Downtown Market Co.’s dinner strong on style, substance
Owners of Medford’s Downtown Market Co. like to joke they’re crazy to do what they do — and love it.
Anyone in the market for a special meal would be crazy to overlook the new Obatzo Kitchen menu. Still showcasing the soups and salads that cemented Downtown Market’s lunchtime reputation for more than a decade, the evening lineup adds meaty mains and seasonal side dishes that have long been Nora LaBrocca’s calling card. To wash it all down, the market pours a pretty stiff drink.
From drinks with grapefruit juice — the “Grinch” and “holiday paloma,” — my partner chose the latter. I gravitated to a reliable favorite: St. Germain elderflower liqueur, gin, lemon juice and sparkling wine. Garnished with herb stems and eco-friendly bamboo straws, the drink’s tall glass resembled a chemistry lab beaker.
Style is another realm where the market, at 123 W. Main St., shines brighter than the majority of local establishments. Before she was a restaurateur, LaBrocca dressed windows for Ralph Lauren and designed interiors for Medford’s Terra Firma.
She conceived Downtown Market in 2010 not only as a showplace for fresh, vibrant foods but her aesthetic brand — natural materials, neutral color palettes, contrasting wood and metalwork with unconventional accents. A small retail space with some of LaBrocca’s favorite accoutrements is a fixture of the business.
So it’s no surprise that chic special events have a home on the market’s second floor. The “Vinyl Room” is the workshop of LaBrocca’s husband and co-owner, Brian Witter, for curating playlists around a musical genre or theme. “Vinyl nights” are on hold until Jan. 6, but guests can come for Friday’s “music hall” live entertainment from 6 to 8 p.m.
Purposely choosing a lower-key Wednesday evening to try the new Obatzo menu, available since mid-October, my partner and I had sampled the half roast chicken ($24) over the summer during a “vinyl night” with friends. Both the 16-ounce pork chop ($32) and 24-ounce porterhouse ($45) would have been plenty large to split between two appetites such as ours. Coming off Thanksgiving’s excess, we preferred a lighter main course — imported Italian cheese ravioli ($18) — along with soup and salad.
Both soups — wild mushroom ($12) and roasted butternut squash ($10) — found favor. We agreed to share bites from each bowl. Pledging more promises to share the ravioli, I validated my partner’s inclination to make the beet and pear salad ($18) his main.
But first an appetizer. Because soups, salads and pasta all come with grilled sourdough slices, we couldn’t conscience Boursin cheese with bacon, caramelized onions and yet more bread. The board of cured meats, cheeses, olives, fruit, nuts and marinated fish would be a meal unto itself for the price of $20. That left fried artichoke hearts with romesco sauce ($15).
The plump artichoke hearts conveyed a judicious layer of beer batter that still revealed their ruffly edges. “Hmmmmm!” I exclaimed. “Nora buys the good artichoke hearts.”
The bell pepper-based sauce, in ample quantity, cut through some of the richness. But a fried appetizer, on my palate, always benefits from a cocktail pairing.
My drink was so decadently mixed it carried me into the second course. Four slices of bread adorned each soup, the squash artfully garnished with crema and pumpkin seeds. A hefty spoon evoking Old World craftsmanship played up the sense of abundance emanating from each bowl.
Both recipes were piping hot and utterly delicious. My partner admonished me to make more silky, pureed soups like the squash. I made a mental note to bulk up more of our soups with cooked rice while relishing the texture of several whole wood ear mushrooms.
The chewy, almost gelatinous fungus punched up the meaty button mushrooms composing most of the soup’s body. But rather than soften the mushrooms’ impact — by perhaps dicing them smaller — for the average diner, LaBrocca celebrates culinary qualities that intrigue, tantalize and even challenge the palate.
Such was the case with the salad: a seasonal symphony of chicories with roasted beets, red Anjou pear, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and feta cheese. A few bites in, my partner commented the salad tasted bitter. And I had to agree — that’s the nature of radicchio and escarole, which I enjoy in wintertime, particularly with some fruit to soften its bite.
Slices of crisp Anjou pear, however, didn’t furnish sweetness to counteract the greens. A sweeter dressing, such as balsamic, could have filled that role. But LaBrocca’s lemon vinaigrette provided neither enough acid nor moisture. The server obliged us with some additional dressing, as I commented the market’s salads err on the side of underdressed to preserve their integrity.
The ravioli, by contrast, practically swam in clarified butter, which fell just short of browned. I adore this type of preparation, often punctuated with crispy bits of fresh sage. A little more time on the heat, however, to caramelize the butter solids would have improved this version. And the market’s generous hand with ingredients seemed almost too lavish in this case, as our energy flagged for finishing the pasta.
Having eaten so fully, we had to skip dessert, likely a pear frangipane tart I’d spied on one of the market’s recent emails.
Serving an eclectic brunch that mingles Latin, Southern and European influences, Downtown Market is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner is served 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. See downtownmarketco.com or call 541-973-2233.
Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or email@example.com