WORCESTER, the second-largest city in New England, wasn’t really known for food. It had local mainstays on Shrewsbury Street, but nothing that stood out. When Brooklyn- born chef Jared Forman, who worked in some of the best restaurants in Manhattan and Boston, opened deadhorse hill (lack of capitalization intentional) in April 2016, people noticed.
It’s a year in, and the first thing you’ll pick up on is how excited everyone is. Laughter echoes off high ceilings and reclaimed wood. Staff, decked out in Worcester t-shirts, (sadly, none saying “Paris of the ‘80s”), still seem giddy with opening night excitement.
When you visit for yourself, kick off your night by appreciating the bar program run by co-owner Sean Woods. The cocktail list rotates, but few can beat the dePalma, a mixture of Montenegro, green Chartreuse, and an unnamed secret ingredient. It’s herbal, sharp, and chocolatey. The beers are lesser-known local brews from Central Mass, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. The servers aren’t wine experts, so ask for wine director Julia Auger. She’s put together a deep wine list, full of classics and more interesting choices. She has great taste in Rieslings.
Start with small plates ($11-20). Forman reimagines hoedeopbap, a Korean raw fish dish, as poke. It is funky with chogochujang and pea-sized slices of green bean that pop with vegetal brightness. By the time you read this, it probably won’t be on the menu anymore. But it will be on the menu at simjang, the deadhorse team’s upcoming Korean-American restaurant (they really don’t like capital letters). “Pompous brassicas” disappoint. A bed of hummus struggles to keep broccoli and cauliflower from being too dry. Instead, get the spaetzle with seasonal vegetables. You’ll want the fried chicken thighs, but consider coming back on the weekend and ordering them off the brunch menu, where they are paired with waffles.
Large plates ($25-34) lean toward seafood. Mussels, perfected during Forman’s time at Watertown’s Strip-T’s, followed him here and are so loved they can never leave the menu. A dish of swordfish with kimchi, lobster mayo, and tempura-fried mushrooms has a bit too much going on. Still, the juiciness and flavor of the fish shines through. Order a side of pickles.
For pure spectacle, you can’t beat the whole fried fish, served crisp with the head and tail intact. Grilled lemon, bright piccata sauce of capers and garlic, and spicy arugula balance the lushness of the fish and breading. As you pick through bones for morsels you may have missed, servers whisk them away. The bones quickly return, fried aggressively, with a side of pure Thai fish sauce. Fried fish bones have an odd texture: Imagine potato chips crossed with a comb. A bit unsettling? Sure. But surprisingly addictive.
For $110 you can get a “centerpiece” ribeye (serves 2-3). I don’t know who looks at a menu this interesting and opts for a giant steak, but I’m sure it’s good. The family-style tasting menu ($85 per person) is ideal for groups, though I’d get it on a date.
Among desserts, the standout is the rotating list of house-made ice creams. I wish they would bring back the cheese plate they used to have, even if no one except me orders cheese for dessert.
deadhorse hill fits into a category of a New American restaurant close to becoming a stereotype in Boston and New York (the beer, at one point, came in mason jars). While the type is ubiquitous, deadhorse hill is more welcoming and ambitious than most. It’s not just an example of the trend; it’s the platonic ideal. A pretty good ambassador for Worcester.