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By Bernie Whitmore
When the warm months come to New England it’s time to throw open the doors and escape to the outside. Decks, patios and backyards become our favorite areas. It’s also time to get out of the kitchen and fire up the gas grill for some of the year’s more memorable meals. Dining out tends to be a lot more relaxed. Some of my fondest summer memories are of rustic clam shacks where cuisine is secondary to sunburns, cheap beer and wobbly picnic tables.
But if your concept of fine dining doesn’t include hot dogs, burgers and oily fried food, several of the area’s better restaurants have outdoor seating. Years ago I enjoyed an excellent meal at the Monument Grill in Leominster. When I heard that they were open for dining al fresco, I called a friend and a couple days later ~ after a brutal heat wave had passed ~ we were headed to North County.
The Monument Grill is located in a sturdy brick and brownstone building on Leominster’s main square. Most restaurants that attempt outdoor seating have to settle for cramped sidewalks or partitioned parking lots. Not here. The Monument Grill is fronted by an extraordinarily wide pedestrian mall. They’ve taken enough room for a dozen tables without impeding traffic.
Surprisingly, on this beautiful evening there were plenty of available tables and we were seated immediately. After setting us up with menus and the wine list, our server took our drink orders. She returned later with our drinks, bread dishes, silverware and paper napkins so chunky they felt like cloth. My friend had his favorite, Tanqueray and Tonic ~ perfect for the summer months. I kept things local with a glass of Wachusett Summer Ale.
Usually I’d start with the Monument’s Beef Carpaccio, an appetizer of razor-thin sliced tenderloin ~ one of my all-time favorites. But this evening their Tuscan Salad appealed. Chopped romaine lettuce dressed with lemon and light oil was tossed with white cannelloni beans, thin slices of red onion, kalamata olives and crunchy fresh green beans. The thin shavings of parmesan cheeses dissolved into the lettuce creases. It tasted great with warm cheese-encrusted Italian bread dipped in peppery olive oil.
The Monument’s regular menu is well worth the drive to Leominster. Their horseradish encrusted salmon fillet is one of the best salmon meals I’ve ever savored. But this evening we were drawn to the daily specials.
Encouraged by the waitress’s declaration that the Monument Grill is famous for strudels, my friend chose the Pork and Duck Strudel. Confit duck, pork and wild mushrooms were rolled in phyllo dough, sliced into lengths, served over garlic mashed potatoes and draped with garlicky greens. Not rich enough? The final touch is a rich brown mushroom bordelaise sauce that perfectly punctuates this extraordinary meal. As my friend savored its earthy flavors, he couldn’t resist noting that it seemed better suited to late autumn.
But summer reigned on my side of the table. My entrée, Caribbean Mahi Mahi, is a thick chunk of flaky white fish pan seared to form a spicy crust and served over soft coconut rice in a drizzle of tart citrus sauce. It came with a salsa of fresh papaya and mango that provided cooling relief to the hot spices and a bright splash of color. The chef certainly had fun with this dish, a delightful range of textures, colors and flavors ~ one that exceeded my already high expectations.
After a quick read of the dessert menu, we ordered a slice of Chocolate Espresso Torte. This high density fudgy affair of bittersweet chocolate came with a punch of espresso and a hint of Grand Marnier orange. It reminded us of truffles in the form of a torte, a chocolate lover’s dream. But of course the Monument found a way to kick up the richness with the topping of cinnamon cream.
The Monument Grill’s al fresco dining avoids pitfalls that afflict many others. Their service was as attentive as indoor seating and they’ve set up a comfortable area bordered with flower planters in the center of Leominster’s attractive town center. But regardless of season, it’s their superior cuisine that props them at the top of my list of area restaurants.
14 Monument Square, Leominster