresh noodles, I think it’s really the key,” said the chef.
And then there’s a dessert you’ll devour every single day: the S’mores Crème Brule. Creamy chocolate pudding is topped with marshmallow that’s torched off, creating a modern day twist of this childhood treat.
“Then we take graham crackers and put them around the outside of the dish so you can scoop right in and get your chocolate and your s’more all-in-one bite,” explained Palmer.
From atmosphere to eats, pretty much everything at Vine Brook Tavern has a bit of nostalgia to it – even the prices.
“The quality of the food Chef Chris puts out, the value in the service that we’re trying to give here, to me rivals many urban concepts, for $10 to $15 less per plate. We’ve taken a really urban experience, very serious about our service and hospitality and the quality of her food we’ve brought it here to Lexington.”
Vine Brook Tavern is at 20 Waltham Street in Lexinton, or online at vinebrooktavern.com.
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