Tucked toward the back of a pedestrian alley (in what locals call “the mews”) next to the more grandiose Red Lion Inn is a small gem of a restaurant called Once Upon a Table. With only about a dozen tables, it’s the kind of place that you could almost pass by without noticing, but once you try it, it becomes a local favorite, one of those places you’ve just got to visit when doing your Berkshire thing.
My family and I converged upon Once Upon a Table on a recent, rainy weekend; it was the only place we found in Stockbridge that offered a little something for everybody’s particular dietary whim. A party of six could seemingly take over the space, but the staff was very gracious and unobtrusively set about putting together a few two-tops for our use. Though small, the room doesn’t feel stuffy or tight, and the golden walls and burgundy linens lent a farmhouse brightness to the otherwise dreary day.
The menu, which highlights locally grown ingredients, offers a little something for everyone; this is especially appealing when dealing with one kid who wants breakfast, while another wants a more substantial main and still another wants pasta. (Breakfast is served from 9 to 11 on Saturdays and 9 to 3 on Sundays.) We began with an excellent New England clam chowder (or chowdah, as it is written in the menu), which featured meaty dollops of clam and potato, a crisp briny broth and punctuation points from the tart taste of minced celery and herbs like tarragon. Quite honestly, this is probably the best chowder I’ve had outside of the Cape. My son and I shared an appetizer of Prince Edward Island mussels, which were bathed in a delicate broth of white wine, shallot, garlic and herbs. As with the soup, the kitchen’s deft ability with seasonings was remarkable.
My husband began with the caesar salad, which he praised as one of the best he’s ever had: elegant in its simplicity, dressed lightly enough to allow a perfect union of tangy dressing with crisp lettuce, crunchy garlic croutons and grated parmesan. He then had the omelet special, which featured chevre and tender smoked salmon and was served alongside seven grain toast and a delicate salad of baby greens and herbs. One son ordered the gnocchi, which was sautéed with chunks of tomato, mushroom, eggplant and kalamata olives, napped with homemade pesto and drizzled with parmesan and provolone cheeses. Gnocchi can be so wonderful, and yet so often, it’s heavy and gluey. In this case, however, the kitchen got it right. The pasta pillows were almost light, and carried the accompaniments beautifully.
The lunch menu also features a few sandwiches, including a salmon burger, a turkey club with cranberry chipotle relish, and one that’s made of Portobello mushroom, leek, spinach and brie, served on grilled organic San Francisco sourdough bread. All sandwiches come with an Israeli couscous vegetable salad, a nicely seasoned alternative to the ubiquitous potato or macaroni salad. Once Upon a Table also has simple salads to which can be added grilled chicken, fresh mozzarella, grilled portabella or Rawson Brook Farms Monterey chevre. The dinner menu includes many of the same items as are offered at lunch, but also includes heartier fare like pecan crusted rainbow trout with honey lemon butter, Australian grass-fed rack of lamb with herbed demi-glace, and roasted half duck with raspberry demi-glace. Recently, the restaurant began doing breakfasts, with tasty concoctions like gingerbread waffles with warm apple compote and stuffed French toast with cream cheese and pomegranate peach marmalade. The wine and beer menu offers a nice selection of reasonably priced bottles, with many of the wines available for as little as $5 a glass.
Owner Alan O’Brient (who leaves the cooking up to co-chefs Fernando Masis and Jonathan Zuraw) confirms what we suspected was the guiding principle of Once Upon a Table: “We try to present handcrafted, quality cuisine without making it overly fussy,” he says, and indeed, my husband and I were struck most by the combination of quality and simplicity. O’Brient also noted that busy lunches tend to spill quickly into dinner, and he doesn’t want to suddenly have to switch gears to turn out complicated, overly thought-out plates. Over the restaurant’s 12 years of existence, he says, he has only made the menus more accessible, aiming for the comfort level of a classic bistro. “Bistro to me,” he says, “is that it’s casual yet well-executed food, served in a casual mode of service.”
What it lacks in size and dazzle, Once Upon a Table more than makes up with excellent ingredients, solid cooking and unfettered charm. It clearly has the aura of a place that welcomes regulars back, and of making first-time diners want to become regulars.
Once Upon a Table
34 Main St., Stockbridge, Mass., (413) 298-3870. Serving dinner 4:30-8:30 Sun-Thu, 4:30-9 Fri-Sat; lunch 11-3 daily; and breakfast 9-11 Sat, 9-3 Sun. Reservations recommended for dinner only. MC, V
Cuisine: contemporary continental
Entrée price range: $19 (sauteed gnocchi or eggplant ravioli) to $27 (rack of lamb); lower-priced entrées on lunch menu
Ambiance: tastefully cozy