Moules et frites, or mussels and fries, is the national dish of Belgium and popular everywhere from France to our shores and beyond. The preparation varies little from place to place: steamed mussels piled high in a pot, sprinkled with herbs; broth redolent of white wine, butter, garlic, shallot, perhaps onion; and a side of perfectly crisped fries on the side with some creamy mayo (if you’re enjoying Belgiafn style). The preparation is so ubiquitous I have had equally wonderful yet similar helpings from Boston to Briton to Brussels. It’s a classic that commands: if the dish ain’t broke don’t eff with it.
The other night in Worcester, someone effed with it. Broke it down – deconstructed it if you will. Reduced it to its base ingredients – mussel, potato, a member of the onion family, a creamy sauce for the fries – and rebuilt it to create something smaller and richer yet still inviting and familiar: A tangle of braised leeks nestled in a cream sauce topped with crisp bite-sized wedges of fingerling potatoes and mussels, shelled after being steeped in a broth flavored with coriander, chamomile, orange, and lemon. The richness of the dish was balanced by its pairing with an excellent Belgian whit bier brewed from the same ingredients featured in that steeping liquid. The lightness of the beer cut the richness of the dish and neither lost its character.
It was a clever take without being too clever – a fun, tasty, and totally perfect dish for a winter night. In many ways, it is what we have come to expect from the chefs and restaurants in this town. Just not this chef. Because, most of us don’t think of him as a chef. We think of Rob Fecteau as the brilliant baker behind the beloved BirchTree Bread Company. Turns out that bit of alliteration belied a deeper truth: Rob Fecteau can COOK.
Yeah yeah, Fecteau and his team make great pizza on Wednesdays and Fridays. The lunch dishes certainly reveal a deeper food sensibility beyond baking. But not like this. That riff on moules et frites was the first plated course Fecteau sent out as part of BirchTree’s 3Cross beer dinner. The dinner was the second (Wormtown was first, Flying Dreams is next) in the monthly series BirchTree hosts the first Thursd3ay of every month with the brewery. Each dinner is unique to the brewery’s beers and give Fecteau a chance to show off a side he rarely has gotten to show in the three years since BirchTree opened (as the place almost never slows down).
“I had an itch to get back into the kitchen as a cook,” says Fecteau. “Baking is obviously a passion of mine but it wasn’t my original passion. I cooked first: At home, with my mom when I was a little kid and my grandmothers were both excellent cooks. It’s just in my blood. To get back to doing some food gives me a challenge and also gives me a chance to make food I really like to eat. I’m a chef first because I just love to eat.”
And drink the things he loves to drink. Fecteau and his partner/wife Avra Hoffman added a terrific rotating beer selection on tap in 2016 so the synergy was an obvious one even if the food pairings are not.
“There’s a lot of different avenues before I get to the menu,” Fecteau notes. “I start by tasting all the beers. I go through pretty much every one that’s available from that brewery and then I narrow it down to those flavors that jump out at and inspire me and might pair well with what I want to cook.”
For example, those flavors in the 3Cross Whirlwind Withier Belgian Whit Bier (named for the Major Taylor the “Worcester Whirlwind” and the first African-American world champion cyclist) “stewed” for Fecteau ideas that a straight whit beer just wouldn’t inspire ingredients for. For the rest, he considered factors like the body of the beer, bitterness, and alcohol content. Whatever speaks to him, he goes with it. As a baker, he is also attuned to the flavor the hops and grains and other ingredients that go into the beer, particularly the unexpected ones. Fecteau especially likes that 3Cross founder Dave Howland uses wild yeast in his beers and plays with a lot of flavors others do not.
Fecteau chose to pass hors d’oeuvres with 3Cross’s flagship pale ale, Single-Speed with Citra (an immensely drinkable beer with citrus notes that adapt nicely to the food). “The Citra has passionfruit-like citrusy notes that jumped out so I included citrus in all three preparations,” says Fecteau, who sent out a trio of starters: house-cured citrus salmon with kefir (fermented milk) sour cream on some crisp BirchTree Danish rye; beet “tartare” with local beets marinated in citrus and roasted served with goat cheese on a sesame crisp; and (lest all that stuff sounded too healthy) gougères, a pâte à choux dough with gruyere folded into it, baked, and then piped full of creamed potatoes homemade pancetta (an homage to decadence, Fecteau’s French roots, and the fact we can cover our bellies with sweaters these days).
Following the mussels, a farmhouse IPA made Fecteau think of the abundance of root vegetables and a warm winter soup. The resulting roasted turnip and clothbound cheddar soup topped with a sourdough crouton and crispy parsnips, carrots, and beets felt more like a vegetable puree and was exceedingly rich – yet not decadent: “It’s just roasted turnips and vegetable stock, not much else except for the cheddar and sourdough croutons. My bother says you can make a dish rich without layering on lots of calories. I’m more of the type that layers on a lot of calories. But the flavor of these roasted turnips was enough.”
Fecteau’s brother also played a part in changing the final course just days before the event, much to Hoffman’s consternation as she tried to print the menu. “I had the dish mapped out – pork belly with baked beans and brown bread to go with the 3Cross Sheldon Brown Ale. I was doing a final tasting when my brother said I should do chicken fried venison,” says Fecteau, who couldn’t resist the idea. “I’ve been hunting since I went with my dad at 12. There is no more sustainable way of eating meat than harvesting a deer, and I had access to one. So I took the loins and the leg meat and fried it.” The decidedly un-cheffy chicken fry was given a gamey touch with the venison and elevated by caramelized delicata squash, venison jus made from the bones, and marinated bear paw mushrooms I would happily be buried in. The entire dish was locally sourced.
For dessert, Fecteau went with 3rd Revolution, 3 Cross’s first blended traditional Flemish style sour, which drinks like a cocktail and is lean and more acidic with flavors of cherry, vanilla, and bourbon – all of which he incorporated into a millefeuille topped with a traditional pastry cream, bourbon pecan streusel, and cherry compote. It was perhaps the only familiar BirchTree taste we got all night in a place that feels right at home to us now.
It’s the kind of evolution no one should or would dismiss.
Which is exactly what Fecteau and Hoffman want. In fact, the dinner showed the evolution of their partnership in making BirchTree so welcoming. Hoffman wasn’t even there full time when they opened. She did the marketing and bill paying, set up the coffee program with Acoustic Java, and handled farmer’s markets. Now she sets the mood and gives the space its welcoming touch – making sure the customers are satisfied even when chaos and crowds reign.
For the dinner, Hoffman’s skills were in fine form, choosing to seat guests at two super long communal tables perfectly decked out to engage and reflect that sense of community that has developed at BirchTree. She even sets the playlists, as eclectic and diverse as the crowds BirchTree gets. In a way, they remind me of Karen and David Waltuck of New York City’s dearly departed Chanterelle: For 30 years, she ran the front, him the back, and together they and the staff who reflected them made everyone feel at home.
Which is what Fecteau and Hoffman want BirchTree to be in and for Worcester. “So many small businesses in Worcester are coming and working together,” Fecteau says. “We are a community of restaurateurs, brewers, and entrepreneurs working together to help each other and complement each other.”
No better wish for any of us in 2018.
BirchTree beer dinners will be held the first Thursday of every month. Visit BirchTree’s website for information on upcoming dinners. Tickets can also be purchased on BirchTree’s website or at the shop.