Ditto for attracting a bar crowd. "I did everything I could to build up a bar business," says chef and owner Ken Baker, "and no one wanted to drive over for that."
Last spring, Baker told me he planned to relocate to a historic building on New Hampshire Street, closer to the college town's main drag. The opening date was scheduled for the early autumn. Like now.
"I thought we would be open now," Baker said by phone last week, "but demolition of the interior took longer, and we had to get all the proper permits and approval by the city's historical resource committee."
The 1923 building at 800 New Hampshire formerly a National Guard armory and most recently a T-shirt factory still looks a long way from opening. Baker says the new place is tentatively scheduled to begin serving customers in January. "The framing is all up, the wood-fired oven is in and we're pouring the concrete for the bar."
Fans of the original space, with its soaring 30-foot ceilings and limestone pillars, will be relieved to know that Baker is holding on to it for use as a banquet facility. But he says his plans for the new dining room will redefine Pachamama's as a "contemporary urban place."
Urban isn't a word I would use to describe the current space, where Baker has been serving up regional American fare since he took over the kitchen in 1999. (He purchased the restaurant outright three years later.) Even in its hard-to-find location, Pachamama's easily outlasted culinary rivals such as the tastefully designed (but short-lived) BleuJacket and the Prairie Fire Bistro, both of which were located in the heart of the business district.
"Pachamama's is operated by a chef-owner, unlike the other two," Baker says. "And I had a lot more restaurant experience. I knew what I was getting into when I got into it."
That much is clear, regardless of where you're eating Baker's creations. I saw the phrases "brown sugar-cured kurobuta pork chop" and "tart cherry-brandy sauce" and heard them calling my name. It had been more than five years since I last reviewed the place before Baker owned it and I decided I couldn't wait another four months for the new place to open. I wanted to eat there now.
When I arrived, I noticed only a few superficial changes. The table settings were less formal; Baker had done away with the colored napkins and the stylized tropical-motif charger plates. ("They're for sale on eBay, if you want them," he says). The servers are more savvy (and more attractive, if memory serves), but the menu has the same price range as it did back in 2000, give or take a couple of bucks.
It's not an inexpensive dining experience, as I discovered the night I ate there with a handful of hungry friends who lusted after everything on that night's menu. Culinary combinations that sounded too eccentric a layered "torte" of smoked salmon, herbed cheese, pistachios, wildflower honey and fat blackberries turned out to be fabulous, according to my friend Fran, an art gallery owner who admired the artistic composition of the appetizer almost as much as its taste.