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Beard-Trained, Berkshire-Grown

by B.A. Nilsson on June 13, 2012 · 1 comment

Firefly, 71 Church St., Lenox, Mass., 413-637-2700, fireflylenox.com. Serving dinner daily 5-9, open later in summer. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: inventive American

Entrée price range: $12 (pan-roasted veggie burger) to $28 (grilled tenderloin)

Ambiance: handsome and friendly

Back when I was child, my mother’s early-’60s cuisine relied on the three Js in her library: James Beard, Julia Child and The Joy of Cooking. Beard and Child also were among the first TV chefs, back before cookery became a sporting event, and Beard especially worked to promote an American culinary identity, however French-inflected it now may seem in retrospect.

There’s a Beardian spirit of enthusiasm and conviviality in Laura Shack’s cooking, and it’s no coincidence. She persuaded him to take her on as a student when she was very young and his classroom consisted almost exclusively of the middle-aged. For three years, she took classes in his Greenwich Village home, then parlayed that into a successful catering business.

She’d been coming to Lenox over the years to spend time at a cottage her grandparents owned. A couple of decades ago, something clicked and she combined her love of food and love for Lenox into a restaurant called the Roseborough Grill on Church Street. This is Lenox’s locus of eateries, relentlessly charming, its restaurants varied and persuasive enough to get the Tanglewood crowd to drop their picnic baskets and head here. Nine years ago, Shack completely revamped her place, with a cheerful redesign by Northampton-based Tom Douglas and a new menu aimed to celebrate the local customers who keep the place open year-round—and a new name, Firefly.

Because it’s also open every evening, we were able to make a visit on a Monday, a day when many other places are dark. Beautiful brink-of-summer weather notwithstanding, business was slow. Which gave us a view of the place when it’s relaxing, which can be (and was) a mixed blessing. Seating options abound, including a pleasant front porch that tempted us, but a large four-top in the main dining room proved most appealing, even beyond the more casual dining available in the bar area.

Regular specials on the slower nights include 50-cent wings on Sundays, $10 lobster rolls Mondays, $6 burgers Wednesdays and more. We were going to make of those lobster rolls a starter choice, but got distracted by the fixed-price dinner menu, where two of you pay $64 to enjoy a goodly range of choices through three courses. What’s not on that menu are such starters as sautéed spicy garlic shrimp ($12), crispy scallion sticky rice balls ($11) and asparagus-mushroom brushcetta ($11). Entrées not included include braised bison short ribs ($26), fish and chips ($16) and a burger made with Angus beef ($14) or veggies ($12).

Yet we felt not at all shortchanged. Starters included a salad, a soup or (for an extra three bucks) sautéed escargots. For which I was happy to pay the extra fee in order to enjoy a simple, buttery take on these critters, the traditional garlic accompaniment very much in evidence. My wife chose the cold fennel soup, which moderated the distinct flavor with a cream-free vegetable base that was light and unexpectedly refreshing.

One of the prix-fixe entrées, grilled cornish game hen, wasn’t available, so Susan opted for its regular-menu substitute, roasted free-range chicken breast. “This is one of the few times that it really tastes free-range,” she commented, “which means it’s better than usual.” Served over buttery mashed potatoes, it sports a sauce of cranberry and leek that complements the meat superbly.

Grilled rainbow trout doesn’t appear on enough menus, making it an extra treat, and the only way it could have been better would have been if they’d cooked it less. But that would have put it at the raw side of rareness, which I didn’t think to ask for, and which typically would prompt complaints. What I was served was crisp and juicy and noble of flavor, with a garnish of grilled asparagus spears on top and delightfully light lemon risotto below.

The fixed-price menu also includes a bottle of wine, so we enjoyed a crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. And desserts. A hell of a bargain.

Desserts, by the way, were also top-flight. Old-fashioned profiteroles proved that Shack knows her way around choux pastry, and the lemon cake (add four bucks) was a small, rich, passionate portion.

Now that our 15-year-old daughter is consumed with obsessions about diet and exercise, her menu choice was simple: grilled Caesar salad ($11), with generous help-yourself foraging from her parents’ plates. The salad comprises a split-lengthwise head of romaine that hits the grill briefly enough to wilt ever so slightly, but long enough to impart an unexpected off-the-fire flavor. Traditional dressing, croutons and parmesan cheese were the finish.

As we cruised towards the finish of the meal, a retirement-aged foursome settled in at an adjacent table. Why did I quit waiting on tables, despite the fantastic money, so many years ago? Because of people like this. Annoyingly demanding. Impossible to please. “Is the spicy garlic shrimp really spicy?” “Can I get a taste of the wine?” And, naturally, the wine sample wasn’t right. “It’s too warm!” the fussy patron whined. “I hope they’re not all like that!”

Here’s where the flaw of the single-server system is exposed. We shared our server with these miscreants, and they kept her so distracted and busy that I had to go to the bar to pay my bill. But there I learned that the bartender had replaced the rejected wine sample with another shot poured from the very same bottle (taken from the very same fridge), and that the idiot customer declared that one OK.

As Tanglewood season heats up, the restaurant’s hours will extend, and the price of the for-two menu will climb to $75. But try to think of it as a reward for the long-suffering servers who will be putting up with so much more of what I just described.