The Urban Kitchen and Bar, which opened for business this January, bills itself an “American Brasserie.” That means two things for Executive Chef Jacob Bowser: Brasserie for the relaxed, lively, convivial feeling of the space and American for the food, which Bowser calls “a melting pot of flavors” deeply rooted in French and Italian techniques.
“You could call what I do refined comfort food,” says Bowser, who trained at the French Culinary Institute and with some of the top chefs in New York City. “For me it is very important to maintain that refinement. Comfort food is delicious but that’s really about the quantity of food put on a plate. We have to get away from quantity as a measure of quality. We put more touches on our food to make things interesting and deliver value in the experience, quality, and refinement we bring to it.”
For Bowser refined doesn’t mean fancy but twists on the most simple and rustic dishes. Even the Urban Kitchen’s pastas are not classic red-sauce Italian dishes. They start with fresh pasta Bowser’s fiancé makes using the skills she acquired as a chef in New York City. Then, Bowser creates dishes that draw on his passion for mixing flavors and defying diners’ expectations: A tortellini filled with duck and cooked with Brussels sprouts and shallots, a potato ravioli served with caramelized onions.
Bowser calls his salsify clam chowder “the best idea” of this approach. He takes the base of a classic New England Clam Chowder but uses salsify – a white root vegetable similar to a carrot that complements the clams’ sweetness – to thicken the broth. Combined with the other flavors and vegetables you expect from the chowder and finished with local clams and a little bacon, it is fresh and familiar yet a little different, right down to the oyster crackers, which are baked in house.
“It’s not about being different,” says Bowser. “It’s about how we can make what has already been there forever better. I’m not reinventing the wheel just putting our touch on things.”
That starts with not only an idea but also great ingredients, which are seasonally focused and hopefully more and more local and sustainable, a point Bowser makes while standing in front of his “Living Lettuce” – small greens grown in the kitchen and cut fresh before being served. For Bowser, this is not a gimmick but ties into the quality of life he seeks in returning to Massachusetts. (Bowser hails from Leominster and lives in the woods in Sterling.)
“The beautiful part about Worcester is there are so many small farms around us that we can get cheese or seasonal produce from. Why do we need to get apples from Chile if we live in New England? We get our fish straight from the piers, not purveyors. You can’t just keep buying things from big corporations and ignore what we have here. It’s important to do our part for where I want to live and work in now.”
That’s why Bowser also plans to do “nose-to-tail” cooking at Urban Kitchen & Bar, eventually bringing in whole pigs and using the familiar cuts for dishes and the extra bits for house made charcuterie – something few chefs in Massachusetts are doing.
Bowser hopes to make people a little more open minded to offal. Maybe not brains, he adds, but chicken liver, beef tongue, or a venison pâté de campagne (country terrine) that features pistachios and duck liver. “I know it is going to be hard and a bit of a challenge to sell that but it’s delicious and the people who have it really enjoy it.”
For Bowser, that’s the biggest compliment a diner can give him – to appreciate what he does, understand what the food connects to, and have an experience that interests and inspires as much as it satisfies: “I am doing what I love. Food is it is the only art form that requires all five senses. You don’t really want to smell and taste a painting. The intuition and process of satisfying all those senses for people – that is the most fun for me.”
Editor’s Note: Executive Chef Jacob Bowser left the Urban in June 2015.