Thursday, January 8, 2015

Chez Albert (Amherst, MA)

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On my final night back in western Massachusetts prior to returning to Virginia for the new semester, my mother, step-father, and I dined at Chez Albert, Amherst's lone restaurant serving French cuisine.  I had long heard that the food was solid, but that the restaurant was overpriced and served small portions.  This may well have been true in the past, but it was not my experience; now, they serve generous portions for reasonable prices, and the food is both well presented and delicious.

Sunday through Wednesday, the restaurant offers a three course prix fixe menu, priced at $35.00, which includes a choice of three appetizers (Butternut Squash, Simple Salad, or Pate de Foie), three entrees (Chicken Fricassee, Monkfish Cheeks, or Pumpkin Gnocchi), and two desserts (Creme Brulee or Chocolate Mousse).  The servings, as I said, are quite large; I had the Pate de Foie, the Monkfish Cheeks, and the Creme Brulee, and I barely finished my dessert--though, I did have a large chunk of my step-father's pork and a tremendous amount of bread.

We ate on a Tuesday night, and I believe the restaurant had not planned on having a full house; only one bartender and the owner were serving, and I suspect the kitchen was short staffed as well, so everything took a little longer than it should have to come out.  That said, bread was never far from hand, and the wait did not seem overly tedious.  We were initially given a basket of bread (which was a thick, crusty variety, and quite good) along with a white bean spread that was tasty, though we did have difficulty identifying it; honestly, I thought it was something involving butter, or possibly rendered fat of some variety.

When my appetizer finally came, it was a large rectangle of pate, which had a rich, meaty flavor, and a consistency that allowed it to be spread but was not so soft as the foie gras I had in France.  It was served with a very good mustard that reminded me of some of the good stone ground mustards I had in France, as well as a thoroughly delicious dried cherry chutney that was just the right level of sweetness and tartness each.  There were also a couple of cornichon, which is traditional, but in this case added little.  The bread, again, was a good vehicle for the pate and its accompaniment.  This was among the better pates I have had, and the cherry was just absolutely perfect with it.

Following up the foie was my entree of Monkfish Cheeks with Lobster au Jus.  The cheeks, lightly batter and fried, were very good, though one piece was just very slightly undercooked; that was easily overlooked due to the quality of the remaining pieces, which were each substantial.  Cheeks are known to be the most tender part of many fish and animals, and the monkfish is no exception; these particular cheeks were no exception.  Served with very good mashed potatoes, as well as a truly decadent lobster sauce (along with a small piece of lobster itself), this was a fine main dish, and the one minor flaw was easily overlooked.  My step-father's confit pork was also spectacular, moist and succulent, though my mother's gnocchi, which had a texture as if they had been flash fried, were only okay.

The creme brulee for dessert was very good, with a thick, hard crust of nearly burnt sugar topping a light, creamy custard that was as good as any I have had before.  I do truly love creme brulee, it is among my favorite desserts when made properly, especially since it tends not to be overly sweet; kudos to the restaurant for doing this so well.

All in all, a fine restaurant, and a fine meal.  It does appear to be vegetarian friendly (I suppose you would have to be to exist in Amherst), and the prices are distinctly reasonable, especially considering the enormous portions you get.  Both my step-dad and my mom had leftovers.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Piccolo (Portland, ME)

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Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2015!

Sorry it has been such a long while since my last post; it has been a busy season, between research papers, traveling to see family, and the holidays, and sadly, this has been the thing pushed to the back of my to-do-list.

But, I did have a couple of really great meals over the last few days of 2014, and Piccolo, a relatively new Portland restaurant, provided the best of them.  I went with a couple of my step-siblings and their father (not my step) and his wife, who very generously included me.  This was actually option B for us, and I am so glad we ended up there, as this was truly a spectacular experience all around.

Piccolo really lives up to its name, squeezed into a tiny space with only about twenty seats (if even that), but it does not feel cramped as you sit at the table, and the decor is simple but attractive.  The servers are all friendly, and we ended up having one of the owners, who is also the pastry chef, for our waitress, which was really great as she knew the menu so well.

We began with the "salumi" plate, which consisted of a couple of cured or salted meats (bresaola included, which was so rich and delicious I could have eaten it all night), some olives, and a few really fantastic pickled vegetables, my favorite of which were the beets.  Additionally, we ordered the "carotta" appetizer, which consisted of roasted carrots and a couple accompaniments, and which was a very good, albeit unspectacular, starter.

The entrees were where things really began to shine.  The six of us ended up ordering three different entrees, with each having two people picking it:  two "pasta fatta in casa;" two "calamarata," and two "del mar."  Everything was homemade, locally sourced if possible, and made with a care and technique that is rare to find.

The pasta (and the name literally means house-made pasta) was cavatelli, served with a lamb neck ragu, eggplant, orange, and pecorino, and other than my own dish, this was what I ate the most of, as one of the two who ordered it could not finish the rather large portion she was served.  The lamb neck was succulent and rich, the cavatelli themselves perfectly formed and cooked, and on the whole the dish was a delightful melange of flavors.

My dish, the calamarata, consisted of squid ink pasta (referred to as maltagliati on the menu, and seeming to be the ends of strips of papardelle) that was literally the best pasta I have ever had, the best cooked squid I have ever had (are we sensing a pattern?), charred tomato, peppers, and olives.  I'll admit, I missed the olives, but everything else was there in delicious abundance.  The pasta was perfectly al dente, the squid not even the littlest bit chewy (and anyone who has ever cooked that particular cephalopod knows how insanely difficult that is to achieve), and the tomatoes in particular was incredibly flavorful.  Everything just worked, so ridiculously well, that it has launched itself into the pantheon of best dishes I have ever had, a list that includes the short ribs I had at Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas a couple years ago.  I cannot recommend this particularly dish highly enough, even more so than the restaurant as a whole, which I recommend very, very highly.

The last dish was fish, the particular variety of which I cannot recall other than that it was a locally sourced whitefish (I do not think it was hake, but I may be wrong), which was perfectly cooked.  I only had a single bite, so I cannot speak to it more than to say my sister, who has impeccable taste, loved it.

For dessert, we had a funnel cake-like Italian fried dough that was really tasty, with a crunchy exterior and just a little bit of dough inside the thin strands to provide a little chewiness.  We also had a poached pear with chocolate mousse dish that was fine, but a little too rich for me; it was clearly well done in every way, just not my thing.

The wines we had were great (picked by my sister in the case of the white wine we had), and the owner was good enough to suggest a red wine that was significantly cheaper than what had been the previous choice.  That was just the beginning of the great service, and once again, I really cannot speak highly enough of this entire experience.  If you find yourself in Portland, this is a very reasonably priced, very well executed restaurant with spectacular food; just make a reservation, since there are so few seats.  The owners are both veterans of a Daniel Boulud restaurant in NYC, so they have the pedigree to explain their excellence.

I do not think vegetarians would be successful here, though they may be willing to make something special; if they do, I have no doubt it will be delicious.