Berkshires After Dark: Alpamayo an authentic surprise
LEE -- It was 8 o'clock on Saturday, and the regular crowd was nowhere to be found. Not the best sentimental song fodder, perhaps, but this subdued scene at Alpamayo Restaurant on Lee's darkened Main Street was a feast for our eyes. And the pan flute renditions of ‘60s rock anthems that breathed through the long dining room suited our low-key Peruvian dinner better than any piano man.
My mother, Laura, sister, Sydney, and I had been through three solid days of over-the-top holiday bustle -- Mom's 15 Thanksgiving guests (depending on how you tally toddlers), Syd's full day of corralling friends and capturing shots around the family house for a short film during her brief respite from the tight quarters of Brooklyn, and my frantic gathering and purging of furniture at the maternal homestead as I prepare to move into a new place in Stockbridge next week -- so the town's power could have gone out and we wouldn't have complained.
I'd like to tip my hat to Mr. and Mrs. Kelly of Lenox Dale, friends for decades and kind supporters of my After Dark adventures, who have been telling me about Alpamayo's heaping platters of flavorful and surprising South American cuisine for over a year. Sure, I wish I'd tried their tender and aromatic shrimp and rice and steak and vegetables sooner, but don't regret saving the place for this much needed post-Thanksgiving. Thanksgave? No, Welcometaking.
The three of us -- weary, frigid, and scattered across the spectrum of speaking terms -- weren't sure if Lee was open that night. The whole downtown strip looked unplugged. As we strolled past the Good Purpose Gallery, we were surprised to see a jam-packed art opening in progress; the barely lit storefront filled to the brim with wine and schmooze, silent and distant behind a thin pane of glass, held at a cultural distance like a life-sized diorama at the Museum of Natural History animated by the Ghost of Christmas Past, drunk on nog and confounding the holidays.
As if the museum's curator didn't believe in deaccession, the surrounding streets were entirely vacant. That was until we stepped into the illumination of Alpamayo's large window framed by brick and a maroon awning. Though relatively austere inside, the place shone like a gemstone against its grayscale surroundings.
It was warm and comfortable, lights and sound kept at gentle volumes and the high-ceilinged dining room colored with burnt reds, neutral yellows, and wood tones. Minimalist hanging lights and South American canvases tastefully framed at uncrowded intervals on the spacious walls told us to relax. Someone had to. And we did.
Sydney noticed the music first, and we giggled about Peruvianized rock covers for the rest of the night. A Klonopin-and-hash rendition of "Let It Be," wistfully sailing from a contrived caravan of carved wind instruments, was the first to catch her ear. "Hey Jude," ABBA's "Fernando" (a personal favorite for which Syd has relentlessly mocked me since the 1990s), a John Denver number, and some Ennio Morricone soundtrack staples came next, all as if tooted by a turkey-sleepy Pan himself. Though it's fun to tease the hoakey ethnicized Muzak, Andean flutes were music to me ears after days of shrill voices and crowds stampeding yards from my pillow.
The menu is no panpipe Beatles cover. It's an extensive list of Peruvian dishes, with an emphasis on seafood, including some entrees and ingredients I've never before seen offered at American restaurants. Appetizers ($6.99-$15.99) include shellfish ceviche, lots of corn and potatoes, salads, beef heart and even hot dogs and chicken wings prepared with Peruvian spices. I suspect that the app menu is the hottest ticket. Given the heaping entrée portions, these inexpensive plates may be a smart way to sample uncommon treats.
Entrees are separated into "Beef and Chicken" and "Seafood," with 32 options between the two. This tally discounts the kids' menu and lists of soups, sides, deserts and homemade specialty drinks, like fruit and spice blends, pisco and organic Peruvian coffee.
Some eye-catching menu items include fried yucca, genuine pisco sours (made with egg whites!), chicha morada (a drink made of fruits, spice and purple corn available by the pitcher), and "Cuy (Guinea Pig) Peruvian style, served with salad and potatoes." There's a whole lunch menu priced mostly between $6 and $10 served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
After watching the warm and knowledgeable waitress parade platters overflowing with vibrant rice and shellfish and vegetables and meat to the other table, we picked two entrees for the three of us. This left us with a full meal's worth of leftover's for the next day. Maybe that thin Andean air requires more fuel to keep the blood pumping, but here in the Berkshires it simply meant that each of our entrées was large enough for two less-than-famished adults.
Our Lomo Saltado (Top Sirloin Steak sautéed with onions, tomatoes and spices mixed with French fries. Served with rice, $15.99) and Arroz con Mariscos (Peruvian style seafood paella, $16.99) were both flavorful hits. The steak and vegetables were savory and brothy in the way that slow-cooked tomato, beef and onion can sometimes achieve when spiced gently and precisely. But the seafood dish was our favorite, with shrimp, mussels, squid, clams and vegetables mixed with long yellow rice that, as Syd pointed out, tasted and looked precisely like Grandpa Charlie's seafood and rice of our youth.
We'd always assumed his recipe was Italian, but Mom pointed out that he'd spent much of World War II stationed off the coast of Peru. This connection alone made the night worthwhile. Who knew I grew up eating homemade Peruvian? The panpipes began to make a bit more sense.
While handing us a heavy to-go container of our warm food and $42.78 check, which included a $7 glass of cabernet, the waitress explained that we'd caught Alpamayo at the perfect moment of quietude, an hour after the dinner rush on one of the few slow weekends of the year. They're often packed, she said. So please stay away on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I'm claiming it as my family's new decompression ritual. We're not big criers, shouters or drinkers, so let us have the quiet place with delicious Peruvian like Grandpa used to make for one night of soothing passive aggression.
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