WORCESTER – During my most recent visit to deadhorse hill, I ran into a person I hadn’t seen for some time; she’s from Boston — and by all indications is someone who’s probably sampled some high end eats.
“How was it?,” I asked her not too long after the meal.
“It was good!,” she said. I could be mistaken, but I thought I could detect just a whiff of surprise in her voice—as in, ‘Gee, I didn’t know you could find this sort of place in Worcester. Nice to see it measuring up to Boston standards.’
This rendition could just be a fantasy on my part, a piece of Worcester-style defensiveness, but let’s go with it.
So, deadhorse. . . . Given my longtime love of Joey’s (as discussed in my previous review) and given as well my depicting it as “the go-to place,” you may be surprised to learn that I’ve come to consider deadhorse hill another go-to place. I don’t go to it nearly as often, mind you, and when I do go, it’s for somewhat different reasons: a hankering for something a little more “venturesome” (but not too) than I might find elsewhere; a cool, bricky, high-ceilinged cosmopolitan vibe; an expertly-crafted craft cocktail, filled with some foreign-sounding add-ins I may never have heard of.
So, when some close friends of ours from out of town suggested that we dine together before heading out to a show, deadhorse leapt to mind right away. Good call.
It wasn’t long before our friendly, high energy waitperson came by, looked my way, and said, “Welcome back!” Did she really remember me? Probably. But who knows? One way or the other, it was a nice way to launch the meal. So too was one of those craft cocktails—mine being the mysteriously named “knife fight in Stockholm,” a delectable blend of mezcal (a favorite of mine as long as it doesn’t reek too much of burnt rubber), Swedish punsch (huh?), apertivo (I can guess), and lemon (I know those!).
What was that punsch stuff anyway? “It’s quite a complex animal,” one article (from a website aptly titled “Punch”) says, “of the sweet, spicy and slightly funky Nordic liqueur, reintroduced stateside just a few years ago. Having spurred historic drinking traditions on both sides of the Atlantic,” the article continues, “it’s most recently ridden the coattails of Batavia arrack, the spirit upon which it’s built, comparably finding its way into a handful of 21st-century drinks programs.”
Well, that clears things up! Whatever it was, it contributed to a terrific drink. My friend’s gin and tonic got a good review too, as did our wives’ glasses of wine—a hearty pinot noir for his, a baby-bubbled sparkling rosé for mine. This, coupled with some wonderful fresh bread, crusty on the outside, a little chewy on the inside, along with some tasty butter slathered on the side of the bread bowl, made for a great start.
The spätzle (“crispy mustard spätzle, brussel sprouts, crème fraiche, lemon vin,” to be exact) we all shared proved to be a great way to continue. My wife and I had had it before, and wanted to share the good news with our friends. (I was up for the also-familiar southern fried chicken thighs in a honey and hot sauce too, but that seemed a bit too indulgent for this particular group. Next time!) And excellent it was, once again—better, in fact, than it was our last time: browned and slightly crispy on the outside, and moist, almost juicy, throughout, flavored with a bit of citrusy cream of some sort. “What’s the lemon vin?,” I asked. Was it lemon wine? Lemon vinaigrette, it turns out. Here too, whatever it was, it was mighty good.
After that, it was time to turn to some “large plates” (though not quite as large as the regularly featured “huge dry-aged rib-eye”). The list of offerings was a relatively modest one. For me, that’s actually a good thing; it spares me the anxiety of deciding what to get. (The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote long ago of anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” That’s what happens to me when I encounter a multi-page menu of poetically described dishes. I sometimes envy people with (non-threatening) food allergies or significant moral or religious qualms about what’s on the menu. Their lives seem simpler to me.)
But enough philosophy; on to the chow. We went with the rigatoni (“farmhouse ragu, house made ricotta, basil”), the braised beef brisket (“pomme purée, local mushrooms, roasted carrots”), baked salmon (“radishes, miso butter, brown rice, poppy”), and the country pork chop (“creamy grits, braised escarole, pepper relish”). My wife and I split the latter two—an unorthodox surf n’ turf, you could say. Our friends enjoyed their dishes immensely. I was tempted to sample them (for the sake of the review, of course), but decided to behave.
As for our dishes, I think the clearest way to describe them is to say that they let the food be what it is. Usually, if we get a piece of salmon somewhere, it’s bathed in something or other. Don’t get me wrong; that can be just fine. Here, though, the salmon pretty much spoke for itself, subtly and humbly. For the pork chop, the story was much the same. Rather than the large, caveman-ish, sweetly sauced slab I sometimes have at other places (Yes; I like those too), I encountered a set of sliced mini-slabs, tender and moist, each with a little vein of fat running through it, and the bone off to the side, waiting patiently for me. Very farm-to-table, and very different, in look and taste, from most other pork chops I’d had. And very, very good. Venturesome, as I dubbed it earlier, while still being respectful of the intrinsic natures of things. . .
So, what about that exclamation of surprise I mentioned at the outset of this review (assuming that’s what it was)? Here’s what I’ll say: deadhorse hill is one of a comparatively new crop of Worcester eateries that’s helping our great city become even more of what it is—kind of like the salmon and pork chop we had. It’s not too fancy or slick or glamorous. It’s not part of the “Boston” Worcester, as some might be inclined to call it. And it’s not part of the “new” Worcester either. It’s part of the WORCESTER Worcester, and I, for one, am delighted it’s here. Another go-to place, for sure. I just hope they don’t add too many things to the menu.
deadhorse hill is located at 281 Main St. in Worcester. Hours of operation are: Tues-Thur 5 PM to 10 PM, Friday 5 PM to 11 PM, Saturday 11 AM to 2 PM, 5 PM to 11 PM and Sunday 10 AM to 2 PM, 4 PM to 9 PM. For more information or to make reservations, click here.
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