Price: Moderate | main courses $23-$39.
As summer visitors converge on Williamstown, beginning with the Williams commencement and continuing on through the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which will conintue through late August, it will hardly occur to many that a refuge is available from whatever mild stresses the largely depopulated college town may offer. The Orchards Hotel, with its recently reinvented and renamed restaurant, Gala (formerly Yasmin’s), has stood on Main Street (Route 2) for some twenty-five years, just at the point where the town proper begins. Hotel, restaurant, parking, and their attractive landscaping are surrounded by a massive wall, which shields the buildings from traffic noise most effectively, but has in the past encouraged among locals a sense of exclusivity—borne out in the past by Yasmin’s ambitious and pricey menu. With new owners and the arrival of Chef Peter Belmonte, a Berkshire native, all that has changed. The new menu, which changes regularly, maintains a neat balance of the familiarity and innovation, and prices are refreshingly accessible. Festival regulars will also be pleased to learn that the popular Cabaret, absent from the Orchards for several years, will return in July and early August.
The various parts of the Orchards—Gala, the bar, the function rooms, the public rooms of the hotel and the guest rooms, even the pool and the peaceful courtyard gardens—keep to themselves in a pleasantly sedate sort of way, leaving the visitor with a feeling of settling into an established club of long standing. The Gothic fireplace in the “living room,” as it is called is worth a visit in itself. I’d love to know where it came from. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a vicarage. There is also a Steinway grand, which is kept in tune for guests. I can imagine a few people wandering over to it with drinks after the WTF Cabaret. Guest rooms are kept up to a high standard of comfort and freshness.
At dinner not long ago, we were delighted by the relaxed atmosphere of Gala and Chef Belmonte’s imaginative, but unpretentious menu. The room has its share of clubby wooden panelling, enlivened by high-key color photographs of an orchard at its peak. Dinner, from the last of the winter menus, began with an amuse-gueule of crisp apple slices, slivers of smoked duck, and other fresh ingredients arranged into a neat pillar, all as light and fresh as you could want. As a starter, one of us had a salad of mixed baby field greens dressed with clover honey vinaigrette, pickled red onion, candied walnuts and Berkshire blue cheese, all wrapped in a crouton belt. The quality and local allure of the ingredients was impeccable, and its sweet and sour effect hinted of the farm kitchen, but it’s certainly not for all tastes. A Caesar Salad and a baby spinach and portabella salad were also on the menu for more citified tastes. I ordered a Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, which was absolutely first rate, a tasty compromise between the coarsely flaked traditional Baltimorean crab cake and the more homogeneous variety more common in the north. The lemon caper remoulade could be addictive. A small salad of baby field greens in a sweet citrus vinaigrette was a fine compliment. All bread is baked in house, by the way, and has a very appealing home-made density.
For entrees we had pork tenderloin ($18) and “Red Red Shrimp” ($19), a spicy fusion dish consisting of sautéed jumbo shrimp tossed with roasted red pepper purée, sweet chili sauce and coconut milk, served over garlic sautéed haricots verts. This was topped with a spectacular swirling poppadum, crisp and very light. The pork was much more of a home-grown preparation. The tenderloin, of exceptional quality in itself, was wrapped with cider cured bacon, pan roasted, and served with a gala apple (What else?) and fresh thyme risotto over sautéed baby spinach with an apple brandy pork reduction. These dishes showed not only Chef Belmonte’s skill with two very different styles of cooking, but also the care he puts into seeking out top-quality ingredients. Dessert was a trio of home-made ice-creams, including coffee, strawberry and banana, the last of which is truly addictive. Locals should be as happy as visitors to find dining of this quality in Williamstown with reasonable prices and human-sized portions. Most of all, I’ll look forward to the season when Red Red Shrimp comes back on the menu. We drank the house open wines, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, which were perfectly fine. Service was friendly, graceful, and professional.
This is all good news for us locals. Visitors will find the staff very well informed about what’s on at the Festival and local museums from the Norman Rockwell in Lenox to Mass MoCA and the Clark itself. Guests of the Orchards who may feel inclined to jump right into their cars should remember that they are within steps of the most attractive part of the town, and they can walk to the ‘62 Center along Main Street, which bisects the Williams campus, perhaps, if they start a little early, a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art. A northward detour will lead them along the Green River towards the old train station, where, a century ago, visitors descended to take the char-à-banc up to the Sand Springs Spa. The hotel is long gone, but the spring still flourishes. Across Adams Street southwards, they can enjoy a brisk walk along Stratton Road, eventually reaching farmland which has remained unchanged—at least in part—for generations.