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Is Worcester Ready For A Tasting Menu: Lock 50 Thinks So

The first course from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA

In Japanese, it’s called omakase. In French, menu dégustation. In the US, we call it a tasting menu. They are all basically the same thing: a meal consisting of a series of dishes selected by the chef presented on a smaller scale over five to seven (or more) courses for a set price. Sometimes each course is spelled out on the menu, other times you’re flying blind in the chef’s hands. Usually there are wine or drink pairings available. But no matter what it is called or how it is presented, tasting menus are a signature feature of restaurants around the world and have resulted in some of the most memorable dishes and meals of my life. The French Laundry in Napa, Sushi Yasuda in New York City, Arpège in Paris… But never in Worcester. Ever. For one reason: No one has really offered a tasting menu here.

Until now. At Lock 50 under chef Tim Russo. And the appearance and connection with its customers make it clear Worcester’s chef and restaurant scene hasn’t just arrived – it has evolved.

To be clear, a tasting menu is NOT the same as a prix fixe menu. A prix fixe menu is simply an a la carte menu of several courses served at a fixed price. You choose the dishes and no matter what you order, the prix fixe cost is what you pay (like during Worcester Restaurant Week). Maybe the closest thing to compare a tasting menu to before Lock 50 discretely started offering theirs in October would be a wine or beer dinner at any number of Worcester restaurants or the Chef’s Best events Mass Foodies puts on. But the former is designed around the beverages (usually from one vintner or supplier), and both happen only a few times a year. Snooze you lose.

Tasting menus like the one at Lock 50 are available every day. They are ever changing flights of fancy and flavor that challenge chefs – and thus you – to explore beyond the regular menu and engage your creative sides. This is not eating for sustenance – it is eating for experience.

The Lock 50 tasting menu is blind – meaning you don’t know what is coming beyond a progression from an appetizer-like starter or two, perhaps a pasta, into more main course style dishes, and finally dessert. Tim Russo is your guide. That requires confidence from him but a willingness on our part to get out of our comfort zones. Many of us are creatures of habit. We want what we want. Russo’s menu asks us to be surprised and try something you never would have ordered and may think we don’t like. Aside from a respect for any allergies or dietary restrictions, you get what you get and don’t get upset.

Is Worcester really ready for this?

The first course from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA. Celery root soup was topped with apple slaw, crispy Brussels sprout leaves, crumbled bacon, and fresh oregano
The first course from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA. Celery root soup was topped with apple slaw, crispy Brussels sprout leaves, crumbled bacon, and fresh oregano (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Owner Ed Russo thought so. He visited Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City earlier this year and was blown away by the tasting menu. “Holy shit, Timmy, we are doing this,” he said to his nephew. If you’ve met Ed, you knew Tim had no choice – and we are glad he likes a challenge, because he gets it. He’s clearly letting his mind wander in a good way.

The night we were there, Russo didn’t just nail the flavor landing for our five-course meal – he delivered a menu that was cohesive from start to finish. This was like a fashion collection that had a distinct and consistent point of view. Russo had clearly thought about color, texture, and seasonality not just flavor.

First came a bright and thick celery root soup was topped with apple slaw, crispy Brussels sprout leaves, crumbled bacon, and fresh oregano. It was fall in a bowl. That was followed by agnolotti (a small ravioli-like pasta typical of Piedmont) stuffed with pumpkin and mascarpone and sauce that had a hit of pear. Next Russo showed his playful side with a riff on scrapple – yes, I said scrapple – made with smoked turkey and served with a cranberry mostarda. Heresy perhaps for traditionalists who crave the Pennsylvania Dutch mush, completely unexpected at a place like Lock 50.

If all that sounds as appealing as they looked and tasted know that none of those dishes were part of the regular Lock 50 menu that night in any way. That’s the point of a tasting menu: Rarely do they reflect what anyone can order. On any given day, chefs like Russo may play around with limited ingredients, something they are thinking of adding to the menu, a technique, or just something special they can’t cook to scale.

That doesn’t mean you won’t find echoes of the regular menu in a tasting menu. Our fourth course was a seared tri-tip steak. On the menu, it comes with a red wine demi. On the tasting menu? It was fanned across a soubise sauce. And if you have no clue what soubise is, know I didn’t either. (It’s a cream sauce based on Béchamel with the addition of onion purée and in Russo’s version some roasted garlic.) But that is part of the fun of a tasting menu experience! The “what did you call that?” that precedes learning something new or seeing a different side of a dish you might know. (On other nights, Russo has also riffed on Lock 50’s oil-poached swordfish for the tasting menu.)

What made that tri-tip even better, however, is what I have neglected to mention yet: the wine. Our five-course dinner came with wine pairings. Full disclosure: I am dubious about wine pairings in places I don’t know the wine list or the one picking the wines. I am not sure I would have opted for it had I not been there to write this up. I would have been a fool.

Tommy Studer, who runs the wines for Lock 50, just gets it. His knowledge and pairings had been spot on through three courses but when he poured the Casa Silva Carmenere 2014 (Chile) with its deep dark color, smoky tobacco nose, and hearty tannins with the tri-tip you felt nothing short of joy as two mighty equals in the glass and on the plate elevated each other even higher.

The second course, with wine, from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA
The second course, with wine, from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Russo and Struder collaborate beyond well. It is even playful at times as it was during dessert. Russo offered a cinnamon and spice bread pudding on a brown butter sauce with a scoop of house-made brown butter ice cream. Struder didn’t choose a port for his pairing but a Cooper & Thief Red Wine Blend that is aged for three months in bourbon barrels. Drinks like a wine, smells like and hints of a bourbon with distinct vanilla notes. Wow.

Of course, personal attention like this does not come cheaply. While Worcesterites have learned to pay more for quality and the vision of a chef they trust, Lock 50’s tasting menu raises the bar there too. It costs $70 for five courses and $90 for seven courses, $110 and $140 respectively with wine. (This is still below what menus like these cost in Boston. By contrast, the tasting menu at Aureole, which inspired Ed, is $125 for five courses, $148 for seven, and $80 more for each with wine.)

The wines pairing the meals from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA
The wines pairing the meals from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

If there is any downside I’m guessing for some people, it won’t have anything to do with the price, wine, or the food. It’s that not having to discuss the menu and leaving yourself in Russo’s and Struder’s hands means you’ll actually have more time to talk to each other and have that conversation match the menu.

Listen, maybe all this discussion of what a tasting menu is and why it is worth it seems passé to some people. Maybe it gets a chuckle with folks I know who live closer to that other bigger city east of here, where I sampled tasting menus at O Ya and Craigie on Main years ago. It surely gets a laugh in New York City where I lived when tasting menus went mainstream there in the 90s. The scene got so overheated, obligatory, and in some cases still mandatory (no a la carte) that Pete Wells in The New York Times complained more than four years ago about being “nibbled to death” by the cult of tasting menus and their small dishes.

Get over yourselves. We are not they.

Maybe the most promising sign of a trend that is finding its own way in Worcester is that Jared Forman of the delightful deadhorse hill has discretely started offering a family-style “horse feast” tasting menu (also blind that allows the entire table to share a tasting experience of dishes on and off the menu for $65 per person or $100 with wine pairings). I say this because Forman comes from New York City and worked at two acclaimed and landmark restaurants: Gramercy Tavern (where there are still tasting menus and have been since Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio started it in 1994) and Per Se (where Thomas Keller’s team offers only a tasting menu and limited selection in each course for a price you don’t want to know).

I remember how exciting it was in New York City to eat at both these places when they opened and it feels the same way now in Worcester as the city responds differently to its chefs and restaurants and they respond in turn. This is a big step in our culinary evolution.

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From Momofuku Ssäm to Gramercy, Jared Forman Brings deadhorse hill to Worcester

Jared Forman from deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)

Let’s just get one thing out of they way first: Jared Forman, chef of the spectacular deadhorse hill in Worcester, is . . . a Mets fan. Diehard. It’s the first thing he talks about when we sit down. And no, it does not soften the blow of this Boston baseball betrayal when he reminds me that Mets pitcher Ron Darling (member of the hated 1986 team and whose autographed picture sits on the wall outside of the restaurant’s kitchen) hails from Millbury.

Suffice it to say, Forman will not have Sox fans at hello. After that? Absolutely.

Locally hot smoked trout. (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Locally hot smoked trout. (Photograph by Alex Belisle)


For one thing, Forman has a deep reverence for the history of Worcester right down to the building his restaurant occupies on Main Street. He is sourcing local ingredients from trout to beans to greens to bread. And the food he makes from those ingredients? His approach is good news for Worcester, even if most people ‘round here don’t like strawberries named Darryl.

Forman does come by the Mets thing honestly. He was born and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and moved to Queens, home of the Mets, as a teenager. The borough’s international intensity fueled his passion for all things food and he soon decided to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales. His externship was at one of New York City’s most acclaimed fine dining destinations: Thomas Keller’s Per Se. The résumé is just as impressive from there: Michael White’s Marea, David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm, and Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern (under Michael Anthony and Nancy Olson).

“I saw fine dining at Per Se. I saw David Chang win a James Beard Rising Star chef award [in 2007] without a Michelin star and without being too fine or too lowbrow, just doing fun shit every day that I got used to,” Forman says. “Only when I went to Gramercy did I learn all the traditional stuff like working with stocks and sauces. I went from the funky to the refined. Kinda cool because I think of a dish differently than someone with a more classical background. I learned this stuff backwards.”

After Gramercy, Forman took his backwards approach to Watertown and joined his Momofuku kitchen mate Tim Maslow in transforming Strip T’s from a tiny sandwich shop into a modern dining destination beyond Boston. They even managed to convert many of the customers who had been eating tuna melts for years and wow them with food they had never tasted before. Thus, when Forman and his business partner, Sean Woods, were ready to open their own place, they did not hesitate to look even further out to Worcester, where Woods lived, for a larger customer base. The success of Strip T’s in blue-collar Watertown gave them reason to be optimistic.

Jared Forman in the kitchen of deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Jared Forman in the kitchen of deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)

“There are hungry people out here who don’t want to and don’t have to commute into Boston for a great meal,” says Forman.

But where to put down their stake? They knew that they didn’t want to follow the crowds. They wanted to be about the future in an area deeply tied to the city’s past, not just the present. “When I said we were going to open in Worcester people said, ‘Shrewsbury Street?’ No, I wanted to be part of a new wave. Not what Worcester was or is but both of them together for the future. I love where are we going and where we were in the golden age.

Some might see Main Street as a disadvantage or a sign of a city past its prime. Not Forman and Woods. “If you look down Main Street from where we are, I feel like I am on one beautiful street in New York. Nothing has changed and anything is possible,” Woods says. “We are tied to the past and then looking past what can be. Look at this building. We ripped down the real horsehair plaster walls to expose the original brick for the first time since it was built. The tin ceiling is 161 years old and gorgeous. This used to be the Bay State Hotel. It was world class. It was the place to be. It was legit. It can be again.”

Forman and Woods built out their vision of old and new themselves, doing much of the work on their own and aspiring to create something casual that showcased their personalities as well as the food and beverages that they want to eat and drink. This means right down to the dishes, which might be a vintage plate from a thrift shop next to a handmade wood bowl from the Berkshires.

“We wanted to create a place we wanted to be in,” says Forman. “That means comfortable and being welcome. We call it ‘modern hospitality.’ That’s something I learned at Gramercy Tavern. They make you feel welcome as soon as you walk in the door. They elevate it so that their service is so proper but at the same time super casual as well. And they do it better than anyone else. That’s why Gramercy is Danny Meyer’s crown jewel.”

Matching Meyer – reigning king of New York City restaurant hospitality – is a tall order but one Forman is dead serious about working hard to achieve: “Across the board in my career, I went into everything thinking I don’t know shit. Sean didn’t think we knew anything about opening a restaurant, because worked in restaurants before. And it’s not about us. I learned at Gramercy that everything that you do on a plate you should think about the customer experience with that plate. I see chefs adding stuff and doing fancy things. But if you can’t eat it without everything on the plate making complete sense then you fail in a hospitality sense. So every time I try and create something, I think about that.”

They also thought about all of that and more when they chose the name, deadhorse hill, which is unexpected and exactly what Forman and Woods wanted. They didn’t want to be a Something “Restaurant” or “Tavern.”

“We wanted to identify ourselves as this is who we are and there is no place like us,” says Forman. So the name reflects their desire to honor history and transform it for the customer. There is also a direct connection to the space: The actual Deadhorse Hill is one of the seven hills of Worcester, named for its ability to kill horses that followed its climb towards Leicester. From 1905 to 1911, it was also the site of a world-class auto race. The Bay State Hotel was the headquarters for the club that ran the race.

And thankfully and delightfully, Forman’s food matches the grand aspirations of the past, the current space, and his culinary experience, but also reflects the broad range of what he and his staff like. So you’ll find Southern Fried Chicken Thighs, Memphis Ribs, and Spaghetti & Meatballs as well as Poached Scottish Salmon served with an Herb Curry and Chanterelles and an Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche.

“Everything on the menu is me,” Forman says. “I want to have some approachable things so that people who walk in off the street and are not expecting a restaurant like this are able to eat something.”

Forman also believes that deadhorse hill has the potential to be a high caliber restaurant, but he knows he is catering to an audience with different needs and expectations: “I don’t want to price people out. I don’t want to be so different that customers can’t relate to us. But someone who wants something more adventurous? I want to provide for them too. We have things that are lowbrow, highbrow, and something that will satisfy everyone, but everything has a reason and as much passion behind it as anything else.”

Which means that fried chicken has as much thought behind it as the duck breast. Or consider the Grilled Skirt Steak served with mole (an unsweetened Mexican chocolate sauce) and seared avocado. Most people when they order a strip are not thinking chocolate. Few people when eating avocado even think to sear it. Forman wants you to know both are delicious: “If someone says, ‘I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I just want a steak.’ It’s an awesome option for them and someone who wants to be adventurous. Everyone has had fried sweet potato wedges, but have you had those wedges cooked out in chicken and duck fat and covered in house smoked pastrami and housemade XO sauce? I know that everyone in Worcester’s old guard likes salmon. So we bring in responsibly raised salmon, sous vide it to order, and put an herb curry on it. Now we are appealing to someone who just wants salmon and someone who wants an interesting flavor profile.”

For fun, Forman also deep-fries the salmon head, which sells out every time it’s on the menu. He’s also playing with the menu so don’t expect to find many mainstays. For example, that salmon is evolving into a dish made from local trout hot smoked to order served with the same herbed curry and chanterelles and then triticale berries and green garlic – all local.

“What’s next is tomorrow’s menu,” Forman says. “I want people to walk in and say I had this last time and I was blown away and I can’t wait for the next thing. I want to be there for these people.”

Those people are key. After all, the idea of a refined new restaurant on Main Street – the first of any note since Armsby Abbey opened in 2008 – might have been unpredictable. But the community on Main Street and beyond, including from Armsby and its customers, has been overwhelming supportive: “The Armsby guys and the people at Volturno and BirchTree Bread became our friends. We push each other to be better.”

Forman then smiles and says everything has been way better than they expected: “We get people in here that are excited. We do get people who don’t know what to expect. But we turn those people into regulars. I expected it would take more time but people were really waiting for this.”

Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche (Photograph by Alex Belisle)