Armsby Abbey offers true handcrafted cuisine
By Bernie Whitmore
To those who believe it’s OK to satisfy hunger with a trip to the fast-food strip: You’d best turn the page. For this is a story of robust times ~ earthy flavors, rich textures and handcrafted cuisine. If you fear our food culture’s descending into industrialized bland, there’s good news! An emergent tradition, led by a legion of brewmasters and other artisans of nourishing sustenance, is tossing these mass-production practices out the window, along with all that white bread and light beer.
The renaissance being enjoyed by beer is also at hand for bread, its soulmate. During a recent meal at Armsby Abbey, it became obvious that bread and beer are the owners’ passions.
A friend and I ducked into Armsby Abbey on a bitter cold evening and were shown to a table along the wall, just beyond the chalkboard used to list the current selection of what’s on tap. A menu on the table filled out the beverage offering with season-inspired mixed drinks. Amanda introduced herself as our server, and I was immediately impressed with her expertise and willingness to kit us out with beers to our liking. Minimal info exchanged ~ maximal satisfaction delivered.
I started with a glass of Bar Harbor Cadillac Mountain Stout, jet black with a lacing of cocoa-colored foam around the edge. Cadillac Mountain had the wholesome feel I expect in a stout, with a decent hint of chocolate richness and a suggestion of musty, dark berries.
After I convinced my friend that he loves IPA, Amanda guided him to a glass of Founders All Day IPA. Deep amber in color, it was bubbly with crunchy, bitter freshness. In the taste or two I managed to snag, I could also detect citrus, perhaps grapefruit.
We started our meal with one of Armsby Abbey’s Slates, which are variety appetizers presented on rough-hewn rectangles of stone. We chose the Pickle Slate, a variety of garden and root vegetables, each preserved with different spices and brines. Rounding it out was a schmear of habanero-honey conserve and a crescent of goat cheese. Warning: Beware the habanero conserve; its fiery heat is incendiary!
Our favorite of the pickles? The thin cucumber slices reminded me of my mother’s bread and butter pickles; the pickled carrots were a middle-ground refuge from the hot spices and sweet beets.
After days locked in the grips of a fierce cold snap, we banished all residual chills with bowls of Armsby Abbey’s Chorizo Soup. Chunkified with bits of meat and hunks of potato, the tomatoey broth was hearty with flecks of kale. It was served piping hot from the cauldron in crockery that retained its heat through the entire serving. That night, it was served with thick slices of moist, dark bread that had been lavishly buttered and grilled until touched with edges of delicate crispness.
On to the main course.
My friend chose the Cuban Sandwich ~ a special that night ~ served on a sesame bun made with ale; it was wonderfully moist and rich. Whist I’m inclined to rave about the breads, what’s in them was just as important; in this case, layers of ham, pork shoulder and gruyere cheese. Dijon mustard and pickled cucumber slices provided tasty flavor and texture contrasts.
My sandwich selection, Apple Grilled Cheese, had thin slices of fresh apples, harvested from Tougas Orchard in Northborough, and sharp Vermont cheddar cheese grilled to gooeyness and crammed between thick slices of homemade honey oatmeal bread.
Both sandwiches were served with arugula farro salads.
I just had to ask Amanda about the bread used in each of our courses. “Where does it come from?” She assured me that it was homemade and went on to mention Armsby Abbey’s retail bakery ~ a new venture. It’s named Crust and located in an adjacent storefront.
As fascinating as the cuisine proved to be, I must also note the physical space. From the street, Armsby Abbey is marked by a simple sign and modest visual profile. But just walk in, and you’ll find yourself in a handsome room of rustic brick and fine-crafted wooden archways. If a gentrification of Worcester’s downtown ever takes place, it should aspire to the standard that’s been set by Armsby Abbey.
144 Main St., Worcester