Susan Regis (UpStairs on the Square) and Rene Becker (Hi-Rise Bread Company) plan to open their restaurant, located in the former Chez Henri space, "as soon as possible." While the duo has been quoted as describing Shepard as "French in spirit" and "French-ish," the essence is simplicity and seasonality.
A year and a half after the closure of 18-year-old Chez Henri, a new restaurant, Shepard, is on the verge of opening in its place, just off of Massachusetts Avenue between Porter Square and Harvard Square. Co-owners Susan Regis and Rene Becker don't want to announce an exact opening date just yet, but "people will know when the paper comes down from the windows," Becker says, promising that it will be "as soon as possible." The duo did a complete renovation of the space, designing the project themselves in collaboration with Jonathan Austin and Katherine Signell of Cambridge-based Austin Architects.
Work is almost complete, aside from details like a standing bar behind the regular bar. A sprawling drawing of a tree by artist Meg Alexander, done in India ink, is inching its way down the lefthand wall, and various shipments are starting to arrive, like ramps, that beloved, fleeting spring produce. Regis wants to start "building the larder" right away, "preserving as much as [she] can today." In a restaurant so focused on seasonality and the local bounty, a lot relies on preservation, and a section of the ever-changing menu will highlight items "from the larder." Examples from an early menu preview include duck liver mousse, cured sardines, and smoked mackerel.
Becker, once a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine, owns Hi-Rise Bread Company, a bakery with two locations, which are both in Cambridge. (In fact, one is within eyeshot of Shepard, sitting just across Massachusetts Avenue.) He's wanted to open a full-service restaurant "several times," he says, and the Chez Henri space came to his attention at a time when he had been invited to look at a space in downtown Boston to put in a Hi-Rise. The developers also wanted a restaurant there, and Becker knew that his old friend Regis may be interested. "We thought that the two of us working together would just be fantastic," Becker recalls.
"One and one makes three!" says Regis.
And they ended up in the Chez Henri space on Shepard Street, not downtown. Regis has known Chez Henri owner Paul O'Connell for ages, so there's a lot of love for the legacy of the space. They've even maintained a floor detail near the front door, a concrete slab with colored glass, which was created by O'Connell's brother Tom. He made a host stand with a matching base for Shepard.
Shepard is very much a neighborhood project. Regis and Becker live equidistant from the restaurant in opposite directions — Regis in Somerville, Becker in Cambridge. "We like to keep our polar opposites a little," laughs Regis. "We don't want to clash."
"We're cooking for our neighbors in many ways," says Becker. "It's really kind of fun." That homey dinner party feel harkens back to the beginning of Regis and Becker's long friendship. They met when Becker was a "big bad restaurant critic," Regis says.
"Towards the end of my tenure at Boston Magazine, I got to be fairly well-known," says Becker, "so there was no pretense. And I love food, I love cooking, so we would have little dinners over in the North End with various people."
"It's not an easy thing to do, to take simple elements and turn them into something that's a little more."
"They were phenomenal," says Regis. "I’ll never forget the dinners. They were remarkable. I remember this lamb leg — I think it was winter, and he did it on his balcony on his Weber, and it was the best lamb you could have. If you think about it, it's not so far away from what we're doing now; the sentiment is the same — gathering great people and having fun and eating something that tastes better than you imagined. And it’s simplicity. I think that’s the point, and it’s not an easy thing to do, to take simple elements and turn them into something that’s a little more. You can introduce...not magic, but it’s something that brings it beyond what it is."
Shepard is all about wood. There's a wood-fired oven and a wood grill, sitting side-by-side in the bright kitchen (one of the only kitchens you'll ever see that has skylights). In the early days of planning the restaurant, Regis asked Becker if he'd rather the oven or the grill — to which he asked, "Why not both?" The grill is the focal point of the restaurant, completely visible from the dining room and allowing a peek into the rest of the kitchen. Becker laid each brick of the grill himself, Regis points out. "My back hurt, but it was worth it," says Becker. In front of the grill, on the dining room side, a cement section of the floor is studded with smooth rocks in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors — Regis picked them up at a beach in Maine, and the team installed them by hand.
While Shepard's menu will always be changing, the format will generally remain the same, split up into small plates, both from the grill and from the larder; slightly larger plates, like gnudi with morels, fava beans, and greens; bigger plates, like a pork chop with artichokes and green garlic; and even bigger plates, like a spatchcock hen with nettles, mustard, and lemon.
"It's about seasonal cooking, regional, local, and not over-handled."
"Keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it really seasonal, and keep it casual, but in a professional way," says Becker, paraphrasing the Julia Child ethos and how they'll interpret it at Shepard. "We have been quoted as saying that it's a 'French-ish' restaurant, but French in the sense that as Julia Child would say, it's about seasonal cooking, regional, local, and not over-handled. And that's really all we want to do."
The beverage program will also lean towards simplicity. Bar manager Nick Mansur, a Brick & Mortar alum, will be offering an array of classic cocktails, as well as three beers on tap, eight by the bottle or can, about 13 red wines, 13 white wines, and some bubbles. The wines will mostly be French. "We're not going to have 20 bourbons on the bar," Becker says. "We're going to have three. We're going to have two vodkas, neither of which will be flavored. It's a return to classics."
"Who wants to choose from more than 13?" wonders Regis, regarding huge wine lists. "Same with the food. I like the idea of: This must be great because it's on the menu."
"That's the whole point," says Becker. "You come to us because we're picking the best thing out there right now."
"We're there to just make people feel as good as possible.
To Becker and Regis, the dining experience at Shepard is, at its core, about feeling good. "It's really not about us as sommelier or bartender or chef," says Becker. "It's about the whole experience people have sitting at a table with their friends or family. That’s what a meal is all about, and we’re there to just make people feel as good as possible, to let them enjoy themselves in this context."
"Let yourself go," Regis says. "Trust us for providing that place where you can relax and enjoy the moment, and that means the moment of that bottle of wine or the moment of that fiddlehead. I want people to feel like they’re cared for and I want the cooks to have that same feeling when they touch the food that nature took all that time to get to that spot. We want to treat it with respect and care for it, so it really is about caring for what you do and how you do it, and hopefully the customer will feel that."
"The warmth and the love," says Becker.