Welcome to Keene’s Cuisine Scene
The city with the widest Main Street is filling up with great flavors
Something wonderful is happening in Keene. It’s always been a very pleasant city, with a small-town, friendly vibe. With two great springboards — a vital state college and a vibrant Main Street lined with successful retail spots — seeds are starting to bloom downtown. And the gardeners are the young people coming back to the town where they went school or grew up. They are putting their hearts and souls into making Keene the kind of city in which they want to live, work and dine.
I certainly don’t consider longtime chef and Keene restaurant owner Luca Paris an oldster, not with that sparkle in his eyes, but he says, “These new chefs in town are the same age I was when I came to town.” He settled in Keene about 18 years ago when “it was a town of home-style cooking restaurants, pizza shops and the Thai Garden,” he says. He had an open field to till. Soon, Luca’s Mediterranean Café became a popular spot, offering a broad spectrum of European cuisine. A few years ago, he found he had to change the game. Last year, he closed Luca’s Market to refocus on the restaurant. The dining public’s tastes have evolved, and the traditional appetizer/salad/entrée dining formula is being supplanted by a grazing mentality. And, of course, the new young chefs down Main Street had upped the ante. In response, Paris now offers a healthy selection of tapas, perfect for sharing in his cozy bistro café with a glass of wine. To keep the drink list fresh, there are always a few jugs of liquor infusing on the back of the bar. “I don’t want to become irrelevant,” says Paris. “If I’m not excited about the menu, why would anyone else be?”
Paris has earned the title of benevolent godfather of Keene cuisine. His enthusiasm for the town is infectious. He loves to help, coach and mentor any new talent, and he travels nationwide to promote the area. In 2013 appeared on — and won — the Food Network show “Guy’s Grocery Games.” On WKBK radio, he often talks about other chefs and new dining ventures, and he also helps run Top Chef events to fundraise for local culinary education and promote Keene’s talent. He’s “The Man” in Keene, according to all those enterprising young chefs.
One young chef with new ideas is Jordan Scott*, executive chef at Odelay, an Asian/Mexican fusion fast-serve eatery down the block from Luca’s. At age 19, Scott found himself commanding the menu for a small chain of restaurants, pretty much right out of culinary school in San Francisco. A few years ago, he came back to town to help make it a great place to live. “Once people come into Keene as a waypoint or wrong turn, they come back on purpose,” he says. A street full of great dining options, entertainment and diversions can do that. Keene is actively trying to keep young professionals happy and in town.
Odelay, owned by Ash Shaheen, moved into new quarters from across the street about two years ago. The space is bright and clean, and the concept seems ripe for expansion. The menu, offered for lunch and dinner, is a contemporary ode to Mexican street food, including burritos, tacos and rice bowls, similar to You Know Who. Except here the options skew Asian, with Korean BBQ or Kogi, crispy pork belly and Ahi tuna. The flavors are juiced up with tang from house-pickled vegetables, Asian slaw and spicy aioli. Bright tasting and healthy salad options fill out the bill.
Scott is also part of the new Keene scene that includes arts promoters Machina Arts, which was founded in 2013 by Danya Landis and Rebecca Hamilton. Scott, a culinary partner, is working with the organization to provide catering for events that are designed, managed and promoted by the group, who maintains an office in the Hannah Grimes Center. Scott and Machina Arts also ran a series of farm-to-table events this past summer, which quickly sold out.
Another young chef ready to rumble is Chef Ryan Nyland, who was the former sous chef and then chef at 21 Bar & Grill on Roxbury Street. The space is what a neighborhood bar should be — comfortable with great comfort food. When he took over, he amped up the flavor of the usual suspects to 11, and offered creative takes on comfort food, such as his Parmesan portobello fries with a Peruvian aji sauce. A few weeks after my Keene visit, Nyland left 21 Bar & Grill to work as sous chef at Luca’s Mediterranean Café (Brendan Dolan, formerly of Tillie’s, replaced Nyland). There, Nyland will be able to spread his wings tinkering with a more diverse menu under the oversight of Keene’s godfather of food. Based on his former work at 21 Bar & Grill, I look forward to seeing what he’ll accomplish with Paris.
Paris gets excited when a new restaurant opens downtown, believing that change is always good. The latest is Tillie’s, just off the top of the square. Owners Tabatha Eisner and Chef Steve Bentley named the place after Bentley’s great aunt, who ran whiskey from Canada to New Hampshire during Prohibition. To further the speakeasy theme, they completely transformed the former Tony Clamato’s with tasteful lighting, paint, a grand piano and ever-expanding whiskey list. More space in the adjoining room allows patrons to dine (or say grace) while seated in antique church pews.
While Bentley contributes in the kitchen, Tillie’s chef is John Rossey, the former head chef at 21 Bar & Grill and a real find for the setting. Here, he can do comfort food and more upscale entrées, turning it up to 12 with bacon-wrapped chicken wings coated with a bourbon Moxie glaze or deviled eggs with the options of caviar, sashimi tuna or pittance. For lunch, he offers an array of sandwiches, from duck confit sliders to blackened salmon tacos to a house-cured corned beef Reuben piled high with sauerkraut. The dinner menu adds house-made gnocchi in a brown butter sage sauce, pork tenderloin with mashed celery root and chicken Marengo with a quail egg, steamed crawfish and a very citrusy cilantro-lime sauce. The menu is tricked out nicely, but still approachable.
In Keene, all is good and it’s getting even better — and that’s what keeps Paris smiling. Oh, look, there is a new pho restaurant going in right next to Luca’s! Is he still smiling? Yup!
*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Jordan Scott as the owner of Odelay. Changes were also made to clarify his connection to and the location of Machina Arts. New Hampshire Magazine regrets the errors.
Where to Eat and Drink in Keene
9 Court St.
Closed Monday, serving lunch Tuesday through Sunday, dinner Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday brunch
Whiskey bar offering upscale dishes and burgers in a smart, comfortable setting
44 Main St.
Lunch and dinner daily
Creative fusion cuisine in a fast-serve setting
19 Gilbo Ave.
Luca’s Mediterranean Café
10 Central Sq.
Lunch and dinner Monday through Friday
Dinner only on weekends
51 Railroad St.
Italian cuisine, open kitchen, tasteful dining areas and bar
Dinner at 5 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday
82 Main St.
Charbroiled burgers and hand-cut fries in family-friendly fast-serve setting
Lunch and dinner daily
The Stage Restaurant & Café
30 Central Sq.
This American bistro, owned by the Benik family for more than 30 years, has recently expanded.
Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Closed Mondays.
The Spice Chambers
8 Winter St.
Lunch buffet 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and Friday, expanded buffet on Saturday and Sunday
Dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m., closed Tuesday
463 West St.
Authentic home style Mexican
Lunch and dinner daily
Other locations in Peterborough and Milford
21 Bar & Grill
21 Roxbury St.
Brunch on Saturday and Sunday
Open 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and Friday from 11 to 1 a.m.
22 Main St.
Hip atmosphere with wood-fired pizza, modern take on Italian food and creative drink list
Bar opens at 4 p.m. with dinner at 5 p.m. daily
Keene’s Old Main Street Standbys
Fritz Belgian Fries
45 Main St.
New ownership and now a bit less funky
25 Main St.
American homemade food
118 Main St.