A nationally-renowned chef brings a tasty new concept to Manchester
Imagine a fast food setting with a fine dining pedigree. A full bar, a big TV, and a charred kale salad with honey and preserved lemon dressing.
Imagine bonchon — the savory Korean fried chicken that tastes like biting into a cloud with juicy meat in the center — ordered at a counter before you grab a stool at a communal table.
Imagine a restaurant that offers edgy dishes crowded with flavor in an equally edgy space, where you can pop in on a random Thursday night when you just don’t feel like cooking.
Now imagine that place is in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
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This is how the Superfine story begins:
Chef Matthew Gaudet’s career had whirred by like film footage played at high speed — jobs in prestigious kitchens (Aquavit, Eleven Madison Park, and Jean-Georges in Manhattan, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley), awards rolling in — followed shortly by the opening of his own four-star restaurant, West Bridge, in Cambridge, Mass., where he was voted one of the country’s Best New Chefs of 2013, and wound up on the cover of Food & Wine.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016, when the film jumps the sprockets.
Gaudet stands in a tiny box of a space, formerly occupied by Christo’s coffee shop on Manchester’s main drag, with his partners, Paul Emmett and Chris Robins (both fine-dining chefs with long resumes, most recently from Boston’s Aquitaine Group and West Bridge).
A late lunch crowd — single business people, moms with toddlers — lingers over their burgers and fries. A young girl and her mom lean into a fontina, leek, and mushroom pizza like they are afraid of losing it. The only sound is the low clatter from the kitchen.
As the saying goes, “there’s no talking when the food is good.”
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What’s happening here in Manchester is happening all around the country. It’s called “fast casual.” Or “fast casual 2.0.” Or, sometimes, “fast fine.”
The trend of fine-dining chefs proving they can make good food fast began with Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which launched ten years ago in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. Meyer, the owner of Union Square Hospitality Group (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and fine dining restaurants around the world) was an integral part of the rehabilitation of the park, which had become a hangout for the, uh, unsavory.
The park project inspired chefs from his Eleven Madison Park (where Gaudet once worked) to set up a temporary hot dog stand amidst the construction.
Their hot dog stand concept — great dogs, burgers, and milkshakes — was a smash hit. Today there are 100 Shake Shacks in the U.S. — including four in the Boston area — with dozens more from Seoul to Jeddah.
Spanish-American chef José Andrés, who owns high-end restaurants across the country, calls it “fast good.”
He opened his first place-your-order-here restaurant, Beefsteak, in Washington, D.C. last year. The restaurant was immediately serving over 900 people a day.
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Indeed, the lure of simpler times and lower costs — and one page of payroll — make a fast-casual kitchen smell very sweet to even the fussiest French-trained chef.
Matthew Gaudet’s evolution sounds like this:
“After twenty years of fine dining, and four years at West Bridge, it just wasn’t me. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Everything I was doing with West Bridge was something I had wanted to do for years. And I was able to do it, and was successful at it, and that was great. But I never did a dish twice. Once I nailed it, that was it. I was done with it.
“I had always wanted something more relaxed. It was on my radar. The challenge with fine dining is the staffing, the costs, the stress, the amount you spend on doing it all. Time, money, relationships, livelihood, health — everything is impacted.”
Guadet and his partner, Alexis Gelburd-Kimler, closed the Kendall Square eatery in December 2015.
At the same time, Gaudet’s wife, Miranda, was longing to move closer to Manchester, her hometown, so that their daughter could spend more time with her grandmother.
His long-time friends, Emmett and Robins, joined as partners.
. . . . .
But running a hip, fast casual restaurant in tiny Manchester — a town that is not blessed with a sophisticated restaurant scene — presented its own unique set of challenges.
“Take out? We weren’t prepared for that!” Gaudet says. Emmett and Robins moan in unison. It created another unexpected problem: on busy nights the takeout boxes fill almost all of the space in the restaurant’s compact kitchen.
“The customer base is different on the North Shore, but they are no less hungry,” Gaudet says. “In Cambridge, because of what we were and who we were, there were a lot of creative minds who came in and wanted to break it down, for better or for worse.
“Here on Cape Ann, people are curious as to what’s going on (in the restaurant), they’re excited when they taste new things. The feedback has been really positive. But Superfine is about just having a good time: relax, have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.”
Gaudet says the menu took a while to figure out.
“Trying to bring in some of West Bridge didn’t work; it wasn’t what we were going to be,” Gaudet said. “I wanted to keep our calamari and cockles dish on the menu here, the one that Food & Wine loved so much: herb broth, sun gold tomatoes, and calamari cut like noodles — it’s like a nice day at the beach.”
But the calamari and cockles didn’t sell.
Steak wasn’t popular either. And there was originally a locally-sourced clam pizza on the menu. It didn’t fly. But, oddly, the Brussels sprouts pizza did, and it’s still on the menu, as are the ribs, the barbecue specials, and the fish of the day. Burgers and pizza remain Superfine’s best sellers.
As Boston chef Jody Adams, who has recently opened her second Greek-inspired fast casual restaurant, Saloniki, advised Gaudet, “You tell everybody what you want to be, and then the community pushes back and tells you what you’re going to be.”
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Gaudet says keeping business simple allows for better food.
“We’re extremely sustainable. Part of it, too, is eliminating floor staff — having that one-page payroll. And a small footprint. Our labor is not extreme, so we can put all the money we’re saving into the product. We dress down the style to add to the product. It brings everything down to earth.
“This is a pizza place!” he conceeds, ironically, “but we’re also providing the setting to have a good time. The food’s a byproduct of people getting together.”
Nonetheless, Gaudet, Emmett, and Robins spent serious chef time building the dishes. The pizza dough, for instance, involved “fairly detailed experimentation.”
“Our sourdough was erratic,” Emmett says, “We made a lot of pizza. Some of it was great, then it was OK, and then it was awesome again. We kept going back to the cookbooks.
“What we like about Cape Ann is the quality of ingredients we can get locally. I had no idea what was available here. We wanted to source locally, and there are unbelievable products from farms in the area,” says Emmett.
As if on cue, Tucker Smith, from Cedar Rock Gardens in West Gloucester, stops in to drop off several wooden crates of arugula and autumn vegetables.
Superfine serves a lamb sausage and pepperoncini pizza with stracciatelle from Amesbury cheesemaker Wolf Meadow Farm. The fish of the day comes from “Steve in Ipswich.” Superfine makes its own pickles — and chocolate chip cookies, too.
Robins says the best part about opening Superfine is the town. “Manchester is a modern-day Mayberry. I’m just waiting to see Andy Griffith walk down the street. But my favorite part since we opened the restaurant is the reception we’re getting from the locals.”
“That’s what I said!” Gaudet shouts from the kitchen.
Robins continues, “I really like working in a town like this and not in the city. People just seem a little more appreciative and less critical about stuff.”
“That’s what I said!” Gaudet repeats, louder.
“It’s really something,” Gaudet continues, “when the guests are leaving and you can see they enjoyed their meal and they actually give you a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for opening a restaurant like this in town, where they can eat, have fun, and bring their kids and their families. That is a big deal for me.”
Robins summarizes for the team: “At the end of the day we’re not putting a man on the moon here. We’re doing this food that we really like. We’re buying really good ingredients. We’re treating it right.”
Does Gaudet miss anything about West Bridge?
“I miss the quiet storm before the service with the brigade hunkered down, and it’s all really about to happen. But it’s just that, day after day, going back to my busiest days as a line cook in New York — everything has to be perfect, or you’ll get ripped to shreds.”
He shakes his head. “That, I don’t miss.”
► Superfine, 25 Union Street, Manchester-by-the-Sea. (978) 526 0964. Hours: Tue.-Thu., 8 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri. 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Superfine also has a surprisingly robust breakfast service featuring dark and smooth coffee, pecan sticky buns with cinnamon toffee (made in-house), and avocado toast with miso-tahini spread.