On a cold winter evening, nothing is more inviting than seeing the woodfire stove blazing at Gemma's Woodfire Kitchen on Brookside. Gemma's has a laid-back yet well-appointed ambience, and its menu follows suit.
Gemma's has built a reputation of serving up the dishes that people love with a twist of elegance. With Chef Ian Van Anglen now at the helm, his influences on the menu are unmistakable and really lends panache to Italian favorites. But where he really acts as maestro is with the daily specials and wine dinners.
When I stopped in, the daily special was a duck confit with ginger beschamel, oregano and fig mostardo; and a lamb shank with hominy succotash with demi glace. There is an ever-changing salmon selection on the daily chalkboard as well. All sounded delectable and I look forward to stopping in again to let Van Anglen work his magic. But on this evening, it was about the basics.
The menu has a great selection of appetizers, like crab cakes with a Sambuca infused remoulade ($9) or warm marinated goat cheese with autumn bruschetta ($9). Delicious as all this sounded, I wanted to get a true taste of the restaurant's namesake -- something from the woodfire oven.
The pizza menu, again, reflected the idea of Italian go-to's, but taken to another level. Beautiful flavor combinations, like the 12 inch Genovese, with roasted chicken, basil pesto and goat cheese ($14) sounded divine, as did traditional combos like the Pompiere with house-made sausage and roasted red peppers ($12).
I'm a fan of Margherita pizza, and Gemma's selection featured its house-made mozzarella cheese, tomato and basil ($12). After a nice retreat in the woodfire stove, the pizza came to the table nice and hot. The crust was crispy, but still maintained a chewy, soft consistency. The toppings were arranged with care and the flavors were fresh and balanced; but in my crude assessment, I could've used more cheese. Then again, my unhealthy affection for cheese sometimes needs to be tempered. All thoughts on the Margherita melted away when the entrees arrived.
The menu contains traditional Italian favorites, like spaghetti and meatballs ($11, add $6 for meatballs), or raviolo with butternut squash, goat cheese, gremolata and rosemary smoke ($11). Roasted chicken ($3) or seared salmon ($6) can be added to the pasta dishes. But on this night, it was the gnocchi that called my name.
If you have always wondered not only what gnocchi is, but also how to say it, I've got you covered. It's pronounced nyaw-kee, and believe me, you'll want to know how to say it because it is one of the superlative forms a meager potato can take. Gnocchi is a traditional Italian potato dumpling, or potatoey "pillows of love" as Van Anglen referred to them. Forget love. Gemma's gnocchi dish ($13) is downright lustful, with its perfectly formed, melt-in-your-mouth dumplings, drenched in a Fontina cheese and black truffle cream sauce. If you ever see 'black truffle' and 'potato' in combination, it's a dynamic duo that always wins. This dish was Italian comfort food elevated -- a theme that runs throughout Gemma's menu.
The entrée selection is chocked full of favorites, like roasted all-natural chicken, herb roasted vegetables, autumn vegetables and truffle gravy (half $17, whole $35). The pan roasted duck ($24) paired with creamy polenta, braised red cabbage almost stole my heart, but I was wooed by the other white meat.
Gemma's seared prime pork chop ($19) is paired with a creamy gorgonzola polenta and a cranberry demi glace. This was no ordinary pork chop. This was a Seaboard Farms prime pork chop and I was told they tend to have better marbling than most filet mignon. "Heresy!" one might say. Just one bite and I was a believer. The cranberry demi glace was the perfect element that really infused each bite of succulent pork chop with a festive feeling. The creamy polenta had a mellowed-out texture with a sweetness that brought it all home.
Speaking of sweetness, Gemma's dessert menu contains a great many of temptations, but the pumpkin cheese cake ($6) tickled the table's fancy. It came out with a plume of homemade whipped cream, punctuated with a sweet and tart splash of cranberry glaze. The texture of cheesecake is everything, and this did not disappoint, with its rich pumpkin flavor balanced with seasonal spices. Despite full bellies, not a morsel remained.
Gemma's regularly has wine dinners where Van Anglen gets to play fast and loose, indulging his every culinary whim. The New Year's Eve prixe fix dinner planned at Gemma's this year is a three or five course tasting, including bold offerings like frisee salad with braised pork belly, seared foie gras, and even an imaginative black-eyed pea stew for the superstitious who seek good luck for the coming year. The lunch menu is also strong, with elegant selections and clever takes on sandwiches and salads offered Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 2pm.
No matter what the occasion, if you are looking for beautifully-crafted dishes and an unpretentious approach, cozy up with your friends and family around the fire at Gemma's Woodfire Kitchen on Brookside.
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