At one of Boston’s strongest culinary debuts of 2018, Chickadee, seasonal New England ingredients blend seamlessly with Mediterranean influences — and a touch of Portugal, too, thanks to chef and co-owner John daSilva’s upbringing.
“I’ve always been surrounded by Mediterranean cuisine,” said daSilva. “My family shared a two-family house with my Sicilian grandmother and Portuguese grandfather. I remember we had a grapevine in the backyard and salt cod drying in the cellar. My grandfather was a fisherman, and my dad has been cooking professionally for 40 years, so it’s basically in my DNA.”
Later, daSilva continued to expand his knowledge of Mediterranean food working for chef Erin Zircher at the Boarding House on Nantucket. Zircher, who went on to open Cru on Nantucket, is “an Ana Sortun disciple who also spent time training in France,” said daSilva. “She taught me a lot about North African and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine and got me really into cookbook authors like Paula Wolfert, Alice Waters, and Claudia Roden.”
DaSilva — Eater Boston’s 2018 Chef of the Year, taking home both the editors’ choice and readers’ choice awards — is perhaps best known by Bostonians as the chef of cozy Somerville gem Spoke Wine Bar throughout its first incarnation, 2013 to 2016. Before that, daSilva worked at No. 9 Park from 2008 to 2012, where he first met Ted Kilpatrick, with whom he opened Chickadee this year.
Below, take a closer look at what daSilva and his team, including chef de cuisine Stef Bui (No. 9 Park, Deuxave), are serving for dinner at Chickadee. The menu changes with the seasons — the next round of changes will come about at the end of January — so the exact dishes below won’t be around forever, but they provide insight into daSilva’s overall food philosophy at Chickadee, that beautiful marriage of New England and the Mediterranean.
Smoked sea trout dip with salt and vinegar rye chips, horseradish, and dill: The Chickadee menu starts off with a section of “snacks,” including a smoked fish dip that will stay on the menu year-round, likely featuring bluefish in the summer, trout in the fall and spring, and perhaps scallops in the winter. “It’s one of those dishes that’s not the biggest seller,” said daSilva, “but once people get it in front of them, it’s the showstopper, and it’s everyone’s favorite.”
The roots of the dish come from daSilva’s time at Spoke, where he used to serve a smoked bluefish. At Chickadee, the trout — or whatever fish is currently in season — is cured and smoked in-house. It sits at the bottom of the bowl, topped with pickled mustard seeds, grated horseradish, and an aerated butter sauce, garnished with dill and chives. The chips around the edge are made from fried flaxseed rye bread from Waltham-based Bread Obsession, dusted with a salt and vinegar powder made at Chickadee “from our secret formula,” said daSilva, whose goal with the dish is to put together “a really nice bar snack” while featuring local products and a local artisan maker.
Crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with potato-almond skordalia, nigella seed, and chives: After snacks, the menu moves into a “vegetables” section, currently featuring roasted Brussels sprouts, marinated beets, a grilled carrot salad, and more.
Mushroom lovers — and even those on the fence about fungi — should dive right into the crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. “It’s really simple, just a few ingredients,” said daSilva. Local mushrooms are deep-fried and seasoned with salt right out of the fryer. The skordalia (a garlicky Greek puree that can be made with potatoes or other ingredients) is mostly traditional — “It’s got all the usual suspects,” said daSilva, including potato, garlic, almond, lemon juice, and salt. But he adds heavy cream and charges it with carbon dioxide in the iSi, a tool used for whipping up cream-based substances into foams, sauces, and more.
The dish is “what we do here — exactly what I want to do,” said daSilva: “Make a local ingredient the star of the show and use Mediterranean flavors as the canvas or the backdrop for it.”
Radiatore di grano arso with barbecue rabbit, peppers, and ricotta salata: “I wouldn’t say that we’re pasta specialists, like some of the great restaurants out there,” said daSilva. “I feel like we’re very new, but we’re definitely getting our feet wet and learning every day. We’re not afraid to take risks, like we did with [the radiatore], and I think it’s working out so far.”
Despite daSilva’s professed newness to the world of pasta, the pasta section of the menu is one of the star attractions at Chickadee, and the radiatore is another good example of the restaurant’s New-England-meets-Mediterranean outlook. In the Italian tradition, grano arso pasta is made with burnt grain. At Chickadee, which doesn’t have burnt grain since it’s not a bakery or pizzeria, daSilva dehydrates and burns vegetable scraps instead, working the remains into the pasta dough. “At the end of the day, carbon is carbon, and char flavor is char flavor,” said daSilva.
The dish also incorporates barbecue rabbit, sourced from Tad Largey’s Feather Brook Farm in Raynham. The rabbit is smoked in-house and braised with pepper, tomato, black garlic, and chicken stock. DaSilva adds roasted Jimmy Nardello peppers and a bit of butter and olive oil to the dish, along with Wood’s Boiled Cider from Vermont “to drive home the barbecue flavor.”
The inclusion of boiled cider is also another nod to the Mediterranean. “It’s my version of a New England vincotto,” said daSilva, vincotto being an Italian thick, sweet liquid made by slowly reducing grape must. “It adds a nice sweet and sour note that I associate with barbecue, and then we finish the pasta with ricotta salata and basil leaves.”
Campanelle in brodo with linguica, lacinato kale, and tomato conserva: It’s one of the other pasta dishes, the campanelle, that daSilva pulls from his Portuguese roots. Inspired by a Portuguese soup he grew up on, sopa de couve, it has linguica (made in-house), kale, beans, and potato in a tomato and pork broth.
“It’s a very simple, rustic dish,” said daSilva. “We finish it with Parmigiano, which is not traditional in Portugal, but it’s how I used to eat it as a kid, so that’s how I’m making everyone else eat it.”
Sea scallops with honeynut squash, apple, leek, and vadouvan: Following the pastas, Chickadee offers several main courses, such as spiced duck breast and roasted porchetta. The sea scallops, which come from Maine, are seared in oil and salt and served over a honeynut squash puree with a vadouvan cream sauce.
“The inspiration for it is a Normandy-style shellfish dish,” said daSilva, “and then we spiced it up with some vadouvan.” The cream is made with reduced cider, caramelized shallots, fish stock, heavy cream, and butter, and there are also leeks and Granny Smith apples in the dish.
“It’s creamy, and you get a little bit of spice from the vadouvan and then a barely cooked apple crunch at the very end, giving you a tart bite that cuts through the meatiness of the scallops really nicely.”
There’s also a garnish of pumpkin seed pesto and fried rosemary. “It’s like New England meets Normandy meets Morocco,” said daSilva. In other words, the perfect embodiment of the Chickadee menu.
For those coming in for the first time, daSilva’s recommended order, for a pair of people, is one item from each category to share — a snack, a vegetable, a pasta, and a main — and then a dessert or two.
One other thing to note: Chickadee is also open for lunch Monday through Saturday, but the lunch menu is a whole other ball game, featuring dips and pitas. (Don’t worry, pasta lovers: The campanelle does currently make an appearance at lunch.)
Venture out to the far end of the Seaport District, past all the new high-rises and chains and construction, to find Chickadee inside the Innovation and Design Building at 21 Drydock Ave. and get a taste of New England, Italy, Portugal, and beyond.
• Coverage of Chickadee on Eater [EBOS]
This story is the first in a series of features highlighting the 2018 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned in early 2019 for the next installment, and look back at a feature on last year’s Chef of the Year winner, Mary Dumont, here.