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The People’s Kitchen

By Bernie Whitmore

Foodies should take note: though we’ve enjoyed a wonderful dining renaissance in Worcester County over the past couple of years, don’t think that it’s over yet. Consider, for example, The People’s Kitchen.I’ll admit, when I first heard of The People’s Kitchen, visions of bread lines in austere communist villages were hard to jangle from my mind. But of course that’s not the case; this culinary gem is the brainchild of the Niche Group, after all. Quality and hospitality are, therefore, assumed.Only one question remained: “What is the cuisine?” And from the first glance at their first menu, the answer was “Unabashedly American.” Who else could offer pork bellies and have people actually order them…and leave craving more? Those of us who love food and its infinite variations appreciate such departures from the norm.Their bar is also firmly in touch with the craft cocktail movement. A quick scan of their list turned up mixology outliers such as Spiced Absinthe Tincture, Wormwood Bitters, and Strawberry-Thyme Gastrique ~ definitely not your run-of-the-mill selection.I’ll also admit that over the course of the warmer months I grew out of touch with TPK, so when the opportunity arose, I was anxious to go back and see what they’re up to. The first thing I noticed after being seated was their prix fixe special: three courses for thirty-three dollars (plus surcharge for steaks). Perfect.Seated in a little alcove, it was easy for Mike, our waiter, to make sudden appearances. In one of them, he caught me musing about the album source of the current track from the steady sound-track of soul / funk standards. “Songs From the Key of Live?” “Yeah,” he informed us, “Stevie Wonder; this is the Soul Town channel… I selected it tonight.”Mike also announced his creation of the dipping oil (“Half canola, half EVO with garlic, parmesan, red pepper flakes and fresh Italian herbs”) we enjoyed with slices of kalamata olive bread. Service was well-paced and appetizers were soon ready.I started with Oysters Cuatro. As soon as it was placed in front of me I realized I was in for a special experience. Four oysters ~ given four radically differing treatments ~ were perfectly arrayed in a row, propped up on a path of kosher salt died bright teal.Together, they were a study in oyster versatility ~ starting with elegantly simple infused lemon, moving on to spicy-hot Sriracha (that hot sauce in the bright red squeeze bottle on every Thai table), shifting to rich truffle butter, and wrapping up with Rockefeller.

This is not a sharing appetizer; it’s a perfect appetizer that I matched with a glass of Paul Dolan Chardonnay, (Mendocino CA) which is “on tap” at TPK.

My dining companion, meanwhile, seemed no less enthused with his Baked Blue Crab Cakes. “Minimal binder, almost pure crab,” he effused, “Sautéed, not deep-fried!” The two cakes were served with sweet orange ginger aioli and pineapple relish.

He followed with one of TPK’s “Signature Steaks,” a fourteen-ounce dry-aged sirloin perfectly grilled to medium-rare with the tastiest crust of, quite simply, salt, pepper and butter. Inside, the steak was so tender and flavorful he proclaimed it “…full of rich, beefy flavor!” He also reported his glass of Hullabaloo Zinfandel (Lodi, CA), deep and rich flavored, to be perfect with beef.

My entree, Murray’s Natural Chicken Carbonara, sounded like ideal comfort food for the cooler months. Placed in front of me, though, its appearance surpassed my expectations of chickeny-bits in creamy cheese sauce. Instead, the TPK chef took a full chicken breast with wing attached, aka Statler, fried the skin exquisitely crisp and tasty while leaving the meat tender and as moist as breast meat can be. It was quartered and presented over a bed of pappardelle pasta ~ broad fettuccini noodles tossed in a light carbonara sauce with peas and small chunks of fresh tomato. Crisp bits of pancetta bacon contributed texture and an interesting spicy-salt flavor.

Other than value, one of the neat things about prix fixe is the assurance of dessert. To contrast with the richness of my first courses, I reverted to a selection more reminiscent of summer: the Trio of Sorbets. This evening’s selections were watermelon, lemon and mango. Presented in a row of glass columns, I struggled to choose a favorite: mango was very sweet, lemon was refreshing. But the watermelon, well, that one was summer.

My friend chose TPK’s Mango Crème Brûlée with Fresh Berries. The crusty burnt-sugar top sealed in a creamy-smooth custard mildly flavored with mango puree. This flawlessly executed standard was topped with strawberries and blueberries.

The Niche Group has several thematic restaurants in the area. In my opinion, The People’s Kitchen is their venue for culinary virtuosity in bedrock American Cuisine. For the diner, that means surprises with every new menu. In short: it’s a welcome dining adventure.

The People’s Kitchen
120 Commercial Street, Worcester