Tasting menus the last few years have spread like an epidemic across the country — setting up uninitiated diners and amateur foodies for what can end up being an exhausting night of relentless dish shuffling, constant overselling of unheard-of ingredients by the waitstaff and a bill for dessert that leaves wallets as dry as a glass of Chablis.
In Worcester, though, tasting menus are still more hidden treasure than booby trap, even on a Friday night.
At deadhorse hill, the trendy, well-regarded downtown eatery, Chef Jared Forman’s tasting menu is one of breathtaking explorations into the American palate. Coupling a unique approach to seasonal items with a regular rotation of inspiring presentations, the tasting menu we recently sampled provided all sorts of surprises as the dishes seemed to transport us across the landscape of New England.
The Horse Feast – an appropriate title for deadhorse’s substantial tasting menu – is served family style, brought to the table in large serving dishes from which everyone can help themselves. The feast changes often based on seasonal availability of ingredients and Forman’s direct connections to New England fishermen, farmers and distributors.
Assembling an 11-course meal in complete harmony is well-executed, and can be well-observed, in the open kitchen. Starting with a few single Spinney Creek oysters topped with pickled currants and ending with a treat of corn ice cream, Maine blueberry sauce and caramel corn – their late summer/autumn twist on an ice cream Sunday – the menu meets all requirements to encourage a return visit.
Each dish not only complements the last, but offers a visual appeal to hold the diner’s attention long enough for the next dish to arrive.
Terrine de foie gras (French for “fatty liver”) is one of the fine-dining world’s most popular delicacies as it combines a sweet taste with a silky texture. At deadhorse hill it’s plated with Szechuan peppercorns, ramp jam and toast. Followed by poached Atlantic halibut topped with simmered eggplant, miso, pickled daikon and dashi, these dishes keep all your tastebuds engaged with every bite.
Placing a chef in full control over dinner options can be a turnoff for some unadventurous eaters, but for those willing to live vicariously through the culinary skills of well-trained chefs, deadhorse hill is the ideal place to dine and unwind.
Beyond Forman’s skill, the knowledge of the waitstaff makes ordering unique dishes at deadhorse hill as comfortable as sitting at your family dining room table.
Experienced and eager to share the story behind each ingredient, none of the waitstaff we’ve encountered gives the unamusing, uninspiring response of “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask the chef” when answering diners’ questions; deadhorse hill works like a well-oiled machine, each component collaborating diligently to ensure a smooth experience.
Carlos, one of my favorite waiters, possesses both charm and knowledge, always giving the guests something to smile about — and something to talk about.
And while all dishes in the Horse Feast ($85 per person) are not as rare as the wild blueberry marinara — and do not always require an explanation — they do, however, generally manage to show a unique side of even the simplest dishes.
The rigatoni – as homestyle and ordinary a starting point as you can get – is turned into a light serving of bliss, featuring charred sungold marinara and ricotta with a hint of spice. “My go-to meal is the rigatoni,” said one of our dinner guests this particular Friday. “Mostly because it is much different than the rigatoni I’ve had in the past. It is both comfort food and modern cuisine.”
This hearty serving is often a fan favorite, but only because those diners haven’t explored the centerpiece dish. The Shire Beef Wagyu from Vermont, a long-bone braised short rib, is simply perfection. Overcrowding the length of a 12-inch plate and placed upon two servings of mashed potatoes, the Shire Beef Wagyu melts off the bone with but a delicate touch.
As the dish made its way from the kitchen to our table, more than one of our fellow diners stared in awe.
One woman, a vendor for several restaurants in the city, stopped and asked, “What is this dish? It’s beautiful.” A few questions later, she pulled up a seat, grabbed a fork and joined the dinner party long enough to appreciate the acumen of chef Forman.
Exuding flavors we still have on our mind, the centerpiece sets the tone for pastry chef Robin Clark to follow with her extraordinarily sweet flavors. “I like to combine flavors that will make guests wonder how it could possibly taste so good,” Clark said. “In addition, I am a hoarder.
“I love the change of seasons but I often feel sad when seasons come to an end because that means, so do some of my creations. So, I hoard and freeze some seasonal favorites, like peaches, and surprise guests later in the year with a little tribute to warmer days.”
The summertime sundae, exceptional in its own right, is no match for the triple threat of sweets offered on deadhorse hill’s ever-changing dessert menu. Between the dark chocolate cremeux, a cocoa nib dentelle with cherry sorbet, the local peach shortcake infused with verbena whipped cream – picking a favorite is almost impossible.
If a choice has to be made, the local peach shortcake is at the top of my list. But since I’ll certainly find myself back at 281 Main St., that could change. Stay tuned.
While tasting menus remain a divisive offering in the culinary world — and one often still hidden from the average diner — in Worcester, at least at deadhorse hill, they are something to be celebrated and are likely to lead you to an inevitable love affair with food exploration.