Inspiration sometimes comes in the most ordinary ways. Bruce Frankel, chef of Panache restaurant in Cambridge, had been feeling a distinct lack of recognition. He wasn't doing something right.
In April, 1984, he went to the American Cuisine Symposium in Boston, to show his work along with dozens of other local chefs at the Taste of Boston. Frankel brought chocolate truffles.
By the end of the day he had seen the light: France was not the wave of the future. "People like me displaying French candies . . . You think about the embarrassment of people coming to town and saying, 'Show me your three best restaurants,' and they are all French," said Frankel, who still shudders at the thought.
*For the first time, he saw people seriously interested in American cooking. "I got the idea there was really something happening out there," said Frankel.
It was his turning point. Said Frankel, "It hit me all at once. I understood the spirit of the movement."
He said this in the dining room of his brand-new restaurant, the Colony, which is the restaurant that turning point built. It is a strictly New England restaurant, with not only New England cooking but its ingredients as much as possible from New England and many of its wines as well.
Frankel and his partner and maitre d', David Kantrowitz, both in their early thirties, say what they really want is a century-old New England restaurant, but that of course will take time. "It should feel like it was always here," said Kantrowitz.
Boston has old traditional restaurants -- Locke-Ober, Durgin Park and the Union Oyster House for a start -- and it has newer restaurants that emphasize regional ingredients and serve some regional dishes -- Seasons and Jaspar's most prominently among them. But Frankel and Kantrowitz claim to be the first of the new restaurants to be exclusively New England.
The concept is more apparent in appetizers than in main dishes. Corn oysters, mushroom or littleneck clam chowder, and asparagus-crab pie are more regional than grilled loin of lamb with smoked tomato relish. But many New England main dishes, such as boiled dinner, don't sound elegant enough for a $42 fixed-price meal, figured Frankel and Kantrowitz. Even home-baked beans served as a complimentary hors d'oeuvre met with a chilly reception. Instead they turned to codfish sticks.
Most of the traditional recipes need modernizing, said Frankel: "Some of the chowder recipes have lots of flour, and relishes have cups and cups of sugar." There are also new New England ingredients for which there are no traditional recipes: goat cheese, baby lamb.
Finding regional ingredients has turned out to be the easy part. Among their best finds has been boiled cider -- nearly as thick as molasses. Wonderful hams and bacon come from Bennington, Vt., Kantrowitz's home town. Not only lobsters but shrimp and red crabs come from Maine. They found "common crackers" from Vermont to go with the cheeses, which they gather from all over the region. "You can't go to one store and buy those cheeses," they boast.
They are still looking for yellow-eye beans, and they haven't found a New England butter to top Pennsylvania's. "Nobody knows there is a demand for 20, or 100, pounds of the best butter a week," they complain.
The ingredients entice them to invent: spicy vegetable slaw for their grilled swordfish, homemade ketchup for their steak, tomalley custard for their lobster and smoked tomato relish for their lamb chop.
Nevertheless, their aim is simple food. "There is a tendency to think that when you overdo things you are giving people their money's worth," explained Kantrowitz.
Actually, what they mean is deceptively simple food. Their strawberry shortcake, for instance, starts with old-fashioned cream of tartar biscuits -- lighter than baking powder biscuits -- buttered just before they are served. Some of the strawberries are made into a sauce, the others cut and sugared to order. The shorcake is assembled at the last minute. But there is still more to the art: The biscuits are warm and the strawberries are room temperature, which Frankel says brings out the flavor.
As for that quintessential Boston dish, indian pudding, theirs took long, hard work. This cornmeal and molasses dessert requires long, slow cooking, but at the right temperature because it curdles easily. Some versions were too sweet, others too salty; most were thick and heavy. They muted theirs, using less molasses and adding the tart freshness of apple. They also thinned it.
Ice cream with indian pudding sauce sells better than indian pudding with ice cream, they realized. "There are tricks," confided Frankel. Another example: They can't sell melted cheese as a main dish, but need to call it something like "roasted cheddar," suggested Kantrowitz.
The Colony's goal is "a really credible American cuisine," but Frankel and Kantrowitz know that is going to take time. As Frankel admitted in a burst of modesty, "I haven't really retrained myself to cook New England yet."
Few children I know willingly eat sweet potatoes, except to pick off the marshmallow topping. So it was a surprise to find that for the school lunch program the USDA buys 7 million pounds a year. Sounds like a boon for the marshmallow manufacturers.
At L'Espalier's Great Food Store in Boston I encountered two clever ideas: Aram's cracker bread sandwiches look like submarines, but are big, floppy Middle-Eastern cracker breads rolled up with meats, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese into 2-inch-diameter loaves, then cut into sections a couple inches long for serving.
The other idea was a decorative one, using small fresh artichokes as sign holders, the signs being tucked between the leaves. It would be as charming for placecards and labels for potluck-supper buffets. CODFISH STICKS (12 servings as hors d'oeuvres)
1 1/2 cups dried salt cod
3 cups diced potatoes
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Dash of cayenne pepper
Rinse salt cod well and soak in water overnight, changing the water at least once. Drain. Cover with water and poach with potatoes and garlic until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, and heat over low heat to dry.
Shred fish and mash with potatoes. Add butter, egg and seasonings and continue beating.
Shape into little sticks (2 inches by 1/2 inch) and deep-fry in oil heated to 370 degrees. Serve hot as an hors d'oeuvre.
THE COLONY'S INDIAN PUDDING (8 to 12 servings)
3/4 cup stone-ground cornmeal
9 cups milk
1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup molasses
2 cups peeled, cored and coarsely grated apples
Place cornmeal in a large pot and gradually stir in 6 cups milk. Add butter, salt, spices and molasses. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring. Add the apples and boil 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour into buttered 3-quart baking dish and bake at 250 degrees for 2 hours.
Add 1 1/2 cups milk, stirring thoroughly. Bake 2 more hours. Stir in 1 1/2 cups more milk and cook 2 more hours. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, topped with a little bit of molasses.