616 Central Street, Leominster
By Bernie Whitmore
Every now and then it’s fun to try out a restaurant of which you have no knowledge or expectations. It’s like “put a quarter in the slot and pull;” usually you walk away disappointed, but every now and then you pick a winner ~ as we did on our recent trip to Cornerstone Restaurant.
Cornerstone is right on Route 12 in Leominster; I must have passed them a hundred times but never took notice of their sign or building. And when I walked in, my impression was of shades of mauve, plum and brickish colors ~ nothing memorable. But Sandy, our waitress, was on-the-spot, ready to offer a friendly greeting, and led us to a booth. Her exceptional hospitality extended throughout our visit and helped place Cornerstone a notch above the competition.
Good service is fine, but what’s really critical is quality of cuisine ~ and Cornerstone got off to a great start with their New England Steamers appetizer. As soon as Sandy put the bowl on the table we were impressed with how clean the shells were, and soon we found each clam to be sweet and ocean-fresh. There were plenty enough for sharing and the steamers came served with bowls of broth and drawn butter. By the time we were finished, we’d soaked our placemats and every other paper product within reach.
I teamed my appetizer with a glass of Shock Top Belgian White, a witbier style brew from Anheuser-Busch. It’s their answer to Coor’s Blue Moon, a bit cloudy and citrusy. Not bad, but my loyalty in the mega-brewery witbier category remains with Blue Moon.
Cornerstone’s menu has the standard categories: From the Grill & Sea, A Touch of Italy, Burgers, Pizza, and Kabobs. Without a clear understanding of their specialties, we decided to go with the evening’s special entrees.
But first we continued our meal with their Caesar Salad. Sandy had advised that it was large; she even brought two salad dishes to make sharing easier. I’m cynical about claims of “home-made,” but the freshness and balance of flavor of this dressing made me a believer. And the way it clung in the creases of the romaine lettuce gave the shredded Parmesan cheese plenty of places to adhere. This dressing didn’t taste, look or act like bottled.
My friend’s entrée was easily a cut above what we’ve come to expect from “casual dining.” His Petite Filet was topped with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, then finished with a generous tumble of lobster meat. It was attractively presented with a large foil-wrapped baked potato. I feared the six-ounce filet would be over-cooked, but this chef was clearly a pro; my very-fussy friend reported it medium rare ~ exactly as ordered.
The other daily special, Fried Whole-Belly Clams, was considerably less fancy but equally successful. Fried clams are a summer tradition going back to my boyhood and one of the few exceptions to my no-fried-food rule. Cornerstone’s clams were the best I’ve had in years. Period. They were perfectly sized, not too large, yet big enough to convey tender sweet flavor. The frying oil must have been perfectly fresh because neither the clams nor fries were greasy or burdened with heavy flavor. Unlike the flabby potatoes I suffered at other places last summer, these were thin and crisp. With one dish, Cornerstone restored a summer tradition.
After our meals had been cleared we had a chance to talk with Sandy. She explained that Cornerstone’s customers tend to be people who enjoy decent food at very reasonable prices. I think she was being modest; the quality of cuisine we enjoyed set them strides above their casual-dining competition and is certainly worth the drive from Worcester. In fact, we want to get a group together to return for their Sunday Brunch.