Big Flavors in Cozy Quarters at Downtown Grocery
Don’t let the name fool you: the Downtown Grocery in downtown Ludlow in the shadow of Okemo Mountain is a gem of fine casual dining where you just never know what you’re going to get. And that’s the whole point of this very personal, gracious, and lighthearted dining establishment dedicated to the freshest possible ingredients in every season. Whatever the dish, rest assured it’s going to be deeply seasonal, locally grown, and thoughtfully prepared.
Up the steps and through the big red door, the first person you’ll meet is Abby Lechthaler who takes care of the front of the house, making every one who walks through the door feel warmly welcomed. She’s also the wine expert. Through the large open doorway, just to the left of the bar, Chef Rogan Lechthaler is bent over the central kitchen table or moving deliberately between stations. Abby directs your attention the large chalkboard on the wall where the evening’s menu is displayed. The young well-trained staff members have memorized it earlier, sampled some of the items, and received their short course in the terroir of the wine being offered as well as an all-important tasting.
White tablecloths and polished glasses set the stage here for some unusual combinations of traditional bistro fare with a youthful American flourish. Their goal is to give their guests the very best of what is seasonably available in a warm and casual atmosphere. Local is taken quite literally and the chef likes the challenge of presenting dishes that use every part of what he is working with, or “all of that loveliness,” as Abby puts it. On the menu you might find Pig’s Head Bruschetta with Blackberry Mostarda, Braised Pork Belly, Pork Buns, and even pig’s tail. Fall classics include Celeriac Soup, Pheasant Cassoulet, or one of their specialties, Chicken Livers and Onions simmered in a local dark beer.
“We’re not following trends here,” says Rogan. “We’re cooking what is local and seasonal, and what represents us and our interests.” Choosing sustainable suppliers is very important and many are within several miles of the kitchen. The chickens come from Plew Farm just up the road in Mount Holly where the family-run farm sells chicken and pigs that are pasture raised, organically fed and locally cured. Brown Boar Farm in Wells provides the chef with heritage beef and heritage pork as well as heirloom vegetables. Tender rabbit comes from Wanabea Farm in Manchester. From Old Athens Farm in Westminster, a family-run organic farm, they buy the freshest vegetables and berries. Coger’s Sugar House Gardens also supply organic greens, herbs and vegetables. Oyster mushrooms are delivered to the back door by the father of a staff member. The fish, though not local of course, is high quality, in season and line caught.
Rogan came to the realization his passion for preparing great food after a serendipitous start at the Ritz Carleton in Boston while he was waiting to go to Africa after college. He returned to their kitchen and started his career twelve years ago, eventually moving to Mistral in Boston’s South End. He continued his apprenticeship at the Pitcher Inn in Warren and at several four-star restaurants in the South including the famous Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee and the late-lamented L&M’s Salumeria in Oxford, Mississippi. In 2007 he returned to Vermont to be head chef at Stratton’s Verdé, with a dream of opening his own place.
During his travels Rogan, who is from Weston, Vermont, met Abby, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and they worked together at Verdé. A professional and personal partnership came together in 2010 when they married and opened Downtown Grocery. All of their experience and their passion for great food and wine came together. In his own kitchen Rogan is now creating dishes that reflect his eclectic background, including house-cured charcuterie, handmade pasta, and the most amazing desserts you have ever tasted. Late Night Breakfast translates to warm French toast and buttermilk-bacon ice cream topped off with pure maple syrup.
Abby brings the same expertise and eclectic taste to the wine selection. All the bottles are listed sequentially by vintage and by the varietal grape. The list is short and wines are chosen to match the season. “We want to be able to tell the story about each of them,” says Abby. “I like to choose labels that people have not seen before that have small production. This is more fun for our guests and for me.”
At the end of the evening you can show your appreciation for the kitchen staff by ordering up a “pony,” a beer that will be saved for them and enjoyed when the last guest has left. A great way to join the fun they are clearly all having in the other room. Reservations are a must as there are only fourteen tables but you’re welcome to grab one of the six bar stools if you come in on a whim. Matt Farkas, the master mixologist behind the cozy bar, will be happy to shake up one of his old-fashioned “pre-prohibition” cocktails using homemade bitters and aromatics and fresh juices.