“I Don’t Want to Change The World, I’m Not Looking For A New England” but I am looking for real New England food

We spend lots of time with “restaurant people.” We know so many chefs, bartenders and servers. We have some understanding of the blood, sweat and tears that go into developing, opening and running a restaurant. We understand how they can also just go “poof” and vanish. We also live in a very small town, with a great many restaurants. I can think of 3 that opened and 3 that closed last year. It was an experience at one of the new restaurants that has set me off on a new “sub-project.”

Ledger opened to great fanfare last year, it is owned by a restaurateur who owns a wildly popular restaurant 2 towns over from us. It is certainly a beautiful space, a converted bank that has been in Salem since circa 1818. Ledger describes itself as “a progressive New England concept, where traditional 19th century dishes, cocktails and techniques will be elevated with 21st century resources.” I had looked at the menu several times before I went for the first time, and I was mostly struck by the cost. This is not an everyday restaurant, this is “special occasion” dining.

ledger menu

Our special occasion came about with the arrival of grandparents who whisked the small one away to their hotel for the night. SO off we went to Ledger, brimming with high expectations because we had only heard great things!.

First of all Ledger is gorgeous, it is just visually stunning, all high ceilings, exposed brick, and art-deco paintings. For all it is in a 19th century bank it felt very much like high end Roaring Twenties Speakeasy.  The space is dominated by a gorgeous square bar, right in the center of the dining room We were seated at the family style table, a long table that runs the length of the dining room. We didn’t get off to the best start because we upset the hostess by asking to sit side by side and not across from each other. We were on a date! We wanted to hold hands not shout at each other across a table! LEDGER_INTERIORS_0617-30

We started with the cheese board, three cheese, some berries, some honey and some nuts. Let me clear – I love cheese – I mean seriously love cheese, being a cheesemonger would be a dream job for me. I have been spoiled by the staff of The Cheese Shop of Salem, who have developed my palate considerably since they opened. The three cheeses on this board were a semi soft, a soft and a blue. Our server did tell us their names but it was so loud in the restaurant that the only thing I caught was that the soft cheese might be very “oaky” due to the way it is processed. The soft cheese was not oaky, the blue had no bite, and the semi-soft really was nothing more than a cheese you would expect in Market Basket labelled “American Cheese.” There was no flavor progression, they started bland and ended bland.

ledger cheese

After the cheeses our server took our entrée order. I went plain and simple with the burger about which I had heard rave reviews and Rob went with the fish special a local striped bass with sunchoke puree, cauliflower and a slaw. The fish was simple, light and delicate, the plating was pretty.

ledger fish

The burger sadly was just grey. It honestly tasted grey, under seasoned, soft, I couldn’t taste the flavors in the aioli. The potato wedges were dry and I think the salt that could have been in the burger ended up on them.

ledger burger

We didn’t stick around for desert.

We were both frustrated, because Ledger has so much potential to do something really amazing and exciting. Nineteenth century New England was so much more than chicken, fish, pork and steak. Where was the game? The rabbit? The venison? The squab? The pheasant? Where were the stews? The chowders? Rob summed it up as “Yankee palate” the domain of boiled dinners and Dunkin Donuts. I wanted to be wowed, especially given the price point, I certainly didn’t want to leave and say; “We should have gone to Bella Verona.”

This experience however led me to a new challenge and a really fun research project. Can a home cook find 19th century New England recipes and elevate them in a way an actual chef could not?