When chef Lee Chizmar moved back to the Lehigh Valley from Boston with his girlfriend and partner, Erin Shea, he knew they'd need a lot to go right for their restaurant, Bolete, to succeed.
There were sustainable farmers and artisan food purveyors who needed to be discovered and cultivated. And half a dozen now inspire Bolete's constantly evolving seasonal menus with creations ranging from plump Happy Farms duck eggs (deep-fried whole with runny centers and perched over wild mushrooms and porcini foam) to Scholl's peaches (steeped into gastrique that rings the scallops with an aurora of orchard sweetness).
They would need luck to find enough kitchen talent to help Chizmar transform those ingredients into New American cooking of a sophistication the Lehigh Valley had rarely seen. And then they could only hope someone would take notice of such doings in a restaurant scene as fledgling and far-flung as Bethlehem - a wish requited early with national kudos from magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler and Gourmet.
But who could foresee the spelunking lights?
As if cooking on the culinary frontier wasn't complicated enough, working in a historic stone tavern that dates to its days as a colonial stagecoach stop has its own challenges. The slanting plank floors, the creaky front porch that groans under the decorative weight of giant pumpkins and wildflowers, and a cozy side bar reputedly haunted by Civil War-era ghosts are part of the charm. But when the vintage electricity inconveniently blinks off in the kitchen during the middle of weekend dinner - it has happened twice, unbeknownst to diners whose the lights stayed on - Bolete's cooks know to improvise.
The six-burner stove keeps ablazin' and the chefs simply strap on miner-style head lamps, which, coincidentally, all these Lehigh Valley cooks just happen to have in their packs.
"We're outdoorsy around here," Chizmar says.
There's also talent aplenty to go around, especially between Chizmar and Shea, who met in the Boston restaurant scene, and whose front-of-the-house and kitchen collaboration here is reminiscent in both its aesthetic and quality of Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy's early efforts at Django.
For one thing, there is a distinctive personal touch to every aspect of this restaurant, from the linen-covered chairs and farmhouse table that lend a modern feel to the historic space, to the well-informed service, to a nicely chosen wine list and bar that highlight quality finds in every bottle.
And then there is the food, which is as skillfully dedicated to local ingredients as any I've tasted lately. What beforehand was the relatively untilled resource of the Lehigh Valley's artisan farmers - many of whom have sold to Manhattan's finest restaurants for years - has proved to be Bolete's gold mine of inspiration.
In summer, when Chizmar would wait to finalize the evening menus until his late-afternoon delivery from nearby Liberty Gardens, there might be tempura-fried squash blossoms stuffed with herbed ricotta. There could be sunchokes pureed to a creamy essence and poured tableside from an iron teapot into a bowl mounded with sweet lobster, maitake mushrooms, walnuts and candied orange zest. Fresh spinach might be creamed into a silky green fondue beneath a Colorado grass-fed ribeye (never frozen) that was one of most memorable pieces of beef I've eaten during this Year of the Steak.
I'm grateful that some of the mainstays on the tavern menu never change, especially the spectacular lobster roll, a nod to Shea's Massachusetts roots that tucks tender crustacean with lemon-pepper aioli inside a house-baked, top-split brioche roll with a side of homemade fingerling potato chips. The truffled pierogi were equally addictive.
The early fall's harvest, though, has given this kitchen a seasonal bounty with which to shine. There were sweet bursts of tiny champagne grapes to spark an exquisite ceviche of live scallop and lobster. Shaved kohlrabi and purple ribbons of plum added crunch and tartness to the homey dumpling noodles topped with Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz's duck breast, cast-iron-seared to a meaty crust. Pink and golden cubes of the warm season's last watermelons, their crunch contrasting the softness of large-diced tuna, highlighted the fish's own fruity sweetness.
But it is Chizmar's embrace of mushrooms (Boletus, after all, is Latin for porcini) that brings the woodsy taste of autumn to virtually every plate. A puree of porcinis provides the earthiness to unite those scallops with a garnish of bacon-braised kale and ravioli stuffed with creamy shreds of braised pork belly. Snappy little beech mushrooms added delicacy to the pillowy hand-rolled gnocchi topped with a hunk of short rib braised to a mahogany gloss. And crunchy chanterelles, mingling with Brussels sprouts and bacon, added depth to the lovely lightness of olive oil-poached halibut.
Firm royal trumpet stems bring a meaty mushroom crunch to the house-smoked pork chop with greens (served with garlic scapes and white beans in summer; crispy grits and smoked corn puree this fall). There also were mushrooms galore (both chanterelles and porcini foam) in the pedestal ringing Bolete's eye-catching duck egg, which gets lightly poached whole before it's panko-crusted and deep-fried. But it was the subtle addition of periwinkles, the sea snails with an almost mushroomlike chew, that added a surprising brininess to the dish.
If Chizmar has a weakness, it's a tendency to overdo his plates with too many ingredients – like the seafood-studded saffron sauce that was a fishy distraction from the ricotta-stuffed squash blossom; or the overly chewy wheatberries that took away from the summer duck with maitakes and currants.
Meanwhile, in the dining room, where we had extraordinarily gracious service the first visit, our second meal was only slightly dimmed by slow pacing between courses from a distracted waiter. Both servers gave excellent advice, though, on Bolete's smart wine list, which brought unexpected gems from New Zealand (a polished-but-earthy pinot from Three Deans) and California (a gutsy, chocolatey, fruity "ancient vines" mourvedre from Cline.)
Bolete will no doubt have a new challenge in replacing its pastry chef, who recently departed for California after serving me such delights as a cherry shake filled with tapioca "bubbles," an awesomely rich butterscotch pudding with toasted pecans, and a chocolate cupcake ribboned with chocolate and frangelico butter cream.
But Bolete's most striking dessert, a warm tart of Scholl's honey crisp apples, layered with cheddar and crispy nuggets of brown sugar-candied bacon, is a savory chef's sweetest dream. And Chizmar is confident his spelunking cooks can adapt.