The Proprietors Bar & Table
by: Jen Laskey
photography by: Terry Pommett
When one door on Nantucket closes, another often opens, and so it was when after 35 years, the bright red door at 9 India St. closed at DeMarco last September, and reopened as The Proprietors Bar & Table, a new restaurant created by husband-and-wife team Michael LaScola and Orla Murphy-LaScola of American Seasons, and Tom Berry, former chef at The Great Harbor Yacht Club.
The story that has been attached to The Proprietors Bar & Table says the restaurant is a “culinary ode to the well-traveled palate” with a “distinctly Nantucket viewpoint.” The name refers to the first proprietors and original landowners of Nantucket who came to settle on the island in 1659. All aspects of the dining experience from the art on the walls to the food on the plates to the wines in the cellar are meant to speak to Nantucket’s history and to early Nantucketers’ exposure to other cultures, which they experienced when whalers returned from voyages that took them to the Azores and Cape Verde, around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean and to the Far East with stops in between.
It’s a clever narrative that ties together the three partners’ love for the island and their appreciation for foods, flavors, wines and spirits from faraway lands.
The LaScolas and Berry worked closely with contractor Ron Winters to gut, renovate and entirely redesign the inside of the building to open up the back with an airy addition with windows on three sides and install a bar made of reclaimed wood which dominates the entire left side of the room. To the right of the reception desk is a small dining room wallpapered in Audrey Sterk’s “Charcoal and Cream Circle & Stars.”
Berry’s style of cuisine centers on seafood and vegetables and draws on Asian food philosophies, Basque plancha-grilling techniques, and European-style small-plate offerings.
Berry believes that cooking is an expression of the life one has lived. He explains that in his 20s he was acutely focused on technique, developing his own style, and even interested in fame. But what has been important to him in his 30s is making sure that what he creates means something.
“I’ll draw on the memories of places I’ve been, or I’m trying to recreate a flavor profile that really appeals to me. And sometimes, these days, I’m just celebrating something really seasonal, and trying to make it light and beautiful.” Berry said.
Berry has worked at numerous restaurants, most notably as an executive sous chef at celebrity chef Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger outside of Boston. It was there that he began to develop what he refers to as his “Asian palate” and his taste for the classic Asian combination of sweet, sour, salty and bitter culinary components.
From Blue Ginger, Berry went on to open the Kimpton Group’s first Northeast property at the Hotel Marlowe’s Bambara Restaurant in Cambridge. While Berry counts it as a great learning experience, a year and a half in, he realized that the corporate environment really wasn’t for him. He ended up at Straight Wharf, which is when he realized he had an affinity for the island. In 2009, he became the executive chef at the Great Harbor Yacht Club, where he worked until entering into his partnership with the LaScolas.
Berry is an avid traveler who draws on his national and international eating adventures for inspiration when he cooks. He describes his style of cuisine as having a heavy emphasis on seafood, vegetables and grains. This shift has a lot to do with his decision to stop eating meat a couple of years ago. Berry said he felt like he had been searching his entire career to find a style of cuisine that defined him and resonated with him.
“Once I made that switch, it became very clear that this unique blend of seafood, vegetables and grains was something I was starting to feel very comfortable with and that I could own,” he said.
Rather than offering traditional appetizers and entrées, Berry’s menu encourages a more European-style shared-plate experience, similar to the custom at a Spanish tapas bar where you order a bunch of small plates, and then share them with your tablemates. When dining at The Proprietors, whether at the bar or a table, you can choose from about 10 different small-plate “half-shares,” four large “full-shares,” and six different Basque-inspired grilled plancha options, all served on plates made by island artisan Nell Van Vorst.
“The plancha is quick, hot and efficient,” Berry said, explaining that he’s a big fan of seafood and vegetables on hot steel.
“It brings more subtleness than a char-broiler, but still provides that fantastic crispy sear that transforms ingredients.”
When you order the plancha, it’s not as if you just get a simple side dish of grilled shrimp or grilled mushrooms or grilled pork. There is typically one main ingredient that’s grilled on the plancha and is the star of the plate, but there’s a whole cast of other components that play scrumptious supporting roles.
Take the plancha-grilled King Trumpet Mushrooms for instance, which have, incidentally, been a big hit at the restaurant so far. These meaty mushrooms, which are reminiscent of small Italian porcinis, are sliced, seasoned and seared on the plancha, and then served with crispy-coated cauliflower florets, bits of pickled turnip, and a couple smears and dollops of sumac yogurt. Herbs and edible flowers are sprinkled on top as a garnish.
Likewise, the Shaved “Pork-Umms” option is not simply a pile of grilled pork on a plate. This dish is like a highly-sophisticated cross between a southern pulled-pork sandwich and a Chinese pork bun. A heaping pile of shaved planchagrilled Berkshire pork is seasoned, Asian-style, with sweet and tangy flavors, fresh scallions, and served spilling over two halves of a savory scone-like kimchee biscuit with a decorative dollop of sesame barbecue sauce on the side to be mixed in at your discretion.
One of the standout half-shares is the Fluke Sunomono, which is a long rectangular plate of thinly-sliced bite-sized pieces of melt-in-your-mouth fluke sashimi, sparingly topped with a sprinkle of crunchy kimchee, house-smoked tomato mayonnaise, baby basil leaves, black sesame seeds and nasturtium petals.
Diners seem to love the Tater Cubes half-share that Berry makes with crispy shredded potato, Joppiesaus (a Dutch sauce that tastes like curry-spiked remoulade), farmhouse Gouda cheese and beet-pickled egg.
The Duck Breast Tiradito is an elegant little dish that features five slices of rare duck breast garnished with fresh herbs and “smoky duck cracklings.” It’s served over a bed of quinoa salad and a layer of Peruvian yellow-pepper sauce.
Bar manager Jared Johnson, formerly of the Great Harbor Yacht Club, designed a unique cocktail program for The Proprietors. He and his right-hand man, Nantucket newcomer Jamie Schwartz, sling some pretty interesting concoctions.
One of the most interesting offerings on the bar menu is the selection of house-made “shrubs,” or drinking vinegars, which are sweet and sour non-alcoholic sodas made with sugar-macerated fruit that has been preserved in vinegar, and then topped off with soda water. Johnson said part of his inspiration to put them on the menu was that they were drunk by sailors during Colonial times, so he thought they’d fit right in with the historical theme of The Proprietors.
Shrubs can be enjoyed as “virgin” drinks, but the bartenders also mix them into at least one of their signature cocktails: The No. 2, which is a smoky mix of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal and Combier triple sec with the strawberry shrub and lime. They can also be added to sparkling wine to make a spritzer.
Johnson said his goal at the bar is to provide patrons with more than a drink. He wants to give them an “experience,” something new to taste, whether it’s a shrub, an obscure spirit or a new wine. He also said his cocktails walk the line between the California-style (which he describes as “a salad in a glass”) and New York-style (which he defines as “classic cocktail”).
The bar’s most popular cocktail, the No. 4, walks that line perfectly. It is served in a champagne coupe and made with Fair Trade quinoa vodka, field arugula syrup and kale, cucumber and lemon juices, and garnished with half a pickled baby carrot. It’s like freshsqueezed lemonade topped off with green vegetable juice with, of course, a kick from the vodka.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll want to save room for the decadent creations dreamed up by The Proprietors pastry chef, Liz O’Connell, who oddly enough isn’t attracted to overly-sweet things.
“I’m more of a salty-sweet person, so that’s what we go for here,” she said.
O’Connell’s desserts are creative, but the soft-serve ice cream is the one that gives her the most pride.
“It was a lot of work to find the machine and then to create a base formula,” said O’Connell, adding that she focused on perfecting soft-serve ice-cream recipes all winter. The flavors change regularly.
Other desserts include The Pan No. 22 Blueberry Crumbstick, a clever take on an old dessert classic. O’Connell came up with the idea for this berry crumble after Berry presented her with a 100-year-old castiron cornbread pan that he found.
The Strawberry Mess with Cracked Meringue, BasilLime Sherbet, Marmalade and Jammie Dodgers is another winner. Comprised of both soft and crunchy textures, sweet and tangy tastes, it inspires you to scrape every last spoonful out of the large ice-cream soda glass it comes in. The combination of strawberry, basil, lime and meringue also conjures nostalgic thoughts of bright flavors and desserts from summers past.
The Proprietors will stay open through the extended season until New Year’s Day, and they’re already planning to celebrate the end of their first year with a big New Year’s Eve bash.
Jen Laskey is a contributing writer to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.