Back in March, when restaurants were abruptly shut down in the midst of the public health crisis, Jay Murray, executive chef at Ellis Square Social in Beverly, knew he needed to make a change. With a menu that consisted primarily of small plates of delicate, pretty food, offering it as takeout was just not in the cards. “Our old concept was very precise and labor-intensive, and we wouldn’t have been able to execute it properly,” Murray says. “It simply wouldn’t have translated to in-home dining.”
Murray’s solution was a complete flip— Ellis Square is now a barbecue joint, with classics like ribs, pulled pork, and shrimp and grits, and a full complement of sides influenced by his fine dining background.
“I’m trying to reframe the familiar,” says Murray, who spent most of his career in white tablecloth spots, including 18 years at Grill 23, an award-winning restaurant in Boston with meticulous service and a classic steakhouse menu. “We figured that there would be yet another comfort food revival.” And he’s not planning to switch back.
Across the region, and indeed around the world, chefs are rethinking their philosophies and their menus, finding ways to mix agility in adapting to the ever-changing times with the same high standards that built their reputations.
“The “old me” would want to have a couple dishes that were super-refined” and Instagram-ready, says Stephen Bushway, who came up through the ranks at Frank McClelland’s L’Espalier in Boston and recently joined Great Marsh Brewing Company in Essex as executive chef. “Now it’s completely transitioned to: I want everyone to come in, order something comfortably at a price that they’re comfortable with, and be like, ‘Damn, that was really good, it was a really good value, and it made me really happy.’ ”
One challenge Bushway had to meet with lightning speed was crafting an appealing appetizer menu on the fly for the taproom. When Governor Charlie Baker announced in August that breweries could not serve drinks without food, Bushway wanted to make sure their outdoor beer garden was in full compliance.
“We created a whole beer bites menu in about 24 hours” and 45 emails, the chef says with a laugh. Drawing on his experience at Coda, the Boston gastropub where he was executive chef until it closed this spring, he quickly whipped up a caramel sauce made with Great Marsh London Porter to complement house-made pretzel bites and a taco filled with IPA-braised pork belly, which sit alongside popular favorites like their fried clams.
Michael Sherman at Elm Square Oyster Co. in Andover has also found himself exploring new frontiers these days. His menu has always leaned into what is fresh and local, with a mix of carefully plated and creatively flavored entrees—like spaghetti and clams finished with saffron and smoked butter—alongside great burgers and sandwiches.
But the restaurant had never really offered take-out at all until this spring, causing them to experiment with some preparations—like the batter on their beloved crispy fish sandwich.
“I would send a server home with a fish sandwich every night,” Sherman says, explaining that the lucky tester would see how well the sandwich lasted over a 15-minute drive—something he’d literally never had to think about before. A change-up in packaging (fries and sandwich each in their own container) and a tweak to the batter led to a sandwich that was just as delicious at home as in the restaurant.
Takeout has always been part of the equation at Blue Ox in Lynn, so executive chef Guaracyara Pimenta didn’t have to do a lot of tweaking for that. “I think any of our dishes would travel well,” says the chef, who was at the Blue Ox for its launch in 2009, and then left for Boston’s Les Zygomates (which closed for good earlier this summer), before returning to take the top job. “It’s great to be back,” he says. “It’s different with all the crazy going on.”
These days, Pimenta is thinking constantly about the well-being and safety of his team—in addition to making sure the restaurant lives up to guests’ expectations. “[I want] to make sure [staff is] healthy, keep the morale up, and make sure our guests are comfortable enough to come here to dine with us.”
Demand has been steady for their craft cocktails—now available to go with the food—and elevated favorites like the award-winning Sin Burger, a beguiling hunk of meat topped with applewood smoked bacon, truffle aioli, and Swiss cheese. And with Anthony Caturano, owner of Tonno in Gloucester and Wakefield and Prezza in Boston, purchasing the restaurant last year, there are more tuna specials—a trademark of the chef/owner—working their way into the menu.
“[There’s] nothing better than using the whole fish,” Pimenta says. ”We do tuna belly crudo, tuna tonnato, and seared tuna. I even use the collar. So good!”
Sherman at Elm Square agrees that the tuna has been top quality lately, adding that fish in general has been particularly great, from the oysters that can be had for dine-in, or carefully shucked and set on ice to go, to the halibut for that crispy fish sandwich. “Everything has been super fresh—fresher than anything I’ve gotten in quite some time,” he says, which is impressive indeed when you consider the quality crudos and raw oysters his restaurant is known for.
As fall comes on, bringing with it Octoberfest-themed menus packed with house-made sausage and beer, and perhaps less of an appetite for outdoor dining, these chefs are proving themselves capable of managing most anything that comes their way. “Moving forward in the fall is definitely, definitely going to be a little bit of a challenge, but you know, it’s part of life,” Sherman says. “You’re going to have to change with the situations and hope for the best.”