Legend has it that in 1620, the pilgrims set foot on terra firma at Plymouth Rock. But did they really? Likewise, is The Plimoth, the charming new eatery that chef-owner Peter Ryan named after his Massachusetts home town, really a "neighborhood eatery," as the tagline claims? Does it actually cater to North City Park and the Whittier neighborhood, which lies just across York Street?
And does it matter? Something happened at Plymouth, even if historians quibble about what, and something is definitely happening at the Plimoth.
See also: Behind the Scenes at the Plimoth
This Plimoth, of course, isn't trying to start a nation. But Ryan's task seems almost as daunting: getting people to go out to eat in a part of town that has been long been ignored and is certainly no dining destination. One night, I heard a well-heeled man whisper to his tablemate, "When you said we were going to the 'hood, I thought you meant your 'hood." Walking from my car, I passed a series of dark storefronts, some with bars on the windows, others with "No minors" scrawled on the door. A pay phone dangled off the hook, swinging back and forth in the wind on its long metallic cord. There was no bustle, no buzz of cars on the street, no people walking by en route to other restaurants or bars. "I was so tired of waiting for change to happen," explains Ryan, who has lived in the area for more than a decade. "Finally I said, 'Screw it. I'm going to be the change.'"
So a year ago, he inked a deal on a 1,200-square-foot space in a nearly century-old storefront and started asking former colleagues from his days at Z Cuisine and Cook Street School of Culinary Arts to take the leap with him. They did — everyone from Javier Cruz, his charcuterie wiz, to co-chef Charles MacDonald — and now the team of alums is using this most unlikely of locations to put out cuisine so steeped in classic French technique, the restaurant could be confused with a Parisian bistro.
Indeed, as my husband and I squeezed into our table, so close to the couple next to us that we felt the need to nod hello, I was reminded of another neighborhood eatery, this one in Paris near where I used to live, a casual place run by a fun-loving bunch of Frenchmen who cooked a mean steak frites and offered a pichet of house red that no one — not me, not the blazer-and-scarf-wearing Parisians — ever turned down. Like Café Parisian, the Plimoth feels old in all the right places: white tile floor from the early twentieth century; wood-and-exposed-brick bar with people swirling wine and angling their stools to be closer to each other; bare bulbs with curly filaments giving off just enough light that it feels like candles are on the tables, even if they're not.
The menu, too, seems straight out of Paris — not in a clichéd, Champs-Élysées way, but in a way that might tempt locals filing off the Metro to grab a bite after work. Admittedly, a meal there wouldn't start with waffle-cut chips, which Ryan sends out as a friendly welcome, but it could easily include potato-leek soup — tinted green with puréed parsley, broccolini and kale — or pork rillette. Served not smooth but country style, with pockets of fat and chunks of pork along with pickled red-chard stems and a dollop of cornichon-specked mustard, the rillette was just what we wanted after work. Another night, we started with a very French salad, which is to say it was less about the greens than American salads tend to be, and more an excuse to eat charcuterie — in this case, confit duck gizzards with roasted beets. "We like to cook what we want to eat," explains Ryan.
The dish was very duck-forward; I could have used a few less gizzards and a few more greens. My husband was just as happy to ignore it altogether and content himself with the cauliflower-turnip gratinée, which had just enough Mornay (a cheesy béchamel) to suspend the vegetables so that we could smear them on crostini. Even with a menu that changes based on what the cooks feel like making, that gratinée has become a staple.
Now that my work is done and I don't feel the need to eat my way across the board, I can't wait to grab a seat at the bar and unwind, glass of wine in one hand, cauliflower crostini in the other. When I do, I will finish my meal with mussels scattered across lardo-slicked bucatini. With fennel sausage, persillade and butter in the broth, the dish is more of a main than a straight-up bowl of mussels would be.
Just when the Plimoth feels too classic, Ryan tosses in dishes he calls "cheeky," such as chicken with shrimp étouffée and a knockout vegetarian option with lentils and diced sweet potatoes. Threaded with North African spices and dotted with cilantro and yogurt, the curried lentils basked in an orange-scented carrot coulis that I could have eaten as soup. And while choucroute garni sounds traditional, with its tangle of not-too-sour sauerkraut, brat and pork belly, those components rallied around a fun-loving whole-grain-mustard sauce spiked with Prost beer.
Such creativity is often a pastry chef's hallmark. But here the desserts could be straight out of a "Night in Paris" cooking class: chocolate pot de crème, flaky pear tart, apple-and-cherry-studded clafoutis. While they don't win points for originality, they do for how well they complement the menu, and their grade of execution is high. Just make sure to order the clafoutis early; servers don't warn you in advance that it takes fifteen minutes to make, which might be too long if you have places to go and people to see.
Then again, the people you want to see might already be here. Since it opened in November, the Plimoth has become somewhat of a scene, a place where prime-time reservations are a must and politicos walk in and recognize someone at every table they pass. The scene changes as the night wears on, with tables turning over to industry folks and twenty-somethings on dates. Such diversity contributes to the feeling that the Plimoth is the neighborhood spot it set out to be — even if the neighborhoods it's drawing from are far-flung. But no matter where you're coming from, a meal at the Plimoth should make you feel like those original pilgrims: happy to have arrived at what promises to be a landmark.