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B.A. Nilsson

Coach, First Class
By B.A. Nilsson

The Elm Court Inn
Route 71, North Egremont, Mass.,
413-528-0325.
Serving dinner Wed-Fri, Sun 5-9, Sat 5-10.
AE, DC, MC, V.

Food: **** ½
Service: Attentive
Ambience: Historic

A long history can destroy a place. Neglected, it falls down. Revered, it turns into a museum, freezing a long-vanished point in time. The Elm Court was built in the 1780s as a stagecoach stop for the route between Albany and Hartford, but it’s been in somewhat continuous operation ever since—Tulley’s Tavern was its name for a while—and thus it’s possible to derive a sense of enjoyment from it in the present, as you savor your dinner, while the building and the neighborhood offer a pleasant resonance with Revolutionary War-era history.

Chef-owner Urs Bieri bought the place 15 years ago. He and his wife, Glee, whom you’ll meet as the hostess, wanted to escape Manhattan, where Urs was executive chef at the United Nations. “We looked up here and in the Washington, D.C., area,” he says, “and this was the nicest.”

Because this place puts us near Susan’s hometown, we used the occasion to treat her mother to dinner. Rita enjoys that kind of attention, and in the general jockeying for attention among my wife and her siblings, it racks up serious brownie points for Susan.

We were seated in a large dining room with a not-too-intimate feel, at least until the meal began and we were comfortable enough to ignore those around us. You’re not too close to your neighbors, and anyway it was Father’s Day and thus fairly slow (quite the opposite of what happens when Mom’s Day rolls around). But we were next to a deuce between whom bad feelings flowed with hissy outbursts, a couple handled with professional deftness by the Elm Court staff.

With a warm loaf of crusty bread and plenty of butter to start us off, we studied a menu that reflects Berkshires-area pricing, entrées running well into the mid-20s, appetizers half that. The mix of items reflects chef Bieri’s Swiss background, sporting calf’s liver and Wiener schnitzel among the more typical continental fare.

Soup of the day was Manhattan clam chowder, which Susan chose in the hope of tempting our child with a taste. This is the tomato-based version, but unlike the typical presentation, this one was light and brothy. I expect a chowder to brim with components, but this approach has the advantage of allowing flavors to linger longer.

Once we told Lily that ribs were available, she was set. Baby back ribs are offered as an appetizer or entrée; we chose for her the former, and it arrived with the other appetizers and served her well throughout our subsequent courses. While I’m a recent convert to slow-smoking, this slow-roasting approach works as well to get the meat tender and allow flavors to commingle. Very straightforward and with a good barbecue sauce on top.

Rita chose ravioli as a starter, but this wasn’t just any preparation: With a filling of wild turkey, it’s served with a rich sage-scented butter, lavishly filling while allowing the component flavors to complement easily.

I chose one of the few items not prepared in-house: salmon, cured pastrami-style, with fresh baby greens. The flavor of the fish, which tends to happily withstand all manner of reinterpretation, gets a rare flavor enhancement in this style of preparation, in which the meat is first pickled and then smoked and retains a characteristic dark edge.

Because I was the only one to order an à la carte salad, my spinach salad with goat cheese, roasted peppers and roasted garlic was served just before my appetizer, and Susan dove in to help herself to the garlic cloves, which were mushy and sweet and generously applied, a wonderful accompaniment to the other flavors. This was fresh baby spinach, in fact, which makes quite a bit of texture difference and has a sweeter flavor than the mature leaf.

Worried lest she should have to perform bone removal, Rita initially shied away from the duckling. Our waitress assured her, however, that it’s at least half bone-free, and what was served were a grilled breast, sliced, along with a leg portion. It’s served with one of the chef’s signature sides, a scallion-enhanced potato pancake, and was sauced just enough with a currant-based topping to enhance the fowl’s rich flavor.

My wife opted for a vegetarian entrée: portobello polenta and vegetable Napoleon. Beneath its crown of mushroom cap with rosemary leaf, it’s built from shredded potatoes, braised spinach, slices of red and yellow peppers, goat cheese and corn, served atop a round of the aforementioned polenta, which itself was an excellent preparation.

Given the chance, I opt for sweetbreads. I like them best when they’re lightly floured and quickly sautéed; here they had a softer finish and were served in a brown sauce. I think it dims the impact, but they nevertheless were very tasty.

Served on the sides was a dish of ratatouille and another of boiled potatoes. A popular pay-extra item, Roesti potatoes (a Swiss item with shredded potatoes finished hash-brown style) also appeared, as a gift, I guess.

Desserts here are superb. Susan and Lily shared a dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Swiss Toblerone chocolate; Rita had a generous helping of berry sorbet; mine was Le Gateau Suisse: a mousse cake with both light and dark chocolate.

Service was friendly and attentive. Dinner for four, with tax and tip, desserts and a couple of glasses of wine, was $200.

TABLE SCRAPS

On the original Bastille Day in 1789, a mob in France forced open a notorious prison and set in motion a revolution that now allows us to enjoy cream-rich sauces. Nicole’s Bistro at the Quackenbush House (Clinton Avenue and Broadway, Albany) celebrates July 12 and 13 with a $38 menu and live entertainment. Classics like vichyssoise, grenouille à la Provence and mousse au chocolat are among the many offerings. Call 465-1111 for more info and reservations, and ask about the Cucina Sinatra on July 18, the fifth annual tribute to Frank’s favorite meal with songs from the Sinatra repertory performed by Ed Clifford. I attended last year’s event, and it was tremendous fun . . . Ferrandi’s French Restaurant (Route 67, Amsterdam) presents its annual Bastille Day dinners July 11-14, a four-course meal that includes escargot, bouillabaisse, coq au vin and steak tartare among the choices. It’s $29 per person; call 842-6977 for info. . . . Also look for a prix fixe Bastille Day menu at Provence (Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) July 13 and 14, offered in addition to the regular menu. 689-7777.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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