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Lock 50’s Tim Russo Creates From Scratch To Control The Dining Experience

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA

Tim Russo wants you to feel awful. The more awful the better as far as he is concerned when you come to Lock 50, his restaurant and café that opened in April in Worcester’s bustling Canal District.

Well, at least to a lot of people that’s what it sounds like Tim’s saying. But that’s not what he means. What he really wants you to feel is offal – the entrails, organs, and trimmed bits of animals used as food. Liver, tongue, thymus, heart … especially the heart. Chicken hearts, specifically. If our eyes are the windows to our souls, chicken hearts are the windows to Tim’s soul as a chef.

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA
Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MAChef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA (Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Sure the other parts of animals – as well as vegetables and grains – engage Tim and are on fine display on his menu. A pork shank is as refined as it is comforting; it’s seasonal accompaniments drawing on anything from tomato brodo in the summer to apples and Brussels sprout leaves in the fall. Steak? Yeah, Tim does his most recent with mushrooms, sweet and sour cherries, crispy bleu cheese, and rapini pesto but get ready for something new for Lock’s first spring (stay tuned). Tim also happens to be a master at gnocchi, which is the one thing his uncle and the owner of the restaurant, Ed Russo, will never let him take off the menu. The dish is even meat free: mixed with blue cheese, crispy sweet potato, and fresh scallion.

Gnocchi was actually the first “pasta” (technically a dumpling but many people think of it as pasta) Tim learned to make at home as a kid and they are easily among the best I’ve ever had. Or anyone else it seems, which is one reason they are his most popular dish (he sends out about 100 orders a week). The other reasons are they are the most familiar and accessible point of entry to Tim’s cooking – if you will, the gateway “drug” for his food for many customers. They may be, as he says, a “pain in the ass” to make but he’s giving the people what they want.

And Tim is all about his customers. They’re just a little different than he thought they would be at the outset – a little older demographic, more upscale, intrigued by the menu and location and happy with the charming intimacy of a space free of loud music. But they were also a little less adventurous than the post-college kids Tim expected. Which brings us back to those chicken hearts.

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)

“This was the first place where I had complete control of the menu,” says Tim. “I said, ‘This is the concept, and this is what we are doing.’ I designed the kitchen too, which was a game of Tetris on drafting paper. Measure, move. Measure, move. Maximize the space and get the most and biggest pieces of equipment I could to make this what I wanted: a modern American space and menu like you see in New York, Boston, even Portland and Providence. A menu filled with stuff chefs like to eat – where people like me go, try some stuff maybe they have never tried, have some cool cocktails, and then go on to the next place. My menu was designed around weird, fun stuff.”

Like those chicken hearts, which he served on skewers as a bar snack. Hardly your typical Worcester bar fare – or your typical bar fare period. They didn’t last. But Tim has hope. At Armsby Abbey, where he served as executive sous chef, Tim worked with beef heart and tongue and he gave a little tongue at Volturno too with a beef tongue bruschetta that remains a hit. For now, Tim is adapting: “My very first concept menu was way out there, and I had to shut it down and create one that was more familiar and basic. We’re not quite that adventurous here yet. We’re getting there. I’m trying to get people to try stuff and realize it’s not weird or crazy or maybe you just had it prepared badly. Octopus is becoming pretty popular now, but so many people say it’s rubbery and gross. But my chilled sous vide compressed octopus is so tender it melts-in-your mouth. People just need to get past what they think they know.”

All this takes Tim back to growing up with his three sisters who were incredibly picky about anything put in front of them: “It’s terrible. When I started cooking as a kid I would try anything. They called me the garbage disposal because I would eat anything. I would always try and push my sisters and my friends. But they would say it was disgusting without even trying it. Just because of the name. Just try it! Now I’m trying to do that in Worcester on my own now.”

The fourth course from chef Tim Russo's Chef's Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA - Seared tri-tip steak with soubise sauce
The fourth course from chef Tim Russo’s Chef’s Tasting Menu at Lock 50 in Worcester, MA – Seared tri-tip steak with soubise sauce (Photos by Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

That is a point of pride for Tim, too: Because unlike many of the amazing chefs that are elevating the Worcester dining scene who come from surrounding towns or further afoot, Tim was born in Worcester and grew up here. He attended “The Voke” for culinary arts and first cooked at Maxwell Silverman’s. Following high school, he worked in Providence and got a degree from Johnson & Wales before decamping for Nantucket and eventually ending up back in here at Armsby Abbey and Volturno.

Tim is confident people will eventually respond just as they did when the hometown boy took first place Judge’s Choice and second place People’s Choice at the 2015 Worcester’s Best Chef Competition and was named Worcester’s Best Chef the same year. He’s encouraged by the little victories like the house-made Moroccan lamb sausage, which is taking off (he thought people would be skittish). Pricing is still a challenge though. The hurdle isn’t just the ingredients but that lingering perception that “quantity equals quality” and that Outback has a great steak that compares to what you would get at Lock 50.

“People don’t understand that we make everything from scratch,” Tim adds. “I put the best lamb in that lamb sausage and then all the time that goes into us making it here – four hours to break down and grind and sous vide and cook to order. That’s why you pay $14 for lamb sausage. It’s quality ingredients that took four hours of our time.

This is a huge learning curve that we need to understand.”

As customers do respond to more adventurous dishes, Tim slips some unfamiliar things alongside or inside the more familiar fare, or as Tim says: “Give people what they want while still giving them what you want too.”

“You want this but I am going to do it this way or add a little something,” he adds. “Inch those things back onto the menu more and more as we progress and gain a reputation. I’m thinking of doing a foie gras hot dog with the foie emulsified into the meat. If I were to do a burger it definitely would have something like bone marrow in it. So hot dogs and hamburgers but still something I made you try. Make it special.”

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA
Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA (Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

Tim’s already there with his Meat Board: He started putting chicken liver pâté next to the house-made charcuterie and other high-quality cured meats. “A lot of people say, ‘That’s gross I hate liver,” he says, glancing over at Ed at the bar. “He said he hates liver. ‘I’m not eating liver.’ I gave him some pâté on the board and he admitted it was delicious. Putting it on the board you sort of get people with things they already eat. ‘Hey it’s there I might as well taste it.’ And they generally enjoy it. It was just the perception that it’s gross and they won’t like it.”

He also gets to do that with the Lock 50 tasting menu, which is a blind tasting of five or seven courses with or without wine. He hasn’t gone too crazy yet, because he wants his customers to come back so maybe he waits for their second visit to slip in some chicken heart confit. The idea is to make sure there is something for everyone but maybe with a new technique or ingredient. For Tim, that’s super rewarding when they respond.

“I’m not just trying to grow myself,” Tim says. “I want us to grow as a food city. That’s huge for me growing up here, going to The Voke, and being from a place I used to have to drive away from to find good food. Now look around. I have a great staff I could not do without. I have great customers who are getting more adventurous. We’re in the Canal District and there is great food all around us. It’s a great time to be here.” Not so awful, after all.

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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.