Back of House: The Red Pheasant
Walking into a restaurant kitchen with pen and writing pad in hand and a photographer in tow—when the number of diners has unexpectedly doubled—a writer might as well be walking into a wolf’s den wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress. As in any professional kitchen feeling the heat, tensions were high, yet Bill Atwood, chef/owner of The Red Pheasant in Dennis, was intense and focused—sautéing, shifting ticket chits, and shouting for information from his staff with the booming intensity of a drill sergeant. But notably, there wasn’t a hint of chaos in the kitchen. Nor was there a rolling eye, a look of frustration, or a hint of drama. Truly palatable from this team was a strong sense of shared mission. Sous Chef Mike Ianello was breaking in new knives he had purchased just days earlier. Also joining Bill behind the line was Steve Arden, formally of High Brewster Restaurant, and Charles White, a contemporary of Bill’s from Washington, D.C. Jody Hodge, the pastry chef, was plating one of the best looking cakes I’d seen in recent memory.
The Red Pheasant holds many surprises. The subdued Victorian lighting and bulky overhead beams intimate a 200-year-old ship’s chandlery-turned-carriage house. Approaching the hostess station, the sounds and scents of a crackling wood fire is as warm and comforting as the greeting from co-owner Denise Atwood. You feel you’re not so much walking into a restaurant as simply making a casual visit to a dear friend’s house for dinner. But the question of where to dine becomes a dilemma. The stately main dining room, with its crisp white linens, chocolate colored walls and colonial paintings, is usually first choice.
Challenging your decision is the Garden Room, with lush gardens on one side and antique stable doors on the other, where colorful, hand-painted poppies, foxglove and black-eyed Susans, painted by the Atwoods’ daughter Becca, ascend. The newer bistro area, with its South American angelique wood bar, burgundy stained walls and homey brick work, features a small fireplace. The best seat in the house is arguable. What isn’t are the numbers this unique space is toting. The Zagat 2010-11 guide awarded The Red Pheasant a 27 for food (making it one of the top five restaurants on the Cape), 24 for décor, and 25 for service; rare numbers for a restaurant going into its thirty-fourth year of business. Rather than slowing down, the Atwoods seem to be just warming up.
The Red Pheasant was opened in 1977 by Bill Atwood Senior, who trained as a chef in Switzerland in the 1940s shortly after the end of the war. Mr. Atwood’s resume blossomed in New Jersey, where he opened a diner and later put the historic Brick House Inn on the map. In time, he assumed the executive chef position at the Tuxedo Park Country Club in the town of the same name in New York. Meanwhile, while flipping burgers at the DQ and trying to make a buck any way he could, Bill Atwood Junior helped his father from time to time in the country club’s kitchen during special events. In 1977, Bill Sr. found himself on Cape Cod, opening his next venture, The Red Pheasant. He hired his son as bartender a year later, and although Bill Jr. may not have been convinced he was chef material at the time, there was no denying that his father’s passion had rubbed off on him. Knowing more about proper cooking (and more importantly, more about his father’s style) than the chef in charge, Bill Jr. took a leap of faith while his father was on vacation, relieved the chef of his duties, and jumped behind the line.
Bill Jr.’s passion grew while he was figuring out the ropes in the kitchen. He learned his trade on the job and late into the evenings after work, losing sleep to culinary books by the likes of Larousse and Escoffier. He also spent as much off time as he could exploring France, from the bright lumières of Paris to the dusty back rues of Burgundy. Today, Bill’s appreciation for classic American cuisine simmers beautifully with his European influences. Deliciously adorned and celebrated comfort food stays comfortable, sharing menu space with avant-garde twists on familiar French favorites.
There have been several thoughts on what makes the measure of a man, but to measure a man who makes his name cooking with a dash of French flair, one should sample his house-made terrine. The country style terrine on the menu one recent evening was of pork, duck, pistachio and cognac, served with a red onion jam and grainy mustard. The execution was an impeccable combination of creamy-meets-firmness, with the fresh flavors of the meats resonating. This dish might be the perfect representation of Chef Atwood’s style. It was as delicious as it was straightforward. Not wanting to be labeled predictable, Bill added a duck liver pâté quenelle to the top of the terrine, adding a level of “délicieux” and a gratifying spread for the house-made bread.
Remembering an earlier conversation about my fondness for maitake mushrooms (commonly known as Hen-of-the-Woods), Bill sent a special dish of warm maitakes, leeks, lemon-chive gnocchi and crispy ham floating in a one-hour egg bath. This dish was prepared by Mike, a generous gesture to us, as well as to Mike, who was looking to his mentor for a chance to shine.
Besides mushrooms, local produce such as tomatoes and greens from Cape Abilities Farm, and leeks, Swiss chard, spaghetti squash and fingerling potatoes from Not Enough Acres are highlighted throughout the menu. The evening’s oysters were courtesy of Barnstable Seafarms. “We support our local growers as much as we can,” Bill tells me, “and what I can’t get up the road, I try and get from Sid Wainer & Son in New Bedford. We try and keep things in our own backyard whenever possible.” In the case of the caprese salad, this statement is quite literal, with basil from Denise’s on-premise herb garden sharing the spotlight with locally grown tomatoes. “Overall we strive to find the best quality product. We’re a scratch kitchen; we even make our own salt cod. But if there’s one thing I learned from my father, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. If you skimp on the quality of the food, it’ll come through no matter how well you prep it.”
Clearly Bill Atwood’s ego hides in the furthest pages of his recipe book. His grilled venison is served with a delicate apricot compote and snappy Swiss chard, and although his spaetzle accompaniment is a novel shift from the more typical starches, Bill leaves the venison alone. He can get away with this. Any lover of game—be it elk, rabbit, venison, duck or bison—knows that it’s often a challenge to taste what they imagined in their mind when ordering in a restaurant. Too often, chefs hide game behind spices, heavy sauces and rubs—and cutting into the meat to ensure the perfect level of doneness is a whole other challenge (perhaps why the meat gets hidden away). Chef Atwood is well aware that he knows how to prepare game well, and so he scrapes all the pomp and vanity off of the plate. On another entree Bill honors his mother-in-law in the most flattering way possible. On the menu, Denise’s Mom’s Meatloaf is enrobed in a sweet sherry sauce, making it melt-in-your-mouth moist.
“I was a young chef once. I went through my phases as they all do, jumping into all the latest cooking trends and trying to reinvent the wheel,” Bill confesses. But with a pinch of age comes a gallon of wisdom, which is seen, and tasted, in Bill’s cuisine; it’s never overly complicated, but always interesting enough to make you want to try everything on his menu. The Sole Meuniere, which never leaves the menu, is breaded, sautéed and served in a lemony buerre blanc with capers. It’s a rich dish (as the French would insist), but the citrus in the butter sauce lightens things up and helps to make an already sweet-tasting piece of fish even more tantalizing.
At The Red Pheasant the boundary between the back of the house versus the front of the house is splendidly blurred, which might be one of its most endearing qualities. The waitstaff is so knowledgeable about the menu that you can almost believe they were in back cooking on the line. The let-me-check-with-the-chef response all too commonplace in restaurants today is rarely uttered here. (I later learned that the waitstaff is regularly quizzed on the menu by Bill.) Also refreshing is seeing a chef work the dining room. With the crowd quieting, and the last desserts of the evening delivered, Chef Atwood makes the rounds, shaking hands and saying hello to his guests before joining Denise at the bar for a late dinner.
And at the bar is where this installment of “Back of the House” ends. As we walked through the bistro, Bill and Denise turned to say goodbye. They looked tired. It was another busy night, but I watched them put their forks down and say goodbye and thank you to each guest. More than the low lighting and historic setting, and more than the comfort of fresh and familiar ingredients, it is the two people eating dinner at the bar after everyone has finished theirs that make this a magical place. I feel like I know them through the comfortable elegance they’ve created.
The Red Pheasant is located at 905 Route 6A in Dennis Village. Winter hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 5:00 p.m. Reservations are strongly recommended. Call 508-385-2133 or visit the website for more information.
Tom Dott has been the co-owner of the Lamb and Lion Inn in Barnstable since 1999. Before moving to Cape Cod, he and his partner Ali Pitcher owned and operated a fourdiamond Relais and Chateaux property in New York’s Hudson Valley, which featured a locally-driven menu. Tom promotes culinary adventures to inn guests and won an Eddy Award for Feature-length Editorial in 2007, as well as Best Editorial-Short in 2010 and is a two-time runner up. Tom’s past articles can be found at www.ediblecapecod.com.