Roasted young chicken plated on oat risotto with seasonal vegetables \\ photo credit: Drew Katz

The RundownBoston

Everything You Need to Know About Thistle & Leek, in Newton

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Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.

This time, we’re shining a spotlight on Thistle & Leek, the Newton gastropub from chefs Kate and Trevor Smith. The gracious spot is the couple’s first restaurant, but neither is a stranger to professional kitchens. Between the two of them, they have cooked for 18 restaurants — on both coasts as well as in Europe. But even when their journey took them far afield, they knew they would return to New England. It’s where their story began.

1. In a rom-com, their meet-cute would involve a tough-as-nails vegetable.

The two met a dozen years ago at Craigie Street Bistrot, Tony Maws’ acclaimed Cambridge restaurant, the forerunner of Craigie on Main. Kate, a potential new hire, was assigned to help Trevor, a line cook. They were tasked with prepping cardoons, a hulking vegetable that looks like Jurassic-era celery. Stripping fibrous layers from the stalks all afternoon gave them plenty of time to talk. And talk.

“I found out later that he knew the restaurant desperately needed cooks,” says Kate. “So he was trying to make sure I had a good time so I would work there.” His charm apparently worked. Kate joined the team as a fellow line cook.

Trevor corroborates the story. “After we started working together, we realized we had a lot of common interests,” he says. Live music was a shared passion. On an early first date, they went to see the band Sea Monsters at Brookline pub Matt Murphy’s. While they didn’t know it then, the pub concept would figure prominently into their thinking as budding restaurateurs.

 

Photo credit: Alex Palumbo

2. Both pursued their culinary ambitions by diving in head-first.

Kate, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, grew up on both coasts, splitting time between Massachusetts and Washington State. Dissatisfied with a post-college culinary program she had enrolled in, she took a different tack. “I had heard through friends and other people in the industry that the hardest kitchen to work in — in the whole city — was Craigie Street Bistrot,” she says. “So I said, ‘Okay. I want to work there.’”

Trevor found his calling earlier than Kate. “For a 15-year-old to get dropped into the middle of a large, bustling professional kitchen was like a dream come true,” he says, recalling a prep cook job at a steakhouse near his home in Orange County, California. “It was akin to a pirate ship. It was, ‘Yo ho, yo ho, a pirates’ life for me’ — instantly.” He went to culinary school, worked at French restaurants in Los Angeles, then moved to Europe, cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants, one outside of London, and another in Vienna. Eventually, he made his way to Boston to work at Craigie. Peeling cardoons with Kate is where the story picks up.

The two married in 2011 and spent a three-month honeymoon in Europe, interning at London restaurants, and — on a lark — detouring to work on a goat farm outside of Granada, Spain. When they returned to the states, they worked on Nantucket, and then in New York — Kate at Le Bernardin and Trevor at Gramercy Tavern.

Back in Boston, Kate was chef de cuisine at Toro, and Trevor was executive chef at Coppa, when the couple decided to start a family. By then, they had their eyes firmly fixed on opening their own restaurant.

3. They envisioned a pub, fine-dining in spirit, but without the white tablecloths.

Trevor talked about the kind of place he hoped they would open. “What if we could serve our food with wood paneling and dark wood — make it into a pub we love so much, and present it that way?” he recalls telling Kate. By “our food,” he meant fare that would draw on all of their fine-dining training, served in a relaxed, neighborhood setting. More than a decade had passed since his first time in England, and pub culture still resonated. “It was more wholesome than the way I feel many Americans treat ‘the bar,’” he says, noting that throughout the UK, pubs serve as family-friendly meeting spaces. Kate knew exactly what he meant, and the duo set about finding a space. Both will tell you that Newton was not originally in the cards.

4. Pandemic or no pandemic, the location was the Goldilocks space.

They heard that the owners of Comedor, a Chilean bistro in Newton Centre, were interested in selling. “I probably drove past it at least two dozen times,” says Trevor, contemplating whether the western suburb of Boston was the right location. One evening, with their one-year-old daughter in tow, they dropped by for a drink — and were amazed.

The space, with a fully-outfitted open kitchen, was not too big, and not too small. It was just right. Also, it wasn’t lost on them the restaurant sits on a block named Piccadilly Square. In the early 1970s, the developer in charge of refurbishing the 19th-century brick buildings on Union Street had recently vacationed in the UK. He loved the energy of Piccadilly Circus in London’s West End — hence the name. And they had already decided on the spot’s pub-evocative moniker, the one they use today. The thistle, the national flower of Scotland, reflects Kate’s ancestry. The leek, a symbol of Wales, is a nod to Trevor’s heritage.

So the Smiths contacted their investors, and signed the lease. Two weeks later, the pandemic shut down restaurants. “There was a point in March 2020 where we could have backed out,” explains Kate. But they chose to forge ahead. “We didn’t know if we’d be able to do it again. It was a now-or-never thing.”

They got the keys that summer and did a build-out, installing a bookcase that divides the bar from the banquette seating. They repainted the walls sage green and hung old-timey botanical prints. They opened Thistle & Leek last September, then rode out the winter packaging up takeout and serving patrons alfresco. “We had people sitting on the patio through the whole winter last year,” marvels Kate.

5. Make Kate’s grandmother proud. Dig into the clam dip.

Absolutely everything on Thistle & Leek’s menu sounds appealing, so it’s great that the spot focuses on small plates. That way, you can — and should — order a little of everything. Still, we guarantee you’ll be planning a next visit before you take the napkin off your lap.

There’s always a lovely seasonal vegetable seared a la plancha. Recently, a cauliflower-broccolini hybrid called caulilini was plated on an herbaceous lemongrass curry. Or tuck into the cavatelli pasta, sauced with sweet peppers, eggplant, and hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, all drizzled with chile oil. Then there’s the young roasted chicken, the size of a Cornish game hen, served with a comforting oat risotto. Save room for dessert — or “puds,” as they’re called here. Get the flan with caramelized apples and toasted hazelnuts, or the pavlova with poached figs.

But before you get to the sweets, request the rosti — a crispy, golden wedge of finely shredded potatoes — served with a quenelle of clam dip. If the restaurant has a signature dish, this combination is it.

Kate reveals that the clam dip is based on her grandmother’s recipe. The specialty was part-and-parcel of every family gathering. At the restaurant, the cooks shuck the bivalves, braise them with a little hard cider, then blend them with cream cheese and sour cream. “We didn’t intend for [the dip] to be on the menu always, but it became a hit so quickly,” says Kate. “I’m proud that it’s my grandmother’s recipe, and that it’s on our menu every day.”

6. Sip excellent wine — or opt for the potato rosti of cocktails.

Pro tip: sit at the chefs’ counter, just inside the entrance, and watch the cooks at work — for now, still behind plexiglass. Settle on a bar stool, and peruse the selection of wines. The compact list is full of thoughtfully chosen pours, like a minimal-intervention sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna, a meaty Andalucian red made from tintilla, and a charming selection of dry European ciders.

Classic rock fans will perk up when they read the cocktail list. A gin-based libation on the opening menu, for example, was named Madame George, after the Van Morrison hit. Devotees of The Rolling Stones will recognize a shaken cocktail, called Factory Girl. An equal-parts sipper of bourbon, Cynar, lemon juice, and maraschino liqueur, it has been on the menu since day one.

“It’s my favorite cocktail, hands down,” says Trevor, describing it as the perfect balance of bitter, sweet, and tart. “It’s like the potato rosti — it’s not going anywhere.”

 

Ellen Bhang is a Boston-based food and wine writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and The Food Lens. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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