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Hungry, and having gotten lost — yet again — it’s a dry, frigid night when I arrive at The Local 63 in Watertown. I’d been poking up and down the All-American Valley for most of February, dodging through speeding Route 8 traffic and hilly back roads looming above riverbanks to find a place which exemplifies coming in from the cold.
It didn’t need to be a fine-dining slam dunk, or a low-beamed and crackling-fire New England inn, the sort where once-functional hitching posts with rusted iron rings are now lost in overgrown azaleas. I was wandering, and only sort of lost. Here’s what I found.
Shrugging through the knives of the winter wind and down into a warmly lit little patio (mental note there for a return trip in the summer), the bar and restaurant has a New American-pub feel, with some exposed brick, wooden tabletops, and softly green-painted walls hung with prints showing Watertown’s Main Street of yesteryear.
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A long stretch with a dozen seats demonstrates why “bar” is the first word, but a glance at their online menu is why I made a beeline for this place from the coast. Some of the tables host small groups, and I notice most are laid with a mosaic of plates — everyone seems determined as I am to eat more than one. A good sign.
Another good sign — or, rather, flat screen — hung above the bar shows a beer list curated from Connecticut brands including Brewery Legitimus, Lasting Brass, Back East, Black Hog, and NEBCo on draft. Brewery Legitimus Counter Surfer brown ale shows a color true to name on arrival, with a thick, pillowy head, and an aroma of fresh, crusty bread. The roasty malts of a classic, well-marbled ale wash over the tongue, yet it has a surprisingly light body. It’s a good choice for pairing with a large variety of food, which is exactly what you’ll find here.
A Connecticut native, chef Rich Jurman has been with The Local 63 (so named because Main Street doubles as Route 63) since the beginning, one year ago this month. He and co-owner Jason Wither had previously worked at Rooster Co. in Newington, and developed the idea with the Wither family and Jason’s partner, Lauren Hansen.
“I took this as an opportunity to develop relationships with the local purveyors,” says Jurman, a West Hartford resident. “I’m not trying to go over anyone’s head, or out-technique anybody. I see my way of cooking as a more home-cooking, soulful approach to things.”
To that end, you’ll see a braised lamb melt sandwich on the menu, with pickled vegetables, and provolone. The meat comes from Pete Sepe of Sepe Farm in Sandy Hook (“I love that man,” says Jurman), and a smoked pork Cubano with vivace bambino (“like very fancy Swiss cheese”) sourced from the alliterative Cato Corner Farm in Colchester. Other cheeses on the menu are from another local find, Oakville’s New Curds on the Block. Much of the spring and summer vegetables are sourced from the Farms to Table farmers’ co-op app. “Connecticut and Hudson Valley farms, hyper-seasonal stuff,” says the chef.
Tomatoes and especially hot peppers from Cold Spring Brook Farm in Berlin will start appearing in dishes as the months turn warmer.
I order a dish of hummus with marinated beets, sumac and crispy chickpeas. The kitchen provides a generous portion, easily enough for two or three people to split over drinks or as an appetizer. The beets are piled in small, fragrant dice over the hummus, under a scattered handful of whole, crunchy chickpeas. Flatbread crackers are included for dipping, each topped with sesame and sunflower seeds. Sweet, garlicky, crunchy and smooth, it pushes your mouth’s buttons like a 10-year-old on an elevator.
The menu feels freestyle: gnocchi ricotta sharing space with chicken fried steak, pork and kimchi fried rice, squash soup, and cassoulet — like the chef is experimenting with takes on cultures — yet it seems organized, thoughtful in the arrangements of ingredients and flavors.
“Some of it is finding our space in the neighborhood, what people here like — our staples are here to stay — but others are a rotating, seasonal list of what I can get,” he explains. “I got a load of broccoli rabe with almost no florets that nobody wanted. The stalks became the kimchi in our fried rice.” The kimchi on the menu during my visit had been made from massive, thinly shaved roots of kohlrabi. The menu, then, isn’t scattershot: it’s a creative take on making the best of what’s around, something home chefs have been doing in America for centuries.
“It’s my favorite answer for that age-old question, ‘What’s your favorite thing to cook?’ I don’t stay married to a lot of ideas in my head. You have to approach availability like an episode of Chopped.”
The young restaurant has already done a beer-pairing dinner with Waterbury’s Lasting Brass, and makes several cocktails with the city’s Continuum distillery.
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A small plate of maple bacon sunchokes with lemon mayonnaise catches my eye. “They have a distinct flavor, but they’re so inviting to others, so versatile,” says the chef. “A lot of people ask us, ‘What the [expletive] is a sunchoke?!’ and then they finish the whole plate.” (For the record: a sunchoke — sometimes called a Jerusalem artichoke — is a small tuber, mild and crispy when eaten raw, but with the consistency and snap of a boiled carrot when cooked.)
The little vegetable nuggets burst with flavor on first bite, mixing sweet maple syrup and the slightly citrus-sour mayonnaise with the crunch of more sunchokes, this time in the form of tiny chips. Crumbled bits of bacon bring an almost breakfast-for-dinner vibe to this textural treat and — if you can forgive it for being less than carnivorous — they make for an interesting departure from chicken bites or wings. It will be interesting to see what the self-professed hot sauce-fanatic Jurman does with these during pepper season.
Changes to the menu come weekly, with some constants like the fried chicken sandwich, crispy new potatoes with charred shallot mayo, and braised lamb melt. Duck fat-roasted sweet potatoes were an option I sorely wanted to try, along with roasted cauliflower with garlic, anchovy and crumbles of Mystic Cheese Co. Finback. Want to add crispy chicken thigh to your salad? They can do that, too.
My personal highlight of the night is an entrée of steelhead trout filet. Attention to textural detail is again apparent in its preparation: pink fish with crispy, silvery skin facing upward over a bed of creamy polenta, drizzled in punchy salsa verde. The flavor-packed steelhead is paired with chunks of firm baby turnips, while slivers of pickled daikon add a fresh, acidic crunch. I enjoy trying different combinations, bite by bite, focusing on the fish and polenta with one, adding zing with salsa to the next, gobbling a bit of everything with another.
Repeat business and an increasing trust of what they do has been the early response from the community, according to Jurman, who says he’s noticed diners expanding their orders from single dishes found specifically at The Local 63 (that lamb melt again), to more adventurous options.
“We’re not trying to make anything eccentric for the sake of doing it, though. At the end of the day, food being delicious and satisfying is the most important thing. We’ve been developing great relationships with customers, with the purveyors.
“People come in and eat something and say: ‘I’ve never heard of this, but it makes total sense!’ ” Jurman tells us.
Sort of like The Local 63 itself.
The food: The Local 63 is a delicious hodgepodge of flavors, reflecting whatever is on chef Rich Jurman’s mind that week. Small plates like crispy new potatoes with shallot mayo mix with lamb ribs, fried chicken sandwiches, and kimchi fried rice to tempt any taste bud.
The atmosphere: This is a gastropub, with the bar and tables sharing the same room, an outstanding beer selection, and creative cocktails. It’s an equally good spot to have a few after-work drinks and bites, or a sit-down dinner with a wide selection of options.
Prices: Entrées $18–$26
The Local 63465 Main St., Watertown959-209-4779, thelocal63.com, @thelocal63 on InstagramOpen Thu.–Mon. for lunch and dinnerWheelchair accessible
Note: Some navigation systems will bring you to the Main Street address in nearby Oakville. The Local 63 is across from a local library branch in Watertown.