Good Eats

The Herb Lyceum at Gilson’s

Dinner at The Herb Lyceum at Gilson’s in Groton can be terrific or disappointing. It’s all about expectations. If you’re anticipating a quiet and solitary romantic dinner for two, you’re going to feel let down. And if you’re eager for a large and widely eclectic menu with all manner of options, you’re not going to be happy, either.

But, if you are willing to put yourself at the mercy of a savvy chef, to enjoy the company of strangers in a communal dining atmosphere, and to take a brief journey back in time to when dinner was an all-evening experience, then you’ll have a superlative meal.

Here’s how it works: The Friday and Saturday-only dinners (one seating per night) are served in a restored 19th century carriage house chockablock with antiques, period pieces and drying flowers and herbs. There is one fixed-price ($65 in October, when I visited) and a multicourse menu that changes each month. Diners can learn what’s being served in advance by visiting The Herb Lyceum’s website or by calling.

Guests are seated at three long farmhouse tables that can accommodate a total of 30 people. You most likely will be sitting with strangers, and that’s no accident. The idea is to enjoy a good meal and conversation with new “friends.” Cellphones are forbidden. Diners must bring their own alcoholic beverages, and state law forbids staff from even touching the bottles. You must refrigerate, open, and do the pouring yourself.

Each dish is served simultaneously to everyone at your table. Chef Hock Teh (his previous credits include Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton and Fishbones in Chelmsford) comes to the dining room while each dish is presented, provides a brief description and answers questions. It’s relaxed and refined dining that’s done in a unique way.

October’s theme was Thai food, an intriguing option in a place that would seem to call for a menu heavy on traditional American or French dishes. Teh explained that menus were based on providing a variety of proteins during the course of the year. September’s selection included chicken; November’s features duck.

The best Thai food seduces you with the freshness of its ingredients and the way the various textures and flavors meld. We encountered that enticing combination from start to finish. Among the highlights was a green papaya salad with lettuce, long beans, peanuts, cherry tomatoes, scallions and mint. Like most everything we sampled, it was pre-dressed and seasoned. There was little need to do more than, well, just start eating. My Laotian friends often make papaya salad, and more than once it has been so ferociously spiced that it nearly burned through my gum line. Teh’s came with only a hint of heat, a deliberate decision, we were informed, and a good one because it allowed the various ingredients to shine.

The hot and sour seafood stew was another quiet pleasure. Fish sauce was splashed about much of our meal, a nod to traditional Thai cuisine, Teh told us. In this case, it greatly enhanced the mix of mussels, shrimp, lemongrass, tamarind, mushrooms and a little lime. On a cool winter or fall evening, this would be a supremely appealing dish. The broth alone made us smile.

The tender pork with Thai basil was accompanied by a base of fluffy coconut jasmine rice, accented with spicy pickled vegetables, bell peppers, broccoli, and even some sweet potatoes. It was wholly satisfying and filling. Once again, the variety of subtle, overlapping flavors was key. I’ve often enjoyed sticky rice with quail eggs, though not as a dessert. But rice is a staple of Thai cuisine, of
course, and sticky rice with mango and sweet coconut cream was a very agreeable marriage.

Dining at The Herb Lyceum can be a delightful and memorable evening … but like any fine meal, it’s all in the details.

The Herb Lyceum at Gilson’s
Groton, Mass.
(978) 448-6499
GilsonsLyceum.com

Fixed-price dining every Friday and Saturday (one seating per night)

Photography by Kevin Harkins, Harkins Photography

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