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Sycamore's GM Knows Less is More at New Newton Centre Bistro

Sycamore General Manager Zach Lieberman has a very clear sense of what he, owner/chef David Punch, and the whole team want for their new Newton Centre restaurant.

Three days after Sycamore quietly opened its doors -- and following months of anticipation and buzz -- Zach Lieberman says that he isn’t nearly as nervous as he thought he’d be in his first gig as a general manager.

That could be because, for a young man, Lieberman has an impressive amount of experience.

Raised in Lexington, Lieberman dropped out of high school at 16 and quickly found a job as an expediter (making sure food came out of the kitchen and to the diners correctly and quickly) at Lexx, a then-new restaurant in his hometown. From there he moved onto Craigie Street Bistro and then to Oleana. Finally, after some travel, Lieberman landed at Island Creek Oyster Bar.

But it was a chance encounter with old friend Lydia Reichert, with whom he’d worked at Craigie Street, which led Lieberman to his current position.

“I went to Bergamot (in Somerville) and Lydia was standing there,” Lieberman recalls. “She said she was working front of house there.  Knowing what a talented cook she is, I asked ‘When are you getting back in the kitchen?’ And she said, ‘Dave Punch is opening a new restaurant and I’m going to be the chef!’”

Earlier this year Punch announced his plans to open a new spot in Newton Centre at the former John Dewar & Co. location. It was a big headline in the Greater Boston food scene as Punch was well known at the Ten Tables restaurants in Jamaica Plain and Cambridge.

Reichert told Lieberman that she and Punch were still trying to build the Sycamore team, and if he knew anyone to send them to her. At the time, he had no thoughts of leaving Island Creek, but after a few conversations with Punch -- and an agreement that Lieberman could help steer the small but focused wine program at Sycamore -- a general manager was born.

But what exactly does a GM do in a restaurant?

“Pretty much everything. There’s the service side, but also the hospitality side- the warmth, the remembering things about your guests,” states Lieberman. “You have to be hypercritical, too. We’re three days in, it bugs me just as much that someone gets up and their napkin isn’t folded as it would a year from now.”

Another part of Lieberman’s job is to know inside and out the menus created by Chef Punch, Chef Reichert, and Bar Manager Scott Shoer.  To do this, Lieberman has to have a very clear idea of what Sycamore is and what it isn’t, both in food and philosophy.

He describes the fare as American but adds that Sycamore’s menu also highlights French and Spanish influenced dishes. But to Lieberman and the entire Sycamore team, it’s more – and less- than that.

“Really, it’s peasant food,” Lieberman muses. “It’s great ingredients, but a little gussied up.”

That balance of the refined and the simple is seen in all aspects of Sycamore. The décor is stark but inviting – brick walls, simple wooden tables with dishcloth napkins and white saltcellars on them. But there are touches of whimsy and color everywhere and a clear plan to the design created by Chef Punch’s wife Christina.

Even Punch's 15-month-old son, Liam, got in on the act: his artwork is featured on the restroom walls.

“It’s for sale,” jokes Punch. “ You know, for $5,000 or so.”

Punch balances the serious and fun, both in his inventive menu and in the way he occupies his new endeavor.

“Once we got set up, Dave told me, ‘Just so you know, I hide things,’” Lieberman recounts with a laugh. “I was like, ‘What?!’ ‘I just like to hide little trinkets around my restaurant.’ See that Moxie can? (Lieberman points to a soda can tucked away on a bookshelf) His work.”

There is nothing hidden on the simple brown paper menus, one of which reflects the blackboard specials: all components of each dish and drink are listed. Since these ingredients change with the seasons and with availability, Lieberman says somewhat wistfully that he has been printing new menus every day – and doesn’t see an end to this undertaking. But in the end, he doesn’t really mind.

“My passion is the product,” Lieberman says emphatically. “Certainly that’s the food, but it’s turned to wine and beverage as well. And then there’s the hospitality piece. I am just really happy, really excited, really proud to be here.”

Sycamore is located at 755 Beacon St. in Newton Centre. It's open for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; cocktails and small bites served until midnight seven days a week. The restaurant can be reached at 617-244-4445.

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