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“Hey Chef Forman, Tell Me a Story…”

Jared Forman is the Executive Chef and co-owner of deadhorse hill in Worcester.

So, you’ve opted for our $85 family style tasting menu with a full beverage pairing. Excellent choice. Tasting menus are about more than buying a bunch of food, calculating the cost to cook it, and slinging it out of the kitchen.

Our “horse feast” is designed to offer guests the chance to give us full control over their experience. We build each menu on the spot, taking into account party size (we have done anywhere from 1-24 people), first-time diners versus repeat tasters, and of course, the freshest and best items we have in-house.

Whenever [Wine Director] Julia [Auger] and I go out to eat, we love to order a whole bunch of things and share them as-they-come, like a meal at a Chinese restaurant – a big table full of food. The Horse Feast sends out five courses like this, offering just enough for a few bites before guests move onto the next thing.

The Feast is broken down into categories:

The first course – raw, fermented, and charcuterie. Today, for example, you would start off with two Maine Belon Oysters (the season just opened), our Tsukemono Pickle Bowl featuring local vegetables prepared in various techniques from around the world, Bluefin Tuna Toro Korean Sashimi Bowl (called hoedoepbap), Smoked Eel from Maine drizzled with brown sugar and soy, and a slice of Foie Gras Terrine and potato chips with ramp jam made from wild ramps that we picked ourselves in the Spring.

Second, comes our pasta and grain course. My Sous Chef, Robin, is always tinkering around with a new shape of pasta or new flavored dough and those test rounds are perfect to find on a tasting menu. If you haven’t dined with us before, we would send you a bowl of crispy mustard spaetzle with house made creme fraiche and summer corn. We might consider fresh fusilli, hot off our extruder with wild Maine blueberry marinara, Florida rock shrimp, and house cured pancetta. Last week we had charred sungold cherry tomatoes with rigatoni, but this week we have wild Hen-of-the-Wood risotto with honeycrisp apples, freshly shucked raw pistachios, and goat cheese.

Our third course comes from the water. Depending on how adventurous you are, there might be a whole fried striped bass head coming your way, with some rice, fish sauce vinaigrette and a pair of chopsticks. Perhaps some steamed spot prawns from the Pacific Northwest, or sauteed razor clams with greens beans and xo sauce, or a giant sea scallop for each person sitting on top of creamed corn and crunchy Japanese rice seasoning called furikake. Or, maybe a softly poached piece of salmon over simmered fairytale eggplant with a local young ginger infused dashi broth poured tableside.

The fourth course would be about land and/or air. I love to drop a big fat dry-aged Vermont Wagyu ribeye with fried local baby artichokes here – so damn delicious – or, if you timed it right, the duck we have been air drying for three weeks might be ready to roll on a night you are here, and the red pears are ripe enough to balance out the spicy and tangy cherry mostarda. Toss in a seasonal and local vegetable side, and now you have a balanced meal.

Finishing with dessert is where we shine. Robin rolls her eyes at me when cases of fresh fruit stack up on her table in the height of harvest season, but she purees and preserves them with the intention of spinning incredible cantaloupe sorbet in the cold of January. Right now, I’m sure you can find space for a sundae of corn ice cream, blueberry sauce and heirloom caramel popcorn, or a rich chocolate cremeaux with port poached cherries and ice cream made with those cherries pits.

Your beverage pairing would be just as fun and playful. Local craft beers in this area are some of the best in the country. Julia opens incredible wines from small vineyards and limited productions that you can’t find anywhere else in Central Mass with grape names you couldn’t hope to pronounce, but make their way into your glass. Sean surely has some concoction set aside for an occasion such as today, like the Blackberry Milk Punch or a Ramos Gin Fizz made with maple from Robin’s grandparents’ sugarhouse. Finishing with a Parlor Cappuccino that Patrick has artistically foamed from our shiny La Marzocco is like divinity.

Our tasting menu isn’t stuffy like traditional ones. It’s not about white glove service. Worcester is a blue-collar town, and I am a blue collar guy. Why can’t we be casual and simultaneously delicious, theatrical, and surprising? I believe we can. We don’t need an expensive fancy kitchen to cook great food. We do it with passionate people and superb quality products. Even the plates you are served have been selected for each dish. Some are vintage pieces we have been collecting for years, and some have been hand made by Julia at a shared pottery studio here in Worcester. I travel many miles searching the room for the perfect plate to serve your pasta in. None of them will be seen twice throughout this entire experience. Our Horse Feast is about having fun – trying something you may not have ordered yourself and falling in love with it. It is about sharing plates of food with people you love and sharing an experience, not just a meal. Some things you eat with a spoon, some with chopsticks, and sometimes you get your hands dirty. We want you to remember having bite after bite of something new that held your interest for the entire time you were with us as a guest in our home. We hope you leave feeling a connection to the people who served and prepared your food and even the farmer or spearfisher who may have had a hand in it as well. This is our chance to show the entire spectrum of skills we have been practicing since we first stepped into a kitchen and all of the things we have been desperately trying to learn since. There will be no bits of shells or popped bellies in your oysters. We will steam, fry, braise, simmer, roast, cure, ferment, boil, sear, poach, and grill your meal tonight. We will coax those starches out of the rice in your risotto with diligence. We will baste your steak with thyme, butter and garlic, until the butter has become nutty and browned and the thyme has crackled and popped.

This is our entire life crunched into a bunch of bowls inside a two hour period. We like to show it off.

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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.