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B.A. Nilsson

Museum Quality
By B.A. Nilsson

Eleven
1111 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass., 413-662-2004. Serving lunch daily 11:30-3, dinner Sun-Thu 5-9, Fri-Sat 5-10 (closed Sun between Columbus Day and Memorial Day). AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Global bistro
Entrée price range: $10 (burger) to $20 (hanger steak)
Ambience: Industrial loft
Clientele: Footsore art fans

Impressive statistics inform the MASS MoCA complex: Its 26 buildings and 13 acres cover one-third of the North Adams business district, and it’s one of the largest centers for contemporary art in the United States. It’s also one of the more successful attempts to reclaim buildings left over from the long-gone industrial boom.

The Arnold Print Works, which specialized in printing on fabrics, established itself at that site just as the Civil War created demand for Union uniforms, and by the end of the 19th century was the largest employer in North Adams. The company struggled and failed through the Depression; its successor, the Sprague Electric Company, bought the complex in the early ’40s, just in time to have its fortunes buoyed by another war.

In 1986, as a buyout finalized Sprague’s disappearance from North Adams, the idea of MASS MoCA was born. It would take more than a decade to bring it to fruition, but the wait was worth it. The complex itself is a perverse, elegant commentary on the art displayed in and around the buildings: It’s a display that benefits from being seen not as a museum, but as a viable companion.

It’s a point of view that offers a restaurant as part of the artwork. Eleven, located in building no. 11 of the 26, is a $10-a-burger kind of place, offering casual dining—but for a price. A justified price, because the food is excellent and you’re in the midst of some amazing art. Try getting a meal this good for a similar amount of money at the Met.

Owner Nancy Thomas had an impressive success with Williamstown’s Mezze, which became a popular gathering place for theater-festival folk, among others; she began work on Eleven more than two years ago, and the place opened in September 2001—two weeks after a fire destroyed Mezze. She was able to relocate the Williamstown restaurant just down the street from its original location, and now the two—Mezze and Eleven—are a study in refined contrast.

“Mezze is more about fine dining,” says Thomas, “with a menu that features new American cuisine. Eleven is more casual, more contemporary—and the food is more global.” That’s evident in items such as the za’atar-seasoned duck breast ($18), which features a flavor still fairly unknown on these shores.

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern herb, known also as hyssop, or (depending on your source) it’s a blend of herbs that includes hyssop (sumac and sesame seeds are also popular components). That blend can become so complicated and seemingly arbitrary that one wag described as it as having been “gathered by a chef running his hand down a used kitchen work surface.”

Applied to a duck breast, it takes the flavor away from the traditional sweetenings like orange sauce and emphasizes the smokier aspects of the meat, which also didn’t suffer the effects of the typical overcooking it gets—a medium-rare presentation brings out flavor. Served with a tangy rhubarb chutney and a side of well- flavored couscous, it was a very satisfying meal.

The Eleven menu sports but four appetizers, two of them $7 salads. Baby arugula and celery root combine with a startlingly tasty citrus vinaigrette for a sensation that’s a great palate wake-up; also offered were mesclun with sherry-dijon vinaigrette.

Crab quesadilla with tomatillo salsa ($8) was a smallish portion, but even so it was rich enough that my wife elected to finish only half of the dish. Having waded through so many servings of crab- (or pseudo-crab) stuffed mushrooms, this was a welcome change, and the accompanying tomatillo salsa gave the right amount of acidic counterpoint.

Entrées run from $10 for a burger and fries to $20 for a grilled hanger steak (a trendy cut known in French as the onglet, consisting of two muscles that serve to push secretions out of the pancreas gland, if you must know. It’s actually incredibly tasty). Grilled tuna on French lentils, seared chicken breast with herb-roasted potatoes and even pad Thai with peanut sauce are among the others.

Lemon risotto ($18) isn’t bashful about the lemon, a flavor that swirls through the creamy arborio rice preparation but is offset by the smokier flavor of the grilled shrimp served atop the brew. In fact, although the lemon was almost obsessively predominant at first, after a day’s leftover delay, the shrimp flavor had permeated the rice enough to even things out. Lots of green throughout: asparagus, chopped into the mixture, as well as parsley and an excellent grade of olive oil drizzled on the plate.

A short list of $6 desserts is offered, from which we sampled a heavenly blueberry tart.

You’ll want to investigate the bar during your visit, paying particular attention to the unique stools that adjust to your height. And look carefully at the utility cabinets on the floor: They’re black Craftsman multidrawer tool holders, blending nicely into the restaurant’s decor.

“Mezze was on a river,” says Thomas, “so we designed the interior to be very organic. Here at Eleven we decided to do things differently, and everything inside comes from manmade materials.” It’s an appropriate setting in which to enjoy this food as food, and enjoy this food as art.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

TABLE SCRAPS

Much as I’d like to take credit for it, last week’s restaurant photo, of The Red Onion in Saugerties, was taken by Thomas Dallal. . . . Look for a new Panera Bread opening at the end of July at Mohawk Commons in Niskayuna (Balltown Road at the corner of Central Avenue). Freshly finished breads and bread products are the core of Panera’s bakery-café menu, which features bagels and muffins, sandwiches, salads and soups. . . . The Saratoga Wine Exchange (Spring Street, across from the carousel) presents a single-malt scotch tasting and class at 7 PM tomorrow (Friday, July 11) with special guest Jean Logan. Logan is the upstate New York whiskey ambassador for Pernod Ricard USA. The class will focus on the Aberlour and Glenlivet single malts and two Chivas Regal blended scotches. The class will explain how single-malt scotches are made and what factors affect flavors. Purchase of a $15 wine glass is required for the tasting, and pre-registration and payment are required. Call 580-9891 to jump through the necessary hoops. . . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090

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