The European style of Stan Hilbert’s new farm-to-table restaurant in Cambridge is elegant but low key. Fresh, local organic food and wine pairs with a wine list that leans heavily toward Italian and French. But there isn’t a scrap of snootiness, just fun and pleasure. What would you like to try?
The major players (left to right), Stan (Owner and Wine), Eric Cooper (Chef) and Joseph Choiniere (Cocktails and Wine) have known and worked with each other for years and love what they do. In the podcast interview I did with Stan, he recalled the first time he tasted a natural wine and understood what wine really was. That conversion experience happened in the space that is now Forage but was before, Craigie Street Bistrot. The restaurant is tucked under an old style brick apartment building in a neighborhood of New England clapboard houses. The lamppost brings up connotations of Narnia, of slipping into an alternate world far from the intensity of Harvard Square.
Stan’s wife was working at Craigie Street and invited him to a tasting hosted by Violette Wine Cellars, which imports organic, biodynamic and natural wine. “The wine was just so different,” Stan recalled. “It had a lot of character. It had more to say than just the fruit of the grape. I’d never had anything like that before.”
After the experience, he began a search that continues today for the best natural wines. “There’s good natural wine and bad natural wine,” he noted. “What I try to do is weed the bad stuff out.”
Part of his philosophy in the restaurant is encouraging clients to try unknown grape varieties and wines by offering them by the glass. When we were ordering dinner, for example, Joe Choiniere proposed Montessori Timorasso 2012 made in the hills near Tortona (Colli Torinesi) in Piemonte by Valli Unite (members of the natural wine association VinNatur).
Founded by three farmers in the 80s to raise animals, grow crops and make mostly red wine from the native Barbera and Dolcetto grapes, Valli Unite followed Walter Massa, the pioneer who brought back the nearly extinct white Timorasso grape.
The grapes stay on the skins enough time to give the wine complexity but not too much weight. Its freshness and vitality were a great pairing to the local spinach salad and other appetizers…vegetables pickled in house by Chef Eric Cooper…
And a luscious beet borscht.
Eric is a native of the Boston area but traveled and cooked far and wide before returning recently. His most exotic experience was cooking for three years in research stations in the Antartica. “I learned to adapt and be innovative,” he told me. “It prepared me for the extreme seasonality of cooking farm-to-table in Boston.”
In the long winter months, Eric sources green vegetables like spinach and salad from greenhouse farms nearby, but he has also started pickling and will soon have a root cellar at the restaurant.
For main courses, we chose two hearty dishes: the Maltagliata Pasta, a baked dish with mushroom and tomato sauce and Pan Seared Mackerel with Squash, Turnips and Lentils. Both paired well with Casina di Cornia Rosso Toscana 2015, 50/50 blend of Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo. These two native Tuscan variety usually play second fiddle to Sangiovese in Chianti Classico, but here they stand on their own in lovely fresh, medium weight red.
Cascina di Cornia , a small family winery in Chianti has farmed organically since the 80s and only makes 5,000 bottles of Rosso Toscana with most of their red grapes going into Chianti Classico and a more structured Riserva. Fermented only with native yeasts and never going into new oak in the cellar, the wine expresses the essence of the land and the grapes.
To top off the evening, we tried a richer red from Corsica Calvi Pumonte 2012 that is made with Sciacarellu and Niellucciu grapes grown on old vines at the foot of the mountain by the sea. Its full-bodied dense, woodsy, fruit flavors were balanced out by nice tannins and minerality from the granite soil. I’ve only been once to Corsica, but the wine definitely made me want to go back for more exploring.
Forage turned out to be an unexpected discovery: both in meeting Stan, a kindred natural wine drinker, and in finding a place in Cambridge that feels as welcoming as the trattoria I go to in the town where I live in Italy.
At the beginning of the evening, I had been scanning for wines I knew about and wanted to taste. By the end, I was ready to trust the staff and venture out into the unknown…just for the fun and pleasure of it. Nothing could be more Italian than that. Next time, I’ll try one of Forage’s tasting 4-course menus paired wines and see what comes my way:
With wine $25
5 Craigie Circle