By Bernard Whitmore
Leominster seems an anomaly. So many mid-sized towns have been hollowed out by the encroachment of huge chain stores that it is unusual to drive their downtown and see small businesses with “open” signs ~ with one major exception. For an eternity, the drive to Leominster meant a trip to Monty’s Garden for some of the best Italian food in the county. Sadly, the place is now shuttered.
But all is not lost, for right down the street is a new restaurant called Rye & Thyme. It describes itself as an American tavern, raw bar and grill, and it has taken over the Monument Grill location in an exemplar of pre-20th century brick and granite architecture.
From the moment we were seated, I had good feelings about Rye & Thyme. Beyond the handsome interior, it has a steady track of early rhythm and blues ~ call it the Al Greene Channel. Our server, Bobbi Jo, introduced herself and patiently answered my many questions regarding the selection of draft beers. With her assistance, I selected a glass of Spice of Life IPA. Brewed by the Sixpoint Brewery, it balanced the bitter flavor I crave in an IPA with strong tendencies toward the citrus flavor spectrum.
If pressed for a one-syllable description of Rye & Thyme, I’d feel justified in replying “craft.” Much of the beer list is made up of low-production run, sometimes innovative, selections. And check out the Beer & Shot combos for some very innovative pairings. The food menus also have their share of innovative spark. In short, this is a place I’d need to visit several more times in order to fully satisfy my curiosity.
I’m going to be brief about our starters because entrees are the real story, but there are a few important points to be made. First: oysters. Rye & Thyme sells basic Virginia oysters for a buck each. They also offered Connecticut Blue Points and Rhode Island Moonstones.
We started with a half-dozen Virginia Oysters served on crushed ice. They came with a heaping of horseradish, herbed vinegar and cocktail sauce. Medium in size, with an impeccably fresh and clean flavor, we devoured them in record time. And at that low price, we ordered another six.
Our salad was a serviceable Caesar. Another time, I’d choose either the Angry Caesar or Waldorf salad; they’re polar opposites in demeanor, yet, I daresay, more interesting than our rather unexciting Caesar.
Rye & Thyme’s menu takes classics from American cuisine and adds features that foodies should find compelling. For example, the Coffee Braised Short Ribs are served with a hazelnut crème fraîche. I’d be perfectly satisfied with any of these entrees, yet my mind was made up when I got to their Shepherd’s Pie, made with lamb, peas, corn and mashed potatoes.
Most everyone, me included, makes Shepherd’s Pie with ground beef. Yet, it was once pointed out by a friend that that true Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb or mutton ~ never beef; that would be Cottage Pie. Later, after consulting Wikipedia to confirm his assertion, you might say I felt somewhat sheepish … why wasn’t that obvious?
Rye & Thyme presents its Shepherd’s Pie in a sizzling-hot, cast-iron skillet; cheesy mashed potatoes were limited to a thin top crust that sealed in tasty lamb gravy and vegetable bits. But the lamb! None of that ground meat ~ this was flake-apart tender, stewed lamb, so mild in flavor that each chunk was a treasure. I would have scoffed if told I could find such delicious lamb outside of a Greek lady’s stewpot.
It doesn’t seem possible, but my friend was just as enthused with his entree, Steak & Fries. A generous-sized hanger steak of Angus beef had been perfectly grilled: juicy red in the center, with a crusty black char on the outside ~ so delicious and pleasurable that he savored each bite. The steak was sliced and served aside a heap of shoestring fries drizzled with malt vinegar aioli. Room-temperature marinated vegetables offered flavor, color and textural contrast.
Attention to all who still miss Block 5 Bistro’s Steak & Frites: Head to Rye & Thyme, another venture by the Niche Hospitality Group, which owned Block 5.
As tempted as I was by dessert, in particular the Butterscotch Bourbon Bread Pudding, I decided to wait for a return visit ~ perhaps when the weather warms up and Rye & Thyme spills outdoors to its broad sidewalk patio. Let’s see if I can wait that long!
Rye & Thyme
14 Monument Square, Leominster
(978) 534-5900 | www.ryeandthyme.com