If you’re going to stake out territory as the region’s best venue for craft beers, you’d better bring something more to the table. And it had better be delicious.
“When you focus on the quality of something so much — like the beer — it would be kind of silly if you just forgot about the food or made it a second thought,” says Armsby Abbey chef Damian Evangelous.
Rest assured. There’s no “second thought” to food at Armsby, which is nestled in a North Main Street building far flung from the city’s well-trod cuisine corridors. That food goes hand in hand with the more than 150 bottled craft beers, more than 20 on tap beers and creative selection of cocktails and wines (you’ll find pairing suggestions with each item on Armsby’s menu).
But the food — remarkably local and often surprising in its presentation — that’s Evangelous’ passion. It’s a passion that began as a kid watching “Emeril Live” and took him to working in kitchens in the Hamptons, California and Spain before moving back to the area. He was worried coming back. He wasn’t sure he could find an appetite locally for the type of farm fresh cuisine he wanted to make. He found an unexpected ally in Armsby Abbey owners Alec Lopez and Sherri M. Sadowski.
“I looked around Worcester and found this place,” Evangelous recalls. “Alec was the chef at the time and I just really fell in love with the philosophy here.”
That philosophy, which began with seeking out the best hand-crafted beers available, extended to supporting local agriculture and bringing some of the region’s best agricultural products to the table — often in ways that defy stereotypes.
“I try not to overcomplicate anything,” Evangelous says. “I try not to show off with fancy techniques.”
That doesn’t mean the food is plain. Take the cauliflower. You’ll likely never look at it the same way again. Cooked in chicken fat and served with a potato puree, Kimchi, soft-cooked egg (local), almond bread crumbs, chives, espelette and lemon zest. It’s a hand-crafted dish. They all are.
The smoked chicken comes from a farm in Vermont and is served with heirloom beans and cabbage and sweet potatoes. There’s the monkfish stew (caught locally), the sweet dumpling flatbread with fresh sage, brown butter, parmesan and toasted hazelnuts.
The notion of “farm to table” is one Armsby takes to heart. It’s not just a few items on the menu. From the apple crisp with apples from Tougas Farm in Northborough to the grass-fed beef from Adams Farm in Athol. The food “feels” farm to table.
“Since I’ve come on we’ve worked pretty hard to find as many farms as we could,” Evangelous says. “We work very closely with Harms Family Farm in Brookfield. The produce they grow is just so incredibly delicious. Their tomatoes are insanely sweet and acidic and bright and they taste terrific. You really can taste the difference.”
The food and beers are carefully selected to complement each other. Farmstead cheeses are listed along with the farms they come from. This isn’t a pub.
“We’re really not that place,” Evangelous says. “We do a very specific thing here.”
But like many of the city’s top chefs, Evangelous says the biggest challenge is getting people to try new things. Sometimes the plate passing by you on the way from the kitchen is the best sell.
“People can be kind of stubborn and it’s hard for them to break away from what they’re used to,” Evangelous says. “You overcome that by making everything we offer extremely delicious.”
The local produce is abundant and delicious. And although much of it is seasonal, it doesn’t end with the close of summer. As the winter season begins to settle in, Evangelous says Armsby will move more toward more grains and meats.
“Finding local grains was one of the hardest things for me until this last year,” he said. “There’s a farm in Northfield and they grow all sorts of heirloom varieties of grains.”
The seasonal menus shift leans more hearty in the cold months.
“We’re in New England and that’s sort of the way I want to eat,” he says.
But with local greenhouses and root cellars it’s doable these days to keep the fresh, local produce coming year round.
The farm to table terminology gets thrown out a lot these days. It can be a gimmick at some places — buying a few local products to scatter onto the menu. But at Armsby, it’s really central to everything they do.
“It’s come a long way in the past five years; even in the past two years,” Evangelous says of Armsby’s mission to bring higher quality eating to the city. “But I think we still have a long way to go.”