|The dining area of Le Jardin in Williamstown. Deep cobalt blue glasses and fresh flowers splash the tables with color.|
After several years in genteel decline and a couple of years dark, the fixture Williamstown auberge Le Jardin reopened in September with new owners and $1.5 million invested in a new look.
Investors Jae Chung, Todd Lincoln and Luke Nugent took longtime chef/owner Walter Hayn into partnership on the venture.
They gutted the building and completely rebuilt and refurbished the interior, with emphasis on overnight accommodations -- six guest rooms and suites -- as well as dining rooms.
The exterior was repainted in a bright buttery yellow, visually linking it with Chung's North Adams property, Jae's Inn. The result is contemporary and comfortable -- lots of clean lines, bare wood, glass.
An extensive collection of paintings -- a mix of faux country primitives and colorful café scenes -- gives character to the fairly neutral ambiance, as does abundant illumination -- from whimsical fixtures in the lobby and bar, from soft shaded lamps and a sparkly chandelier in the dining area, and, especially, from the large banks of windows that attract the sun- and moonlight.
What is not much changed is Chef Hayn's classic French menu. For traditionalists, that is a grand thing. It flaunts the exquisitely, unrepentantly rich cuisine that defined gourmet dining and made Francophiles of epicures for much of the last century.
Escargots, oysters, onion soup oozing Gruyere, filet mignon, pate, lush sauces, wine reductions and all of the old ooh-la la.
If you are young enough to be eye-opened by what food was before raw, steamed and low carb gained sway, or old enough to recall the pleasures of occasional guilt-to-the-winds luxe, you can indulge here to your stomach's -- if not your heart's -- content.
And to be fair, there are salads, a raw shellfish bar, and some lighter pastas and seafood dishes for those moderns with unwavering willpower. Hayn said that toward summer, he'll steer the menu in a lighter direction, shifting more from retro to bistro.
Our first visit to Le Jardin was for the brunch. It was the morning after a heavy snowfall, yet patrons seemed undeterred from braving the slick roads. Brunch was served on a sideboard in the large dining room. It offered silver chafing dishes of pasta, beef in a dark stew, eggs benedict, lacy potato pancakes and bacon.
An unctuous liver pate and plates of cold ham with mustard sauce beckoned. Muffins, bagels, pastries abounded as well as several kinds of dessert. Juices, fresh fruits and green salads balanced the table.
What the buffet lacked in novelty, it amply made up for in quality and attractive presentation. The staff were friendly and our waitress attentively refilled our coffee cups and whisked away used plates. At an extremely reasonable $9.95 per person, it was a painless way to treat oneself on a Sunday morning, and it was obvious that a steady clientele has already picked up the habit.
The same courteous welcome awaited us when we arrived, sans reservation, for dinner.
(Telephoning ahead, however is advised. Once when I called, I found that the place was entirely reserved for a private party.)
We sat in the smaller, inside dining room where a glow from the hearth took off the winter chill. We munched on warm bread and butter, as we faced the formidable challenge of deciding what to have. So many old favorites, it was almost like trying to figure out what old flame you most hoped would show up at your Ninth class reunion.
For starts, we chose escargots en casserole ($12.50) and sweetbreads au beurre noir ($12) in part because they are relative rarities on today's menus. The snails were exactly garlicky enough for my husband, which meant that I could have done with a whiff more. They snuggled in a traditional ceramic dish with wells of aromatic butter and a light crisping of flavored crumbs for contrast.
The sweetbreads arrived in their own shiny little sauté pan to keep hot. This specialty meat was done to a turn, crisped in butter, dense and almost creamy in texture. A tart bath of lemon juice and capers kept the succulent flesh from cloying blandness, and a topper of sheer-sliced Serrano ham provided a smoky contrast. The dish was also offered in a dinner portion, but I would find that way too much of a good thing. As it was, the appetizer portion would have sufficed for two.
A refreshing quaff of Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc ($7) complemented the delicate meat. The restaurant's cellar boasts more than 80 wines, priced from $23 to $150 a bottle. This was one of a handful offered by the glass.
My husband is fond of salmon in almost any presentation, and his grilled wild salmon fillet ($24) was no exception. It was sauced rather lightly in a reduction of lobster broth, sherry and cream with a delicate sprinkling of lobster roe, or coral. The thick slice of fish had a golden top but retained a moist interior.
My frog legs Provençal ($23) danced to a more robust tune, with a high kick of olive oil and garlic, and tomato dice and parsley keeping the beat. A heap of the nearly translucent miniature drumsticks with their twin curves of thigh kept me tapping my own toes and licking my fingers.
Both entrees were accompanied by a sturdy wedge of potato, a sheaf of ideally crunchy-tender sautéed green beans, a sensational maple-glazed wedge of butternut squash that curved upward like an Aladdin slipper and a large rosette of fresh lemon for upping the pucker factor, if desired.
We allowed ourselves to be tempted by dessert -- tough, somebody had to do it. Had we been of the "clean plate" persuasion, we might still be there, trying to do justice to the oversized-dinner-plated extravagance.
A slab of apple cranberry cobbler ($5) had a buttery topping over a mass of slightly stickily baked fruit. Its accompanying scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream nearly stole the show. My "to-die-for" chocolate cake ($7) was enough for three at least. A nearly 4-inch wedge of double-layered flourless chocolate cake filled and sliced strawberries.
Both desserts were embellished by paisley swirls of cream and berry sauces and a pair of pecan shortbread cookies that could have been a creditable sweet finish all on their own.
Although I love dessert, I confess that such presentations daunt more than appeal. Is enough never enough?
777 Cold Spring Road
Style: French cuisine in updated country inn
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 9
Friday & Saturday 11:30 to 10
Sunday -- Brunch: 10:30 to 2:30; dinner 4:30 to 9:00
Prices: Soups, salads, starters: $6 to $12.50; Raw bar: market price; Dinners: $18 to $29;
Desserts: $5 to $7; Sunday brunch: $9.99
Noise level: Soft music, but lots of hard surfaces so may be fairly noisy when full
Liquor: Full bar, wine list
Credit cards: Major
Specials: Banquet and party tradition; outdoor patio dining in season