Berkshires After Dark: French style in Lee
LEE -- Peering through my frosted window Saturday from beneath a mess of blankets, as the cat nudged against my computer for space on my lap, I expected my evening to be one catching up on "Portlandia" episodes, frying an omelet, and seeing what delightful new links had popped up on Reddit.com.
Instead, a website got me out of the house.
At www.cheznousbistro.com, I found a slide show of sensual images: Plated duck leg cassoulet, pan-seared scallops, and glistening pastries eager to be gobbled. Mirages of wine collections, cooking demonstration, and sunlit European dining nooks.
It all lay only four miles from my house! The imagined aromas alone led me to whip off the blankets and secure a tie around my neck. Chilly air isn't such a menace when you know what the lamb chops look like.
The object of my interest, Chez Nous, is no secret, apparently, and even in January reservations are a must. A young woman answered and spoke in warm French tones, pausing to check if there was any room left for my friend, Garrit, and me. I could hear the animated murmur of a crowded house in the background.
"A table will open up for you at 8:15," she said.
I felt lucky.
Chez Nous ("Our Place") occupies a sizable antique house on Lee's Main Street, though the building's perch makes the interior largely invisible from outside.
Through a narrow coatroom, we stepped right into the warm, colorful heart of a buzzing international scene. Much of the young staff, or so it sounds, hails from France.
The bar area we passed through is low lit and calm, adorned with vintage postcards and chic liquor bottles.
We were led into the main dining room passing the trim, stylishly kempt bodies of an adroit staff who were polite and never intrusive.
The bar also led into a smaller, more modern-looking dining area and into the kitchen, also housing a table or two as well as a line of chairs along the appealing glass-topped bar.
We were seated in the back corner of the large room, formerly the porch, and surveyed the vibrant scene.
All ages over 21 appeared present, though I know of no rule prohibiting the younger folks.
Comfortably rustic tables of two lined the room's edges while groups of four or six, and one festive party of eight, were placed at intervals throughout. The room managed to be full without tight quarters and traffic jams.
Country kitchen look
The décor had a French country kitchen aesthetic: Dried vines and branches weaving along the ceiling's deep brown beams, copper pots and pans dangling from above, utilitarian wine racks standing in plain sight.
Certain spaces, including the restrooms, are made private by heavy black or red curtains.
Lost in a menu, I looked up to find that our waiter was my friend and former co-worker, Starr Nader. Generous of spirit and an admirably attentive worker, Starr guided Garrit and me toward some delicious plates and shed light on the Chez Nous.
It is owned by married team Rachel Portnoy and Franck Tessier, who will celebrate their eighth anniversary with Chez Nous in April, after taking March off to renovate and expand the bar, an improvement that will surely add to its after-dinner appeal.
I asked why, to my surprise, many of the restaurant's recipes appear in full on the website.
"It's so that this great food will reach new people as possible," Starr explained. "If someone attends a dinner party and asks, ‘Where did you get this amazing recipe?' and the answer is Chez Nous, that person will want to come check us out."
Tessier, who is from France, worked at La Gavroche, a two-Michelin starred restaurant in London before moving to the United States. Portnoy, an American, studied to be a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and worked at Wheatleigh in Lenox, later founding Lee's Cakewalk Bakery. Tessier is head chef and designs the main menu while Portnoy runs the house and is the pastry chef.
First, though, Starr guided us through the current menu, which changes with each of the four seasons.
Upon his recommendation we tried the house-made pâté selection a dynamic spread of chicken liver parfait, country pate, and rillettes accompanied by various other piquant flavors and textures that will please and intrigue the table ($10.50).
Better than good
Garrit and I agreed that our entrees were better than good. The flavor, texture, and fattiness of my angus bistro steak ($22) surpassed expectation. The potato and celeriac puree was exceptional.
Garrit's New Zealand baby lamb chops ($18 for a half-rack) were perhaps a notch better, certainly surpassing any other lamb I've sampled. He put it well: "You can almost taste the fresh grass it was eating."
Prices are not low and portions are not small, but still Portnoy's Cakewalk credentials forced us to indulge in a chocolate-espresso mouse cake that was beautiful in every way. The rich deserts here should be considered as much a draw, and priority, as the wine selection.
As the place cleared, Starr introduced me to the quick and animated Portnoy, who explained her philosophy of community involvement. In addition to sharing recipes on their website and leading regular cooking demonstrations, Chez Nous is gearing up to host a fundraising fête on Feb. 10 to benefit the Berkshire Immigrant Center.
"My husband's French. We've been through the immigration nightmare, so I definitely support that organization and encourage people to learn about them." Said Portnoy. "When I heard about them, I said, "How can I help?"
The event will run from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and admission costs $40 per person with proceeds directly benefiting the organization.
Portnoy describes it as a cocktail party-style affair during which food will be circulated on tray as guests mingle.
If you go ...
Chez Nous, 150 Main St., Lee, 01238, (413) 243-6397, www.cheznousbistro.com.
Style: Comfortable French bistro with French chef. Expanded bar debuting in April.
Dress: I wore a tie. My friend wore a baseball cap. We both fit in just fine.
Cover: None, although special events such as cooking demonstrations and the Berkshire Immigration Center fundraiser require an admission fee.
Food: A seasonal menu of upscale French cuisine, wine, and pastries.
Entertainment: Demonstrations, cocktail mixers, and other special events are continually listed on Chez Nous' website.
Our rating: 1 mug, Run away; 2 mugs, Yawn; 3 mugs, Cheers; 4 mugs,
"I'll be back"; 5 mugs, "Round's on me!"
Your rating: You can rate Chez Nous at www.berkshireeagle.com/The413.
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