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Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Bright New Bulb

By Laura Leon

Things are happening in Great Barrington, Mass., on Railroad Street that, to my mind, are indicators of the unsettled times we live in. Gatsby’s, for years a must-shop experience for those looking for funky women’s clothing, dance apparel, shoes and furnishings, is going out of business (its owners have retired). This follows shortly on the heels of another, more shocking, closing, that of the venerable eatery 20 Railroad. Other stores have relocated (sometimes just to a different side of the street, as is the case with Karen Allen’s shop). Don’t get me wrong—people still flock to SoCo for the decadently sweet ice cream, and Bizen remains a mainstay for tasteful Japanese dining, but the changes that have occurred in the last year, after a relatively long period of calm, bring to this native’s mind those early days of small-town revitalization in the 1970s, when for every thriving upstart there remained several decrepit reminders of the street’s decades-long rep as a barfly zone.

At least some changes are welcome, as is the case with Allium, a relatively new restaurant that has taken the place of the former Verdura, located at the very end of the north side of Railroad Street. Allium is owned by Mezze Inc., which runs a catering business in addition to its other two Berkshire restaurants, Mezze Bistro & Bar in Williamstown and Café Latino in North Adams. The name, which refers to anything that grows in a bulb, such as onions, has a soft musicality about it, which complements the laid-back elegance of the place. Blond woods and natural fibers predominate in the long, rectangular room that you enter; there is also a more traditional dining room to the left of the hostess station. In warm weather, the front wall recedes to expose the street, giving the interior an airy openness that, in my opinion, bolsters the appetite. It’s a very comfortable setting that somehow retains its charm and vibe even when we’re there with children and Gram in tow.

The menu changes frequently, and represents a market-fresh mentality, with a generous touch of artisanal influences. One starter, Rubiner’s cheese plate ($12), features exquisite cheeses highlighted by homemade quince paste and toasted hazelnuts, and supported sturdily by Berkshire Mountain bread. Cheese also figures in a vibrant field salad ($10), which features Garroxta, a goat’s-milk cheese produced in the Catalonia region in northern Spain, as well as speck, a distinctively juniper-flavored prosciutto originally from the Italian province of Bolzano-Bozen, green olives, roasted almonds and balsamic vinaigrette.

Cod fritters ($8), served with a complement of Meyer lemon aioli, are tangy and have good texture, but, on occasion, are somewhat fishy. One of the best appetizers I’ve had recently is Allium’s braised spiced pork belly ($12), whose delicious salty-sweet taste is offset by a pleasingly bracing watermelon-radish, black-radish, scallion and chili-lime vinaigrette. Allium has a way with meats, as evidenced in a salami platter ($12) that featured toscano, hot sopressata and bresaola. These are dishes that would make fine feasts on their own, shared perhaps with a champagne or clean white wine.

More salads appear on the First Course listings, including one of simple but beautiful baby greens ($7) and one featuring frisée, Blue Hill Farm egg, house-made bacon, local apples and cider vinaigrette ($10). (On a previous visit, the kitchen offered a variation on this latter, substituting warm asparagus and speck for the frisée and bacon—equally good.) Soups here are pleasing, country fare, especially a polenta soup enlivened by devilishly rich chicken broth, a bit of reggiano crostini and a dollop of sage oil

Entrees include a few “casual fare” options, like spaghetti Bolognese ($18), made with pork, veal, lamb, fennel, carrot, kale and pecorino, and grilled hanger steak ($18). I tried the linguine con le sarde ($14), the toothsome pasta providing a perfect backdrop for meaty sardines, fennel, currants, toasted pine nuts and olive oil. The fresh, simple tastes of this meal brought back memories of similar dishes enjoyed on a trip to Spain. Roast chicken breast is always tempting, even though, in ordering it, I chastise myself for getting something that can so easily be prepared at home. Still, a flavorful, moist-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-out, chicken is a thing of beauty. A recent tasting ($23) including blue-moon mushroom and butternut-squash risotto, with chives and chicken jus, and was greedily sampled by our entire party. An earlier version was served with a risotto of peas, fava beans and ramps.

One of my sons tried the NEFF pasture-raised ribeye, a heroic portion of red meat if there ever was one. With this came butcher’s potatoes, and wilted spinach with fresh horseradish ($32). The spinach is also available as a side, as are polenta, broccoli, herb fries and salt potatoes (all $6). As tempting as was the beef, I opted for seafood, choosing a cedar-planked Arctic char, which comes with Brussels sprouts, bacon, frisee, apples, pepita (sort of like pumpkin seeds), and napped with a whole-grain mustard sauce. Once again, the kitchen, headed by Chef Joe Nastro (a former sous-chef at Melissa Kelly’s Primo), proves extremely competent in combining disparate tastes and textures, creating a very complete, immensely satisfying dining experience. Another time I had scallops with porcini tagliatelle, butternut squash, oyster mushrooms, chives and a mushroom jus; the earthy undertones provides by the mushrooms were a revelation with the creamy-flavored scallops.

Allium has special $10 Tuesdays, serving wood-fired Neapolitan style pizzas, and hosts a variety of special events, such as the upcoming Berkshire Grown Restaurant Week (June 8-12), which will enable patrons to enjoy a farm-to-table prix-fixe meal for just $25.08.

The wine list changes seasonally, to better complement the food, and is heavily waited toward European choices. Happily for me, the wait staff seem uniformly capable of and quite willing to discuss various vintages, flavor components, etc. Their enthusiasm goes a long way toward allaying nervousness about veering from one’s tried-and-true Cabernets into trying something unfamiliar.

As Railroad Street goes through its latest permutations, Allium seems capable of becoming a stalwart starting block of what’s next. Its winning combination of fine dining with comfort and grace hints at a timeless quality that helps restaurants here succeed with both locals and tourists.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Enjoy a tasting of microbrewery beer at the Village Pizzeria, 2727 Route 29, East Galway, at 7 PM tonight (Thursday). This is special event to benefit the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, which takes place this weekend in Boston and is slated at other cities throughout the country during the year. Pizzeria co-owner Sandy Foster, herself a cancer survivor, participated in last year’s walk and is eager to repeat her success. The restaurant will offer an array of appetizers, including many of its signature dishes, and patio seating will be available. The cost is $25, and you can call 882-9431 for more info. . . . The Honest Weight Food Co-op (484 Central Ave., Albany) is offering a class in garden planting with Sandy Winn from noon to 2 PM on Sunday, May 18 at the HWFC community room. Winn, who cultivates three acres in the Helderberg Mountain foothills, gardens with vegetables, herbs, bulbs, annuals, perennials, ornamental bushes, fruit bushes and trees. The free class is for both experienced and inexperienced diggers. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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