Seasonal cuisine

Lento Restaurant’s farm-to-table menu is locally sourced and inspired
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Caitlin McGrath
Tuesday night at Lento is “oyster night,” with $1 and $2 selections

Everything there is to love about the Rochester food scene is present at Lento, an understated, farm-to-table restaurant in the colorful Village Gate Square in the Neighborhood of the Arts.

Hand-lettered on a chalkboard, there’s a list of organic farmers and small batch producers recognizable from weekend forays to farmers markets. Coffee, cheese, and cocktails are made by niche, pint-sized shops that continue to pop up in the region. Meats and greens come from the abundant farms that surround Rochester, freshly chopped and prepared in the kitchen.

Lento—as its Italian name suggests—is “slow food,” an act of resistance against the mass-processed, mass-marketed offerings of America’s strip malls and food courts.Though not an overt follower, Lento is a kindred spirit to the international Slow Food Movement that started in Italy almost thirty years ago to promote traditional preparations of ingredients harvested from the local ecosystem.

Lento’s chef and owner, Art Rogers, opened his restaurant in 2007. The Rochester native had previously worked with Melissa Kelly, chef of Primo, a two-time James Beard Award– winning restaurant in Rockland, Maine. “Her whole philosophy is ‘farm-to-table,’” Rogers says.“Primo owns a three-acre farm and raises its own pigs and chickens. Farm-to-table is about what’s local, and what’s fresh, what’s in season.”

The menu changes with the season and whatever happens to be available. Summer and autumn dishes are laden with fresh vegetables, but Rogers gets by in the winter with greens and tomatoes from nearby hydroponic farms and greenhouses. Venison shows up as a special on colder nights when he can source a side of deer.

Lento’s décor is industrial Americana. Bare factory beams are strung with salvaged window frames. Simple tables are dressed with burlap sandwiched beneath a sheet of Plexi-glass. Its menu is North America by way of France and Italy, with diversions into Asia. There are enough familiar dishes to please picky eaters—calamari, clam chowder, New York Strip—but adventurous eaters will want to try something entirely new.The element of surprise is the true joy in a restaurant like this.

Let’s start with oyster night, a taste of New England that Rogers brought back home with him.This unusual happy hour has made Tuesday the restaurant’s busiest night. A deft shucker stands behind a long trough of oysters on ice twisting open shells harvested a day or two ago from around the Northeast, Canada, and Washington State. Most only cost $1 a piece—a true inland bargain. Premium oysters are $2.

Like fine wines, oysters project the terroir—or perhaps the merroir—of their environment. The mineral composition of their native shoals and riverbeds, the saltiness of the water, and the typical diet of these filter-feeding bivalves combine to create a flavor distinct to each variety. Eschew the hot sauce and horseradish and let the seawater left in the shell be the only seasoning.The Blue Points of Connecticut are mild with notes of celery. The Katama Bays from Martha’s Vineyard are bold and salty.

To wash the shellfish down, a Fire & Blood cocktail ($5 during happy hour) builds upon a base of mezcal, tequila’s sultry agave cousin. To this, the bartender adds sweet vermouth, Finger Lakes Distilling cherry liqueur, and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters. A complex citrusy blend cuts through the briny aftertaste of the oysters and leaves behind a curious hint of ozone, created by an orange peel burned on a candle and rubbed around the rim of the martini glass.

Following oysters is the crispy breaded pork terrine ($9), a breaded, fried slice of head cheese made from hand-shredded meat boiled off from a pig’s head and trotters, then reduced to a nearly solid gelatin. (Take a chance on this, as it is much better than it sounds.) Served with watercress and a finely sliced boiled egg, this terrine tastes like old familiar pork, yet more intensely so—as if the flavor has been concentrated or amplified.

Before the main course, be sure to slip in a couple of fried cheese-stuffed olives ($1.50 each) served on an anchoiade made from minced anchovies, hazelnuts, fresh herbs, and a dozen other ingredients.

Because Chef Rogers buys his meats whole, the terrine and other dishes reflect a careful use of every part of the animal. Ducks, especially, become a versatile part of several different dishes, including stock for sauces, duck fat frîtes, and duck wings appetizers.

The main course is an asian-spiced roasted duck leg ($20) served atop a hillock of duck fat–fried rice and succulent, bite-sized bok choy cabbages. The duck is nearly ideal, with tender flesh and crispy skin encrusted with charred herbs.You’ll want to ask for more bread to sop up the savory broth that collects around the edges of the bowl.

Paired with the duck is a classic Sazerac ($9), America’s oldest-known cocktail, dating back to nineteenth-century New Orleans. A splash of anise-flavored Herbsaint and floral Peychaud’s Bitters brightens up a couple of fingers of rye whiskey but does little to dull its potency. Lento serves the Sazerac properly neat with no ice. It cuts through the duck fat, cleansing the palate so each bite can be appreciated anew.

Lento offers Joe Bean coffee alongside dessert—done as a pour over, french press, or espresso. Diners can order the profiterole ($10) to enjoy a dark roast and sweets at the same time. Coffee-flavored ice cream is arranged between homemade pastries in a towering trio of absurdly tall ice-cream sandwiches. It’s just the right mixture of buzz and sugar rush to cap off an extraordinary meal.

The night’s total comes to $73.04, more than enough to satisfy a solo diner and plentiful enough to share with a companion. Though it’s unlikely diners will rub elbows with the city’s upper crust socialites at Lento, they will find high-quality, local food creatively prepared and an ever-evolving menu that’s full of surprises for each future visit.

Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors. 

Categories: Mark Gillespie, Taste, Taste – Top Story