Town -September/October 2009
John Keane has another hit with the latest in his trilogy of restaurants.
by: Joshua Balling
photography by: Terry Pommett
John Keane has another hit with the latest in his trilogy of restaurants.
Chef Neil Patrick Hudson loves Nantucket. He hopes to retire here when his cooking career is over. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking to transport his customers to another place half a world away – at least for a little while – when they sit down at Town, the Indian- and Moroccan-inspired restaurant he opened for John Keane on East Chestnut Street earlier this summer.
“I’d like to hope the guests leave feeling the food was flavorful, that they have a sense of value, and perhaps most importantly, that they feel as if they’ve stepped away from Nantucket, as beautiful as it is, just for a moment, and could be in a cafe in Morocco or the Middle East,” said Hudson, who spent eight years at the Brant Point Grill before Keane asked him to first take the reins at Queequeg’s – the American bistro next door that shares a common wall with the new restaurant – and open Town earlier this summer.
“Town grew from a concept John (who also owns Kitty Murtagh’s Irish Pub on West Creek Road) came up with. It’s a concept the island didn’t have, a sit-down ethnic restaurant. It’s exciting, something I’ve never done before,” said Hudson.
“For me, it’s about exploring the spices, and new cooking techniques. It’s about taking these ethnic dishes, food you might get from a street vendor in Morocco, and translating them so they look pleasing on the plate. The flavors are always great. Part of the challenge for me is to also make them look appealing. Kefta is a snack that’s sold at Moroccan markets, and what I’m trying to do is translate those flavors to a person on Nantucket.”
We ate at Town on an unseasonably cool evening.
The service was attentive and pleasant, but not overly-solicitous. The wait-staff knows the food, even if it isn’t typical Nantucket fare.
An Moorish-looking fireplace was filled with white candles, the decor tastefully subtle – soothing earth tones of brown, mocha and tan above dark hardwood floors illuminated by wall sconces. Banquettes are tucked discretely into the corners and against the walls of the former historic home whose basement once housed Charley Walters’ independent record store Musicall.
High-top tables occupy the center of the room, and the bar against the back wall hosts a lively crowd that somehow manages not to intrude on the diners, despite the close confines.
Outside dining is available on a brick patio shaded by a leafy canopy, but no one was eating outdoors on this night. In the summer, the rattan chairs and metal tables beneath mocha umbrellas, and the cushioned benches lining the outer edge of the fenced-in space across the street from the Nantucket Police Department, bustled with activity most nights.
We figured our best bet was to start by sharing several of the Indian, Asian and Moroccan-influenced appetizers – and we were right. Our meal began with the Tuna and Avocado Sushi Rolls; the special soup, a light yet creamy butternut squash with coconut foam; the Quotban Del Kefta, broiled, spiced beef kebabs with grilled sugar-dusted lemon and spicy harissa, a North African red sauce made from chili peppers and garlic; and the Shingara, curried potato and chicken samosas with mango chutney.
Our libations started with a ginger mojito, light and refreshing, like most of the drinks on the Town menu, perfect for those warmer summer evenings outside on the patio.
The kefta was perfectly seasoned, with just the right kick, although those whose palates are not used to heat might find it on the spicy side. Any fire, however, was easily doused with the accompanying cool yogurt. The dishes were served on plates that spoke of an Asian minimalist sensibility, with obvious thought given to presentation. They were architecturally pleasing as well as tasty. Six generously-sized pieces of sushi were served on a raised wooden platter with wasabi and ginger. They could almost have sufficed as a meal in themselves had they not been shared.
The Shingara was impeccably spiced, but again, not for the faint of heart – or palate. The potato added heft to the airy samosas, with the mango chutney serving as a sweet rejoinder to take your mind off the heat, if only for a moment.
Hudson is quick to point out that the spice can be moderated to some degree, and there are dishes on the menu that don’t contain the same heat as others. He and his staff are most concerned, he said, about providing customers with a dining experience they will enjoy, not one that’s forced upon them, and he will do everything he can to accommodate their culinary wishes. Even sending up a dish from the adjoining Queequeg’s kitchen, if that’s what it takes.
“With our two kitchens joined by a doorway, if heat and spice are not your forté, we can send up a halibut from Queequeg’s,” he said.
The entrées were generously portioned, with the presentation and choice of serving plates easily facilitating sharing while properly showcasing the food. On this evening, with the temperature more like October than July, we were looking for some comfort food and found it in the Lamb Vindaloo, a spicy curry with Yukon gold potatoes, Spanish onions and fluffy basmati rice; and the Kuromami Cod, a pan-roasted whitefish with Japanese black bean purée and bok choy. The cod was perfectly cooked, flaky but firm, and kept from being just another piece of fish by the silky-smooth purée.
The vindaloo – available in either lamb or chicken – is one of the spicier offerings on the menu, but for those who appreciate a little fire in the belly, it’s the perfect entrée. It’s also one of Town’s best-sellers, along with the Yaki Soba and Tandoori Lobster. Hudson said he’s had customers come back for it four and five nights a week. The succulent, tender lamb and potatoes are bathed in a generous hot curry sauce, the palate cooled by a side of yogurt and the neutrality of the rice.
Our entrées were accompanied by Thai basil gimlets, a light, savory – and dangerous – concoction, given how smoothly they went down. Stick with one and you’ll be fine.
We also ordered a couple of side dishes: Tandoori Nan Bread and Pappadams infused with just the right amount of garlic, and the Spicy Dusted Frites, at first seemingly out of place geographically, but nonetheless delicious: a salty, welcome Colonial respite from an adventure in foreign lands.
There were two dessert options the night we dined, as there are most nights: A rice pudding with caramelized bananas and a creamy mango sorbet, more ice cream than fruit juice. Both palate-cleansers were the perfect counterpoint to such a well-seasoned and savory meal.
All in all, the evening was a seamless marriage of disparate cultures, Asian meets Indian meets North African, but it worked, thanks to the deft touch with the spices of Hudson and his kitchen staff. The varied and diverse aromas of all the dishes permeate the intimate space, transporting diners to a spice-filled bazaar in Bombay or Marrakech.
“I like to think there is a balance between spice and heat. Spice doesn’t always translate to heat, even when something is well-spiced. And if it does, there is a always an option to cool down. That’s why we serve the yogurt and the rice with the Vindaloo,” Hudson said. “They make it a pleasant dish to taste. Nothing is over the top.”
Hudson said the menu provides the Asian and Thai offerings as a bridge to some of Town’s more exotic items.
“We put the sushi on the menu looking to please those who wanted a quick bite, in the hopes they would be attracted to the other appetizers. It’s the same with the Thai and Japanese entrées as well. There is a market on Nantucket for that, but we want to introduce our customers to something they didn’t have before,” he said.
Now 39, Hudson grew up in Toronto, Canada with four brothers and sisters, where he learned at a young age the joys – and responsibilities – of cooking.
“Coming from a big family with a mom who makes dinner for seven, it’s definitely a full-time job. My fondest memories are of standing on a chair as a little boy helping my mother cook,” Hudson said. “My family are all good cooks. I’m just the only one who does it professionally.”
After deciding to pursue a culinary career, Hudson worked in a fine-dining club in Hamilton, Ontario before moving to Nantucket nine years ago.
“I was looking for something different, and I wanted to travel. I flew down to Nantucket in January 2000, and was asked to prepare a five-course meal for some people from the White Elephant (Brant Point Grill) and Nantucket Island Resorts. From that I got the sous chef job and eventually moved up,” he said.
When Hudson left the Brant Point Grill and Nantucket Island Resorts two years ago, he was simply looking for a break.
“That’s a pretty big machine. I wanted to just get a nice summer under my belt, but I found I missed it way too much. I helped out in the kitchen at Bartlett’s Farm for a season, and then John Keane approached me, and asked if I’d be interested in taking over Queequeg’s and opening Town later in the year.”
Even in a down economy, he knows he made the right decision.
“I’m happy I’ve found a place where I have complete creative freedom. You get stagnant when that freedom is stifled. That’s not going to happen here. The best thing is I get to work in two completely different genres at the same time: the American bistro at Queequeg’s and the Indian-Moroccan-Thai food of Town. With two different genres to create in, the possibilities are endless,” Hudson said.
“It’s also exciting to be back cooking on the line again, a real joy. At Nantucket Island Resorts, a lot of what I was doing was administrative. But I’m glad I was there. The White Elephant prepared me to do something like this. I still have many dear friends there.”
Hudson found himself in unfamiliar territory after signing on to oversee Town.
“Since I’d never done food like this before, it involved a lot of reading, a lot of research, and a lot of trial and error: adding different spices, taking them away, so the food was pleasant to both the palate and the eye,” he said.
“It’s definitely been a challenge working with a new style of food, but fun for the same reasons. We’re working with flavors and spices you don’t see every day in a lot of the cuisine on Nantucket. You don’t see a tandoori-roasted steak, or a vindaloo, or the curries. It’s not ground-breaking cuisine, but it’s new and exciting.”
And it works, and fits perfectly with the cooking philosophy Hudson became known for when he ran the kitchen at the Brant Point Grill.
“My style has always been about the taste of the food, and the presentation. It’s simple but elegant. Very often the food can speak for itself. It doesn’t need to be overdressed. It’s the ingredients themselves that are important.”
Which is why Hudson works to bring in the freshest, highest-quality meats, fruits and vegetables into his kitchen, and only the most savory and potent spices to cook with.
“The kitchen concept we came up with – Queequeg’s and Town separated by a doorway – is working out wonderfully, and it’s because of the team I have in the building,” he said, quick to praise his staff.
That team-oriented concept extends to the front of the house as well.
“Sometimes less is more. I think the room gives off that feel. When the candles are lit in the fireplace, and the sconces are lit, it can take you to another space. The front of the house has really turned it on, they are welcoming with the guests, they remember the regulars. It’s a real team effort,” Hudson said.
“It’s a very intimate space, and the patio has allowed us to spread out and expand our business. There is definitely enough room to seat everyone comfortably. John has done a great job with the space.”
While the two kitchen staffs remain separate, Hudson is hoping to do some cross-training in the months ahead. “There is definitely something to learn from either side. It keeps you fresh, keeps you motivated.”
Between the two restaurants, he has nine people working in the kitchens.
“Queequeg’s is basically self-sufficient. My chef de cuisine Ruben Diaz has really led the way in making that happen, as has my sous chef Tom Walsh. They have really allowed us to be successful,” he said.
Town plans to stay open throughout the off-season, and Hudson said he will make some changes – but not too many – to the fall and winter menu.
“It’s important to keep things fresh, change things around. We do that through the specials, and maybe I’ll make some changes to some of the dishes, add a couple of recipes, but we’re still keeping the ethnic feel.”
Town, 4 East Chestnut Street. (508) 325-8696.
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.