Refining Fine Food

It’s a matter of place.When Chef/owner Michael Buckley announces he is closing his famous bistro, Michael Timothy’s, you know there has been a major sea change in the dining climate, maybe even a major rift in the time/space continuum.How could this happen? Buckley’s presence on Main Street Nashua marked the beginning of a renaissance of a vital downtown retail and dining scene 15 years ago. His restaurant was right on mark and quickly became the place to go for fine dining and “special occasions.”The bad news is “special occasions” are occurring less frequently for most people these days. It’s the dreaded adjective that restaurant owners now want to avoid.Buckley saw the writing on the wall. “We had growth this year in the Bistro, but the dining scene has changed. People just do not want to make the commitment to fine dining,” he explains.Commitment is a code word for making reservations weeks in advance, getting dressed up, squeezing into panty hose, walking in heels, spending two and half hours away from a large-screen TV and shelling out a day’s pay. In the dining scene at the moment, those days are a fading memory. People just want to enjoy themselves in a casual environment. They’ll even pay someone for the experience when it’s done right, in the right setting.Enter Michael Buckley, stage right.January 2, the Bistro will close and undergo a major renovation to reopen a few weeks later. The wall between the bar and now fine-dining area will be pierced with archways. The walls will be repainted and tables that don’t require tablecloths will be placed in the expanded bar area. To reflect the newer sensibilities in the dining scene, the name will be changed to MT’s Local Kitchen & Wine Bar.Michael Timothy regulars have long used the MT lingo. And anyone who has dined at MT’s Bistro over the years knows Chef Buckley has used local produce from the start. Nesenkeag Farm? “Before that even, we were buying produce from Lull Farm and Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis,” he adds. In addition, “hearty” has been Buckley’s descriptor for foods offered at the Bistro since day one. This wasn’t the place where you would find thimble-size portions of food. The entrées were substantial, the sauces bold and the experience was filling.What will Buckley bring to the table on the new menu?”We’ll have a blackboard for dishes that are created from what the market brings daily and it will acknowledge our sources. I am not so concerned with organic, but with sustainability. Sourcing local, though, has always made sense.”What had made the Bistro so good was the quality of the ingredients used. Buckley still plans on using quality ingredients, from local lobsters to local beef to pasta made from scratch, but filet mignon, not so much. Less-expensive cuts of beef are actually more tasty when cooked with skill and creativity.Along with brand-new menu items there will be the standout pizza, a real signature item that has been available all along. In this author’s estimation, it is the best pizza around. The dough is grilled on both sides and then toppings added and melted in the oven. No runny tomato sauce here – Buckley uses San Marzano tomatoes because they are the best tasting as a year-round source. The spinach and mushroom pizza is simple, but my favorite. New bar items have been added in the last six months and the lobster spaghetti and meatloaf will be anchor items for the new food theme.All the menu reconsiderations could have been done within the context of Michael Timothy’s Bistro and Wine Bar, but Buckley says, “It would still be the special occasion restaurant in people’s minds. We needed to make a fresh start with a new name and change up the setting.”What will stay is the quality of the food. You could whine about paying $18 for a pizza, but the ingredients are expensive and also cover the dough edge to edge. No inch-and-a-half unadorned bare border here.Will entertainment return to the bar? Probably not. There have been problems with the volume in the past that drove out as many customers that came in expressly for it.In the end Buckley is not the first to realize the party is over. Expanding real estate values gave the public a false sense of wealth, much of which they spent dining out in the heady days of 2003 to 2007. It was a great time to open a restaurant, but there is only so much room on the ledge. As the ledge filled up, more than a few slipped off as soon as the market soured. Just in Nashua, Del Vaudo’s was replaced with a pizza joint, the Black Orchid closed and became a bar scene, Jasmine’s upscale look became a detriment and also closed. Rich Girard from Black Orchid opened Café Europa but, alas, that too just shuttered.In Portsmouth, restaurateur Jay McSharry bowed out of this fine dining establishment, The Dunaway, a few years ago to eventually open a casual spot called 106 Kitchen & Bar on Penhallow Street with a Cajun influence. Southern fried chicken on Mondays and no items over $20 is a draw.In Manchester, the Commercial Street Fishery went down as pizza was redressed to be considered finer dining at 900 Degrees. Last year precipitated a great shakeout. Those that didn’t close had to get creative.Restaurants all over the state are re-jiggering the menus – adding pastas, elaborating on bar menus that in effect offer small-plate options. Good, it’s not always the cost of meals that turns people away, it’s the size and overwhelming calorie count, too, IMHO.Luca Paris in Keene has offset his fine dining restaurant with his “Pasta, Pasta” experience on Fridays in his café.Jay DelMonte, a top manager at Shorty’s Mexican Roadhouse explains that with retirement looming for the population bubble known as the baby boomers, wallets aren’t opening as wide. Sages in the industry predict this is going to be a long-time trend, even with an improved economy.Boy, I’d sure hate to see the Florida dining scene – with its endless, cheap buffets – becoming the standard. Thankfully, restaurateurs are looking for a new magic that will bring people in, short of cafeteria-style lines and dirt cheap food.Owners of Republic, Ed Aloise and Claudia Rippee, opened their restaurant in bleak times knowing full well that they need to find a new paradigm in dining. They combined the local-sourcing concept, complete with blackboard, with developing a clientele of regulars – good food and a “place where everybody knows your name.”The line between fast food and casual dining has been getting blurry of late. Five Guys Burger and Fries is “stand-in-line” service, but the food source is better than typical burger chains and cooked to order. Chipotle Grill uses quality ingredients in their assembled-to-order burritos but here, too, you still stand in line.People do want better food, cooked to order, from local sources, if possible. They even want table service. One more thing – they want it to taste good, no matter what it’s called.Now, it’s just the restaurateur’s job to balance the plate. We wish you the best, MB, with MT’s. NH Boggy Meadow Mac ‘n cheeseServes 121 lb. macaroni of choice4 cups heavy cream1 cup mild cheddar, grated2 cups Boggy Meadow baby swiss, grated2 tablespoons cooking oil2 teaspoons minced garlic1 tablespoon minced shallot1/2 tablespoon mustard powder1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with 1/4 cup waterSalt and pepper to tasteTopping2 cups Ritz crackers mixed with 3 tablespoons melted butter (optional: add a cap of french fried onions before baking)You will need a 9″ x 13″ baking dish.Prepare topping and set aside.Cook pasta ahead and cool, making sure it is not overdone.Whisk together the mustard powder and cornstarch with the water.In a large sauce pot, heat two tablespoons oil and sauté the garlic and shallots. Be careful not to scorch.Then add the cream and bring to a simmer. At simmer, add the mustard powder and corn starch mixture.When the cream starts to thicken, add the cheeses and salt and pepper to taste.Place the cooled pasta in a pot with the cream mixture and stir. Add a little more cream or milk if it is too thick.Pour into baking dish and top with the Ritz crumbs.Bake at 375 degrees until golden and bubbly, about 20 minutes.- Chef Michael Buckley