Clean Slate Eatery
Through the Pass
I have always wanted to be a member of a supper club. The notion that everyone gathers over a shared love of food to eat and socialize together—it’s the same reason I usually gravitate to the bar when dining out. Even if sometimes the elbowroom is less than desirable, for me, the camaraderie and action behind the bar enhances the whole dining experience. It is a philosophy that chef/owner Jason Montigel of Clean Slate Eatery also appears to embrace. The intimacy of his less-than-600-square-foot restaurant (counting vestibule and restrooms) has been known to foster kinships among strangers. After finally managing to snag a coveted reservation for four on a Saturday, we head to West Dennis on a late April evening for a highly anticipated meal.
The desire to open his own restaurant took root on the first day of Montigel’s culinary journey. After honing his skills in other seasonal environments, including the Virgin Islands, the Florida Keys and Savannah, Georgia, Montigel moved to Cape Cod to help open a restaurant and fell in love with the region. The self-described introvert prefers to place the emphasis on his current accomplishments at Clean Slate Eatery rather than the history that got him here. He alludes briefly to a culinary education, but adds, “I don’t put too much stock into the whole school thing. It does give you a nice foundation, however, if you are not actively working in the business, then you have no idea about what you’re getting yourself into. It’s a labor of love and it has to be, otherwise it shows. I did not open a sixteen-seat restaurant with the intention of getting rich and that should not be the motive for restaurant ownership. It has to be a passion, at least it is for me.”
A stint working on Nantucket at Company of the Cauldron helped Montigel formulate his future restaurant’s concept. “I wanted it to be a place that had the feel of a dinner party,” he states. “Everyone would come at the same time and for the most part eat the same food.” When the building at 702 Main Street in West Dennis became available, Montigel felt it was the perfect space for what he was envisioning.
Prior to opening in April 2016, Montigel made a few modifications. A small vestibule spills into the main room, dominated by an Lshaped counter with seating for eight. Additionally, there are three high-top tables that accommodate eight more diners (request one if you prefer more intimacy). A large chalkboard on one wall lists the weekly menu (you can cheat and check the website for the menu). Posted alongside are the names of local farmers and artisans affiliated with the evening’s meal. A “window” provides a peek into the small but efficient kitchen, but most of the evening’s action is centered on the long stainless workspace located in the center of the dining space bordered by the countertop seating. All of the seating offers a good vantage point.
During the required reservation process, patrons are asked to choose either the traditional or the vegetarian tasting. I selected the vegetarian tasting, while the rest of my crew stuck with the traditional menu. Montigel also asked if there were allergies or dietary restrictions in our party; due to the size and scope of the restaurant, they prefer to plan in advance. More stressful for staff is the last minute “no call, no show” reservation (a huge problem in the industry, in general, and a financial hit particularly to a small establishment).
Being punctual is key to fully enjoying the Clean Slate experience. During the summer season starting in July, there is one seating on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 6:45 and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday there are two: 5:45 and 8:45. On this evening, owner Montigel and sous chef Bob Boucher handle the front of the house duties while newer staff member Kacie Van Norman administers to back of the house. As Montigel explains, “As we got close to our initial opening, I had a few friends that were going to work as servers and I think they got nervous about going to work at such a small space with a new concept, so I decided that the chefs would just do all of it. My goal is to have all of us comfortably rotate through the various positions. We are all cooks that spend hours before service involved in prepping each course. Technically whoever works out back finishes off a dish (e.g., searing scallops, grilling beef ). All night, I will move between front and back wherever hands are needed. Prior to Clean Slate, I had absolutely no previous serving experience and had never even poured a glass of wine for anyone until opening night here,” he chuckles. “We literally had to fly by the seats of our pants. I think overall it has been a great success.”
Boucher begins service by describing the evening’s beverage choices. Two in my party opt to share a 750 ml bottle of local Devil’s Purse “Skywave” saison, a lovely golden-hued liquid. Boucher advises them to give the bottle a swirl when topping their glasses to release the sediment that will help build the flavor of the brew. Another of us goes with the wine pairing: six half pours, including a delicate Terre di Marca Prosecco, a rich Stolpman Vineyard Syrah, and a crisp, dry Vista Hills Pinot Gris. I settle on an individual glass of the sparkling rosé.
Attention focuses center stage as gloved hands begin to prep the first surprise of the evening. Rocks draped with seaweed provide a perch for choice East Dennis oysters topped with lemon-horseradish granita. I feel a twinge of jealousy, until I sample my kimchi collard greens. The dish is an intriguing fusion of the Southern classic colliding with the spiciness of Korean-fermented veggies. The non-vegetarian side of me imagined it would also taste fabulous with the addition of bacon. Next, we are treated to a homemade sweet Hawaiian roll paired with whipped maple brown butter. I could have done serious damage to an entire basket of these rolls slathered with a generous layer of this addictive spread.
Montigel is a huge fan of the Cape scallop and his first course almost always reflects a play on scallops and bacon. Tonight’s interpretation partners a pan-seared day boat scallop with a panko-fried pork rillette enhanced by pickled red onions, mustard greens and burnt honey mustard. I happily nosh on broccoli rabe with panko-fried horseradish potato, also paired with the combo of onions, greens and honey mustard.
We all enjoy the same pasta course: three braised artichoke-and-ricotta house-made tortallecci, Meyer lemon gremolata and arugula paste, all topped with a drizzle of fragrant basil tea. The symphony of spoons scraping the last drops fill the room.
Next course, my companions dig into a charred ginger-poached monkfish while the vegetarians share a similar enthusiasm for a grilled ginger-poached sweet potato. It is possibly the best rendition of this root vegetable I’ve ever tasted. Both dishes were partnered with red pepper marinated “toy choy” (baby bok choy from Chatham Bars Inn Farm) and grits with a generous top off of sweet caramelized onion hoisin sauce.
Montigel circles the room, handing each diner a spoon bearing a red gelatinous bubble and calls out instructions: “Open your mouth, slide it in your mouth, shut your mouth and allow it to burst inside.” He refers to this concoction as the Cape Codder burst, encapsulated Triple 8 Nantucket Vodka, cranberry juice and a smidgen of lime zest. We simultaneously follow orders and gasp as the flavors explode. Boucher explains the molecular gastronomy involved in the creation of the burst: frozen reverse purification, a hot water bath and the use of sodium alginate in the process. It is truly a unique sensation best described as a “party in the mouth.” Montigel wryly declares, “It’s better than sorbet.” Accolades for this intermezzo have earned the burst a permanent spot as one of the menu’s signature dishes. The Dennis oyster and the Hawaiian roll also share this lofty status.
How do you keep going up after this? By serving an exquisitely tender slice of hanger steak, prepared in a 24-hour sous vide, then grilled on the charcoal yakitori. It is teamed with a duck confit hush puppie, a decadent duck-fat whipped potato purée, and wild mushroom butter. My plate boasts a robust oyster mushroom, also yakitori-grilled. For the vegetarian entrée, the use of duck fat is eliminated and replaced with a parsnip hash and a chive hush puppie. This meal has elevated my love for vegetables, and one of Montigel’s favorite aspects of any service is watching guests’ reactions to the vegetable courses.
Montigel is a fan of and frequent flyer at many of the local farms, notably Cape Abilities Farm (Dennis), Chatham Bars Inn Farm (Brewster) and Punkhorn Farm (Brewster). His East Dennis Oyster farmer John Lowell is a fairly new land grower and Montigel is eager to introduce his current produce into the rotation. Each week’s menu is always based on the seasonal bounty of the local farms. The fish offering also changes weekly. Montigel is a devotee of shellfish, including razor clams, conch, mussels and blood clams.
We all share the last two courses: a creamy, mild Brie from Vermont, then an éclair bathed in rich chocolate mousse ganache augmented with a scoop of house-churned strawberry ice cream. A round of applause erupts for Chef Montigel and his team as his guests express their appreciation.
One of the strengths of this restaurant is that both tasting menus are equally dynamic and there is a nice symbiosis between the two. This is a restaurant where a vegetarian feels the love as much as the meat eater. Montigel declares, “Vegetarian meals are so much more than a pasta primavera!” He is constantly reading for recipe inspiration, and he finds that Instagram posts are also a great resource. Jaunts to food locales, like the one he took to San Francisco in March, also stimulate the creative juices.
Montigel states that by no means is he a food snob. “I grew up in a home where my mom was a good, basic cook. We usually ate the same meals on the same nights each week. On my days off, I enjoy eating stuffies with Cholula, pizza or a cheeseburger.” He emphasizes that you need not be a gourmet to enjoy his cuisine. Although some of the terminology and techniques on the menu may sound foreign, he assures that the tastes are familiar.
Montigel doesn’t dwell on long-range goals, but admits future plans may include opening a food truck. The emphasis would be on coffee and breakfast sandwiches, a personal favorite. He would also like to incorporate a sandwich-of-the-day, one that would feature a “Clean Slate twist” on a traditional dish. It is an idea he has been toying with for a while. “It won’t happen until everything is perfect and I have the time to devote to it,” states Montigel. “Worst case scenario we will use the truck as a storage unit until we’re fully staffed and ready to do it right.”
By the time Saturday service winds down, next week’s menu is already evolving. Sunday is Montigel’s day to hang on the beach, often menu writing with his trusty sidekick, Goose the dog, nearby. He is conscious of the fact that his “regulars” expect something different each visit. Though he himself is a fan of the restaurants that are the “backbone of the Cape, those that deliver a killer lobster roll or over-the-top fish and chips,” he stresses that other style venues are vital to the Cape’s culinary landscape. “My goal is to offer something that is not the typical Cape Cod dining experience. I see the Cape growing a little and see more chefs do different things as a reflection of this growth.”
Monday is a day of prep, perfecting sauces and tweaking dishes. Tuesday he and his team are ready to roll out two entirely new menus. Once again, Montigel will open his door and welcome his guests. He muses, “Yeah, this place is all about the food, the drink and a little bit about the show we put on, but my favorite is watching the social aspect of it. Every night here is like a living, breathing animal. Each night brings something different and for me it is like I’m out here essentially baring my soul. Even though I don’t consider myself personally to be an overly social person, I find joy in the interactions that take place here. I love watching people talk throughout the night, some nights I even see people exchanging numbers and making plans.
“I am still amazed every time the phone rings and someone on the other end is telling me how excited they are to finally come in and eat my food. After a year I’m still asking myself, ‘How did this happen?’” Like the others who have had the privilege of dining at Clean Slate before me, I know how!
Clean Slate Eatery
702 Main Street, West Dennis
508-292-8817 / cleanslateeatery.com