Northampton in Massachusett’s Pioneer Valley is a lively destination offering a stimulating urban scene including art galleries, crafts stores, an excellent Smith College Art Museum and botanical garden as well as superb farm to table dining at Bistro Les Gras. After enjoying a visit to the wonderful William Baczek Art Gallery on Northampton’s Main Street, which presents six to eight solo and group exhibitions each year, and a stroll around the Smith College campus including a visit to its outstanding botanical garden, where the extraordinary corpse flower (titan arum) is now in bloom, we were prepared to treat ourselves to the pleasure of dining at Bistro Les Gras. We settled into our comfortable corner table in a sylish and open main dining room, with large picture windows overlooking historic Forbes Library on West Street. Not long after, the scene was enhanced by the unobtrusive arrival of guitarist Jeremy Milligan, who began playing masterfully, and with perfect low volume dynamics, a blend of classical Spanish guitar music and melodic tunes, including a Rogers and Hart standard (the name on the tip of my tongue but unfortunately never pronounced).
Les Gras is a small picturesque village in the Burgundy region of Eastern France near the Swiss border, and the proprietors note the literal translation of Les Gras is “the fats” in terms of culinary uses. They “love the tongue and cheek aspect” of their restaurant’s name “especially since we shy away from cream and butter and like the fresh ingredients to shine.” Our meals confirm the accuracy of this description of the extraordinary local Pioneer Valley foods served in this fine bistro. On its website, Bistro Les Gras notes “its pride” in using 100% Pioneer Valley meats and produce year round and lists over a dozen local farms from which it sources the food carefully prepared and artistically served at this destination-worthy restaurant. The bistro’s wine list focuses on a rich diversity of mostly French wines. We toasted the recent retirement of a dining companion with raised glasses of Lillet, the French aperitif, a blend of 85% Bordeaux wine grapes (Semillon, Muscadelle, Sauvignon blanc) and 15% citrus liqueurs from the peels of sweet oranges and bitter green oranges). Micro-brewed Massachusetts beers were available including Wachusett India Pale Ale and Cisco Brewers Whale’s Tale Pale Ale.
Appetizers of “soupe au chou-fleur” (cauliflower soup, confit cherry bomb peppers, brown butter) and “ravioli au courge” (squash ravioli, beurre noisette, spiced chevre) were creamily delicious, yet surprisingly light. The warm “beurre noisette” or hazelnut butter sauce was a perfect accompaniment to the flavorful house-made squash ravioli. The texture of the finely chopped hazelnuts added a special sensory element to this remarkable dish. Tender green salads, lightly dressed with a delicious honey-fennel vinaigrette, house-marinated olives and crusty baguette with fresh lightly salted churned butter whetted our appetites for our hearty and nourishing main courses.
“Porc et légumes,” tender pork and molasses baked beans, braised sweet shallots and apple compote, just sweet enough, to enliven the juicy meat was perfect as a meal in early autumn. One dining companion marveled at his succulent “agneau et oeuf,” Vermont lamb shoulder, served with a custardy “sous-vide” egg (slow cooked for an extraordinary 60 minutes), puy (French green) lentils, all complemented by the mustardy flavor of sautéed tatsoi (dark green spoon shaped leaves of nourishment). My other dining mate’s “canard roti,” (roast duck), was perfectly cooked with tendersweet cabbage, “coucroute a la minute” (prepared to order, rather than being prepped in advance and held for service) which preserved the fresh cabbage flavor, and “pommes boulanger,” French gratin potatoes, which were artfully layered.
For dessert, we could not resist sharing a perfect harvest-time dessert of apple cake with a scoop of creamy, caramel ice-cream and warm caramel/cinnamon sauce. Delicious French-pressed coffee kept the conversation flowing. Instead of Bistro Les Gras, the proprietors might consider a new name of Bistro Mardi Gras since their Pioneer Valley restaurant is worthy of a celebration.
[Bistro Les Gras, 25 West Street (Route 66) @ Green Street, 413.320.4666, Dinner: Mon-Thurs 5:00PM-9:00PM, Fri-Sat 5:00PM-10:00PM, Sun 5:00PM-8:30PM, www.bistrolesgras.com/]
(Frank W. Barrie, 10/1/12)