Green To Go: A Cozy Evening at Tuckerbox
White River Junction’s Tuckerbox Restaurant is the perfect place for Turkish and Mediterranean food.
Tuckerbox storefront in White River Junction.
As a Dartmouth student, there are times I need to flee from the stress of campus life and the monotony of Hanover. In these moments, I often find myself seeking refuge just over the Connecticut River in White River Junction. Most of us have been there at least once — quickly accessible on weekdays by Advance Transit, the town can provide a full day of outings with its many restaurants. These foodie stops vary greatly in both their cuisines and prices, from the chic Thyme bistro to the casual millennial fusion Trail Break taqueria to the flavor-filled Taj-E-India — which gives Jewel of India a run for its money. This week, however, my partner and I spent an evening in White River Junction at a bustling and warmly lit restaurant whose facade faces the confluence of the White River and the Connecticut: Tuckerbox.
Walking up to the restaurant, I was excited by the warm orange glow emanating from the glass windows, well-paired with the white outlined brick exterior of the building. Gourmands, friends and couples crowded the outside patio, serving as the heartbeat of the vivid restaurant. Doors opened and closed as food runners brought out both simple and complex dishes: a bowl of hummus here, a beautifully presented swordfish kebab there. Before I walked into the main dining room, I entered through the silent room which separates Tuckerbox from the adjacent and celebrated Piecemeal Pies bistro. Here, I was greeted with a sparse wall of past reviews and articles on the restaurant. The articles spoke of the restaurant’s history, of the owners Vural and Jackie Oktay and of the impact of the restaurant’s success on White River Junction. What mattered most to me, though, was how I felt in this room: quiet and charcoal-grey, it sandwiched me between the vivid currents of the outer and inner dining spaces. I opened the next door and walked in to feel the experience for myself.
A hostess greeted us with an inviting tone, seated us at a corner table and presented us to our server. She gave us our menus and walked off to another table, giving us time to peruse our options and, more importantly, to take in the decor of the restaurant. I felt that the setting meshed minimalism and maximalism together to create a cozy atmosphere while staying true to its Mediterranean roots. The walls, for example, were solid, matte-textured garnets and sandstones — nothing too eye-catching — but they emphasized Anatolian colors and created a sense of conviviality. These were paired against dark, textured wooden booths and tables, but nothing came close to the unexpected barrage of striking blues, greens and purples emanating from the Turkish lamps and Ayennur plate sets on the walls and ceilings. These added an exciting pizazz to the space and foreshadowed the striking presentation of the dishes to come.
Our server returned, and after we asked her some questions — which she charmingly responded to with clear and concise answers that sold me on everything about the restaurant — it is easy to say that I was impressed. If she was representative of all the staff at the restaurant, then the Oktays have clearly trained their staff well. I ordered two drinks, the Lavender Spritz for $8 and imported Turkish Apricot Juice for $4. I had decided to survey the menu instead of focusing on one dish. The juice came out first; it hit me with that refreshing feeling that fresh apricots bring to the palette, but then quickly faded away. I found later on that due to that fade, it served as a sort of palette cleanser alongside a sip of water. It had a light grittiness to it compared to the syrupy weight of Goya juices. It wasn’t quite worth its price, though, since it came in too small a glass. On the other hand, the spritz announced the restaurant’s upper-end casual classification. The lilac-colored “homemade lavender chamomile syrup” infused seltzer rested below a layer of cream topped with an edible purple dendrobium. The drink matched the purple lamps hanging from the ceiling, and the cream eased the carbonation of the seltzer. What did remain of the carbonation, though, delivered the sweet and silky taste of the syrup. It had to be one of the best drinks I’ve had in my life.
Our appetizer, the $14.99 Meze Platter for Two, arrived soon after. It consisted of large spoonfuls of hummus, ezme, haydari and babaganoush alongside four yaprak dolmas — stuffed grape leaves — and a fluffy lavash flatbread. The colors stunned me. The light tan of the hummus, babaganoush and lavash paired with the sandstone walls, while the ezme and haydari piqued my curiosity.
I started with the hummus. Its unequally-sized chunks of blended chickpea proved its homemade status, unlike the smooth glop of the Cedar’s variety we find at Foco. The smoky flavor carried a grilled and garlicky aftertaste. Then, I tried the ezme, which differed entirely from the hummus with its strong, minty taste. It reminded me of the onion chutney at Jewel of India with its light kick of spice. The acidity of the tomato added a slight citrusy taste which I grew fond of; out of all the sauces, this was my favorite. Next was the haydari, which I assumed would be really heavy due to its yogurt base. Fortunately, the acidity of the ezme helped cut through and lighten it. If one were to start with the haydari, though, it still wouldn’t be too heavy, as the yogurt’s tang synergizes with its own richness to achieve the same lightening effect. Finally, the babaganoush finished off the sampling with its simple and nutty aftertaste, and it felt full circle from the hummus. All throughout, the sweetness of the dolmas set the background of the platter. I find that dolmas are often too vinegary, but these were just right. I can’t state enough how worth it this dish was for its price.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my entree — the Vegetable Güveç priced at $19.99. Though the earthenware pot it came in looked beautiful and added to the meal, the vegetables just didn’t live up to the flavors of the appetizer and the drinks. The dish was characterized by its mushy texture, which was barely saved by the side of pilav. Usually, tomatoes bring about intense flavors with their natural concentration of umami. Here, they did nothing. The dish popped a bit more after I added some salt, but for a nearly $20 entree, I shouldn’t have had to season my meal. Maybe the meat güveçler would have more complexity, but I feel as if this vegetarian option was lazily brainstormed.
Though we had eaten quite a bit, we still had room for dessert. I ordered the Kunefe for $9.99 and our server advised, in her expertly convincing manner, that I pair it with a Pistachio Latte for $4. The dish came in a metal plate: melted cheese inside of crisp kadaif noodles covered in simple syrup and topped with shaved pistachios. The evening’s sunset glistened off the syrup in all directions as it traveled through the cracks of the noodles. After I tasted it, I smiled — and then I laughed. I couldn’t do anything else. It was concentrated bites of joy. The sweet cheese glued everything together and balanced out the crisp texture. The pistachio latte, a bit over-steamed, brought a nutty bitterness that matured the dish into a fully complex dessert. Each factor complimented and heightened the other — the colors against the backdrop of the restaurant, the textures and the flavors in each bite. I strongly recommend this dish.
Though this summed up to a $60 meal without tips, I prefer to call it a $60 experience. Aside from the disappointment of the Vegetable Güveç, everything was perfect. I could picture the amount of effort the Oktays put into their restaurant, be it through the decor, the food itself or even just the amazing staff. Next time you stop by White River Junction, pay a visit to Tuckerbox, even if just for a meze platter and a coffee. I guarantee that it’ll satisfy your gourmand appetite.