Our Gourmet: Lunch or dinner, Peterborough's Bantam Grill worth crowing about
Nestled in the foothills west of Temple Mountain is an innocuous little restaurant hemmed in by the usual neighbors in a rural strip mall - but step inside the Bantam Grill in Peterborough and allow your senses a delightful escape from anything ordinary.
We had been disappointed on a previous visit to this classy Monadnock eatery - not by the restaurant, but because it was nighttime, the place was wall-to-wall people, and our time did not allow waiting. But we ventured west again with a new and good idea: a weekend lunch on a sparkling spring day. We found there was no better way to enjoy a comfortable and leisurely gourmet dining experience with no rush, no crowd and few distractions to spoil the splendor.
Bantam's L-shaped bar has six specialty craft ales on tap (brews from Oregon, Chicago, Vermont and Maine), a nice selection of racked wine, a walk-in fridge for back stock - and no televisions. Score one for conscious decisions to maintain style.
Tables are simple but quality, black-lacquered wood with maroon cloth napkins wrapping the silver and unadorned by clutter, pub-style sauces or salt and pepper shakers. Score another for directing patron's attention to a food's flavor straight from the kitchen. Salt and pepper is certainly available, but it's a creative, confident chef who suggests you think twice about using them.
There are nearly 20 tables and booths along with half a dozen or more seats at the bar, and a bevy of Bantam Rooster photographs and other artwork, with sculptures and depictions of other small fowl and animals on the walls and shelves. It's interesting and comfy, well-thought out and inviting - and the food, yet to come, clearly becomes the best part.
Our daytime visit paid off, because we enjoyed a top-shelf lunch while stealing glances at the dinner menu, preparing us for our dinner visit when we remember to make reservations. Dinner standouts include Beef Wellington, Braised Short Rib, handmade pasta with lamb, mussels, chicken or shrimp, sparklingly creative appetizers, soups, salads and cocktails, and a carefully selected, small but robust list of wines from all over the world.
With lunch before us, we weren't in the least put off by the small menu once we familiarized ourselves with the gourmet selections available.
Our soup and salad starters ($6 each, combo of two for $10) were presented with a flourish and adorned with subtle touches of class. New England Clam Chowder comes in a proper crock, with long grissini breadsticks criss-crossing in a quadrant. The soup was creamy (though not thick), flavorful and satisfying, and housed ingredients such as bacon and potatoes that were cut small to match the clams and not dominate any one spoonful. The chef must share our view that overly large chunks of potato are distracting and annoying in soup. Score another for thoughtful preparation.
The Caesar Wedge salad is also carefully prepared, featuring one large clump of romaine lettuce, uncut (hence "wedge"), drizzled generously with a thick, tangy and memorable Caesar dressing, with a large handful of crisp croutons atop, and a delicious homemade parmesan wafer crisp. Cutting up the crisp leaves of lettuce and tossing them gently with the dressing and croutons and bits of the cheese cracker makes you want to dive in with two forks. Doing so is even better.
The entree portion of the lunch menu features only two sandwiches, including a Grass-Fed Cheeseburger on a challah bun with Cabot cheddar cheese. My guess is that it's a truly gourmet burger, but I opted for the Prosciutto and Buffalo Mozzarella Baguette ($10), with arugula, drizzled with virgin olive oil, fresh sliced mozzarella cheese and balsamic reduction flavoring.
This IS a truly gourmet sandwich, and accompanied by properly crisped shoestring fries, which are seasoned just right, calling attention to no need for salt on the table. The warm baguette is a perfect envelope for the prosciutto and its mates, so score another for pure taste.
The Lamb Strangozzi ($12) was a substantial meal of homemade pasta and braised lamb. It is also on the dinner menu, as are lunch mates Blue Mussels and Angel Hair Pasta, Fettuccine Alfredo, and Hanger Steak (a steak salad for lunch; straight steak for dinner).
The Strangozzi features flavoring from its ragu style, which includes sauce from the lamb (braised for 12 hours, our server said), and small slices of onions and carrots. The thick, wide pasta noodles are substantial in and of themselves, and the lamb creates a hearty stew-type dish, with plenty of au jus and herbs and vegetable flavorings. Outstanding.
Interesting serving styles, too ... the coffee cups are square, served on round saucers; the lamb's served on a round plate; and both the salad and sandwich are served on long rectangular plates. If there is meaning to the shapes, we missed it, but we did enjoy the variety. Score another for intrigue.
There is no mistaking Bantam's quality, from the sturdy gleaming flatware to the thick cloth napkins; pleasant restrooms decorated with ceramics; clean lines of sight; polished hardwood floors and high-backed booths.
And there is no mystery to the confidence coming out of the kitchen.
Homemade pasta and ravioli, creative food combinations, thoughtful preparation and an atmosphere that caters to patrons' concentration on gourmet food at reasonable prices does not happen by luck or accident. Hats off to chefs and managers Harris Welden and Bryan Keating for a most interesting and delightful dining experience.
Now it's your turn to go and enjoy.