23 Marshall Street, North Adams, Massachusetts
Prices, moderate: starters, $7 to $12; entrees, $18 to $26.
Hours: 5 to 9 every day but Tuesday. Bar hours; 5 to 10.
Gramercy Bistro in North Adams has been a favorite of ours for some time, and it’s not because the bar and dining room remind me of the chic little places I remember from my Park Slope days, although there must be plenty of people in North Adams who are eager to promote that illusion. There is nothing about Gramercy Bistro that isn’t genuine. The pale walls and dark wood trim suggest culinary seriousness, as do the well-populated tables and a certain quality to the rumble of the diners’ voices, which I’ve learned to identify with a whole-hearted enjoyment of food, as well as one’s companions. In the bar you’ll see some fine black and white photographs of Menton and its inhabitants by David Auerbach, a local photographer, who gave them to chef-owner Sandy Smith and his wife Sarah as a wedding gift, and in the dining room works by local artists are periodically rotated. But ultimately its what’s done in the kitchen that matters. I was especially happy to come back to Gramercy Bistro for review and to focus on Sandy Smith’s creations with a critical palate. Lucas was equally keen, back from Edinburgh, enjoying a break from his customary diet of vegetarian haggis and Bruichladdich.
The starters on the menu are tempting, including a goat cheese tartlet and a charcuterie plate with duck prosciutto, pork rillettes, and boudin blanc, but Lucas opted for Thai mussels in a spicy red curry broth with fresh cilantro ($9), and I couldn’t resist the crab cake with wasabi vinaigrette, sweet soy, and cucumber salad ($9). Sandy Smith’s basic style is solid, but not heavy, and he never fails to accent lively contrasts among his ingredients. Hence the crab cake, tasting of high-quality crab meat, was of a satisfying substance and texture. Two sauces, a creamy one and a sweetish brown companion, balanced each other harmoniously against the sharp wasabi. Perhaps the cucumber salad could have been a little colder and more crisp to make things perfect, but as it was it was excellent indeed. The mussels tasted fresh and were intensely flavored with curry and lemon grass, the cilantro enhancing the impression of freshness.
The wine list, by the way, in addition to a set of cocktails, ranging from a martini made with Old Raj gin and a French Seventy-Five to the more exotic Ballet Russe, which consists of Reyka vodka, crême de cassis, and fresh lime, combines classic wines with some more unusual selections. I opted for a Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny, Domaine de Nerleux. This was a well-made Loire red, all the better for a little more body, alcohol, and fruit than the average Chinon or Bourgueil. I followed this with a glass of a smooth, rich Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder) from Villa Wolf in the Pfalz. Neither of these were what you would call a “discreet” wine that fades into the background. They had a presence of their own as lively companions to our dishes.
Sandy Smith’s main courses consist mainly of hearty classics of cuisine bourgeoise, well-executed with excellent, mostly local ingredients, but full of Chef Smith’s characteristic contrast and flair. I especially appreciate his unwillingness to refine them into something they were never meant to be. One doesn’t see sweetbreads on many menus these days, so I decided to try the “crispy veal sweetbreads with caper sauce, mushrooms, and caramelized cauliflower.” ($24) Again, the secret to this delicious and satisfying preparation was the contrast of the vegetables with the capers and their nicely balanced, stock-based brown sauce. The sweetbreads themselves were impeccable: smooth but substantial in a crisp breading, which was all the better for being well-cooked, that is, almost, but not quite burnt, in places. This sort of touch brings the cooking to life, giving this otherwise thoroughly professional cooking a home-made touch. The same was true of Lucas’ paella. ($24) A few patches of rice stuck to the iron pan—and therefore browned—added substance and flavor. The paella was excellent in every way, with plenty of the classic seafood and the flavor of saffron strong enough to stand up against the peppers and chorizo. This is what I’ve come to expect from Gramercy Bistro, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Diners in a mood for a lighter dish may order the seared sea scallops, light but intensely flavored, and the smoked mozzarella and red pepper ravioli should please the vegetarian. Otherwise the sort of satisfying bourgeois food that struck our fancy is amply represented in the cassoulet, duck breast, pork chop, and veal schnitzel.
The only disappointment came with our desserts. I thought the crême brulé overdone and too uniform in texture. However, all the flavor was there, and Lucas was perfectly satisfied with it. I enjoyed my seasonal berry tart. The classic slightly underdone pâte brisée was excellent, as was its custard filling. The strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries were also excellent, although clearly not hand-picked in local fields.
Actually the evening of our visit, a Wednesday, was a busy one. Every table was filled, either with locals or visitors, perhaps guests from nearby Porches, we speculated. Sandy Smith and his staff deserve extra marks for keeping up their usual standard in the line of fire. If there is anything to criticize, it is the ventilation of the rooms. As appetizing as the discreet kitchen fragrance was, the air grew a bit heavy and thick as the evening progressed. However, this was a only a fairly minor detriment to our pleasant evening in this serious but relaxed establishment.