CAMBRIDGE - There’s something both ineffectual and evocative about the concept of a gastropub. Painfully evocative. Chiefly, evocative of a wholesale lack of imagination.
You may have seen the term “gastropub” applied to everything from Michelin star cuisine to a glorified Bennigan’s and wondered what the standard definition is. There isn't. After breaking into Food writers are notoriously lazy and unreliable. We’re fond of tossing around neologisms like Plato after busting into the Academy’s wine stash in the vain hopes that our coinages penetrate the American psyche—solely so we don’t have to come up with multiple euphemisms for “nose to tail”, “sourced” and “artisan.” Remember when Pizza Hut tried launching their line of “artisan” pizzas? They dumped that a few years ago in favor of a hot dog stuffed crust. Hell exists. And the product development heads at Pizza Hut want to be your tour guides.
Terms like “gastropub” precisely why food writers are hated by both chefs and semioticians alike because it’s largely an inaccurate allusion that encompasses everything and signifies absolutely nothing. The very survival of a restaurant is predicated on fulfilling largely meaningless definitions as a result; a definition that can apply just as much to a struggling independent venture as it does to a fast-casual chain. I don’t think they have gastropubs in Thailand yet. But I also don’t think they have Bennigan’s either.
Like it or not, restaurants thrive off marketing as much as quality and reputation. Perhaps even more. Both Craigie Street Bistro and Coppa made their mark on equal parts hype and equal parts menu, But the former is now dead, at least in its original incarnation. And the latter thrives off whatever status Ken Oringer has as a name draw—not as much for his cooking, but as one of People magazine’s most eligible bachelors. So what happens when two veteran cooks from both establishments announce their own debut public venture?
Thistle & Leek. Or what Kate & Trevor Smith are describing as a “terroir-driven refined gastropub with a healthy sprinkling of Spanish and Italian flavors.”
That’s “terroir,” not terror. What’s the difference? Webster’s defines terroir as “the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.” In other words, a locally sourced wine bar. And that’s “refined” gastropub—which to the husband and wife team means salt-baked rutabaga with braised oxtail and crispy leek and smoked mackerel with cauliflower and horseradish. Or in other words, something a little bit more substantial than that $4.99 Blooin’ Onion special you’ll ultimately wind up regretting.
It’s not that either chef has anything less than an impressive pedigree. In addition to Craigie Street and Coppa, the pair’s resume includes stints at Toro as well as Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern and Les Bernardin. It’s that they’re choosing to define their concept through trenchant euphemisms practically oozing sound and fury, yet signifying nothing. It might easily be the most exquisite salt-roasted rutabaga you’re likely to have in your life. But you’re paying top dollar for the novelty of dining at a terroir-driven refined gastropub, not a wine bar helmed by veteran chefs. And novelty needs to be perpetual unless you want to wind up with… well, hot dog stuffed pizza crust.
So far, both chefs are remaining relatively silent about Thistle & Leek, outside of a now sold-out preview dinner at the Formaggio Kitchen Annex in Cambridge next week. In fact, I’m not even certain if rutabagas can be regionally sourced in Cambridge in the middle of February. If the Smiths can, they’re likely wizards. Cheese-making, terroir-driven wizards.
For more information about Thistle & Leek, visit their Instagram for regular updates.
Image Via Instagram/Thistle&Leek