Claire's Brings Flavor of the World to Hardwick

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Article published Jun 3, 2008
By Sylvia Fagin Correspondent

From his post in the kitchen, chef Steven Obranovich surveys the dining room through an open pass-through window. Guests trade bites of succulent crabcake and spoonfuls of creamy sunchoke soup, nodding at the flavors with appreciation.

The dining room of Claire's Restaurant in Hardwick is regal. Each polished wooden table is graced with a delicate green and gold glass lamp, and the room glows with streams of evening sunlight reflected off pale yellow walls.

A couple on their way out stops at the window to express their compliments to the chef, who thanks them with his signature wry smile.

Claire's promises "local ingredients, open to the world," and Obranovich and his colleagues deliver. Since opening on May 24, they've been consistently busy, giving downtown Hardwick a whole new flavor.

The restaurant is named for local artist and legendary hostess Claire Fern, whose artwork graces the walls. From huge, colorful paintings to tiny pen and ink sketches, there's something for everyone's taste. The same can be said for the menu.

"One important thing for us is that everybody in town can come," Obranovich explains. "We really want to have a range of affordability." He's provided a range of tastes as well. The menu changes regularly, according to what's available from local growers.

"Last week a friend called and said, 'Does Steven need any ramps?'" Obranovich recalls. Of course he said yes to the query, then caramelized the bulbs of the wild onions, and tossed them with the braised green tops, goat cheese, mint pesto and pasta.This typifies Obranovich's cooking style.

"I see what comes in and work with it. I don't plan a menu with specific dishes. It's kind of an anti-corporate thing," he admits, alluding to some past jobs where the process of creating menus was "pitched, priced," and standardized in a way that smothered creativity. His creations are inspired by the flavors of the world; recipes from Latin America and Morocco — "anything with heat" — are among his favorites.

The opening weekend menu featured steak grilled to order, topped with chimichurri sauce, an Argentinean combination of garlic, red pepper flakes and vinegar; chicken molé, a Mexican sauce of chocolate and chipotle peppers; and vegetarian tagine, a Moroccan stew of chick peas and vegetables.

Diners can start with a choice of salads, including mesclun or spinach from nearby Pete's Greens ($5-7), or a starter like hummus with sorrel pesto ($5). Entrees begin with the deceptively simple sounding "warm greens, grains, seeds and sprouts," a hearty bowl of quinoa and wheatberries topped with a dollop of mint pesto, braised greens, sunflower sprouts and toasted pumpkin seeds ($10.50).

The range of dishes is an opportunity for Obranovich "not to do dishes I've done in the past," he says, explaining that classic high-labor sauces can drive up prices. He serves pork loin with apple-rhubarb chutney ($15.50), instead of a traditional demi-glace sauce.

"It's local, the rhubarb is seasonal, and people are really responding to it," he says. Crabcakes are served on arugula salad with fiddleheads ($18), a local twist on a classic favorite.

Rhubarb pecan crumble rewards those who've cleaned their plate, as do desserts like carrot cake trifle and chocolate peanut butter or maple fluff, served whimsically in Ball canning jars.

Part of the restaurant's mission involves "using the best local ingredients direct from growers and artisans," and their location is akin to being in the middle of a gold mine. Vegetables and breads come from Patchwork Farm and Bakery, and meats from Snug Valley Farm, both in Hardwick.

The restaurant is the brainchild of a quartet of Hardwick area residents: Obranovich, who graduated from the California Culinary Academy; Kristina Michelsen, an attorney and singer-songwriter; Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick; and Mike Bosia, an assistant professor at St. Michael's College.

A community supported business model was used to raise capital: 50 community members each invested $1,000 in the business, which they will receive back in restaurant credit.

"Claire was a woman who loved to feed people, gather people, and create a sense of community," says Michelsen of the restaurant's namesake. "That's what we want to do here, and we are doing it — it's working!"

Open daily except Wednesday 5-9, reservations recommended (472-7053.)

Full disclosure: The author is an occasional cook at Claire's.

Sylvia Fagin writes about local foods and food producers. Contact her at sylviafagin@yahoo.com.