John Thurgood isn’t new to the Martha’s Vineyard restaurant scene. Though born and raised in the Catskills of New York, he has been cooking, eating, and fishing his way through the Island for the past seven years. This seasonally focused, sea-oriented chef has a passion that shines through in a conversation — whether he is excited about razor clams or local beets.
“The opportunity to focus on local fish is a labor of love,” Chef Thurgood states as he ties his apron around his waist. It’s ten minutes before service and yet he couldn’t be more relaxed. I’ve worked with Chef Thurgood before on MV Wine Festival dinners and I remember his cool, patient, and calm demeanor. It’s not typical of a chef, but extremely typical of a fisherman and someone who went to college for theology and philosophy. It’s that patience that helps him focus through busy services in an open kitchen, where they’re doing a couple hundred a night during the busiest of the season.
But the restaurant doesn’t ever feel overwhelming or too packed. As we sit down for dinner at a table right across from the kitchen (and realize we forgot to BYOB), other diners slowly start trickling in. The menu arrives along with our waters, and a note on the menu defines Chef Thurgood’s style: “We use locally grown and responsibly raised ingredients throughout our menu from farmers and artisan producers who share our sustainable philosophy. We proudly support Morning Glory Farm, North Tabor Farm, The Grey Barn, The Good Farm, Cleveland Farm, Menemsha Oyster, Ghost Island Farm, Fulling Mill Farm, Slipaway Farm, Whippoorwill Farm, Menemsha Fish House, Anson Mills, and Northeast Family Farms.”
Local food just tastes better, and Chef Thurgood knows it. Owner Jenna Petersiel also knows it, as she and the chefs work like a synchronized team to execute an almost theatrical production.
The menu is divided into thirds: starters, main dishes, and sides. Before I get into the entire menu, let me just say I love a chef that takes pride in his side dishes, because I’m the type of guest that wants to taste a sprinkling of them all.
I started with a smoked bluefish pate ($15) thickly slathered on Island-grown rye bread and topped with Morning Glory radish and crispy capers. Chef Thurgood knows that bluefish is an acquired taste, but this preparation changes the minds of consumers. He delicately works with the fish, rendering an incredible flavor.
Then, I change lanes and go a completely different way, ordering the lamb meatballs ($19) that are Moroccan-spiced and served atop beluga lentils, sweet drop peppers, papadum, and a fenugreek yogurt. Thin crackers serve as the perfect vessel for all that goodness. They are so perfectly spiced that I could buy a plane ticket to Morocco tomorrow and be happy.
For our main dishes, we focused on the sea and ordered the Island fluke, the scallops, and the bluefish. The fluke ($39) was served with a razor clam and green garlic broth that I wanted to dive into, as well as fingerling potatoes (that soaked up that broth and tasted like garlicky heaven), and some Island-grown summer squash and ramp butter. The bluefish ($37) was smoked and pan seared, served with braised fennel, onion soubise (a sauce based on Béchamel sauce, with the addition of onion purée), citrus, pickled currants, and a lemon thyme oil. The bluefish preparation was thoughtful and not at all overpowering. The scallops ($39) were served with Morning Glory tat soi and komatsuma, Frog Hollow pluot sauce (a plum/apricot hybrid), warm yogurt, and honey berbere spiced peanuts. They were delicate, perfectly cooked, and sweet — pretty much all I want in my scallops.
To accompany our meal, we ordered a side of the Morning Glory beets ($11) served in a small bowl with some ricotta, tarragon, and grapefruit oil. Quickly transporting me to the deep South, the collard greens ($10) were another side dish, made with smoked Grey Barn ham hock — they might just be the best collard greens in New England.
We ended our meal with an ice cream sundae served in a Weck jar, a warm chocolate brownie, and a slice of key lime compote with blueberry sauce ($11 each). The rumors were confirmed: it’s well worth the drive from Edgartown to dine at Chilmark Tavern.
Chilmark Tavern is located on 9 State Road in Chilmark. Call 508-645-9400 for reservations.