Thursday May 24, 2012

LENOX -- We've gotten to the time of year when the outdoor seating becomes a key factor while evaluating dinner and nightlife options. Sometimes, this luxury even trumps things like quality and value; a mediocre meal enjoyed outdoors on a beautiful spring evening may go down better than an excellent one in a hot, overcrowded dining room.

And so many an unsuspecting visitor to Lenox has probably been lured over to Alta by way of its covered patio, offering open air and ample shade. But happily, the place offers a combination of fine dining niceties and a casual, summertime air. It's a place to comfortably invite an out-of-town guest (or date) and impress without trying too hard.

To enter the restaurant, one walks across this front patio, on which sit a dozen tables, each perfect for a pair, but able to accommodate a slightly squished foursome.

Once inside the front door, a narrow hallway leads to the hostess station. On the left is a handsome bar with seating for about a dozen people, plus a couple tables. On the right is an opening toward the dining room, which at prime lunch and dinner times can be quite crowded.

The whole place very much feels like a converted house, and all the available space is used judiciously. It's a bad place to try to slip in silently and lay eyes on the scene before committing. By the time you're able to scope out the bar you've probably already been greeted by a friendly hostess or waitperson; to see the dining room you pretty much have to step into it.

Alta is an elegant, but unpretentious white-tablecloth affair, offering attentive service, an always smiling proprietor and an ample selection of wine, beer and spirits. The vibe would be welcome to someone looking for a night out in Lenox tilted toward the upscale; it's not unlike the bar scene at nearby Zinc Bistro, but with that venue's icy urban cool replaced by something warmer.

As you'd expect in Lenox village, the clientele often seems to lean toward the part-time resident or Tanglewood visitor, though the local professional class can pack the place at lunch, and a spectrum of diners was on hand during two recent visits -- women in bright summer dresses, men wearing casual polo shirts and the occasional twenty- or thirty something dressing to impress. (On a Saturday we nabbed a choice table outside right at the 5 p.m dinner bell; at 8 p.m. on an otherwise uneventful Mon day, the dining room was crowded with happy-looking diners, and there were perhaps just one or two open seats at the bar.)

It seems like the bar is more a place to sit and order from the bar menu than to hang out for its own sake, but I haven't seen it in action during peak weekend hours lately. Crucially, you must in fact sit at the bar if you wish to order from the bar menu, on which the expected hamburger is joined by a handful of items like the salmon quesadilla, cheese plate and prosciutto plate.

It seems there is no flexibility on this issue, even if a group of diners is ordering proper entrees but one has a real hankering for a burger. Bar items run from $11 to $14; the entrees are mainly in the mid-to-high $20's. Some of the bar items are on the main lunch menu, though, so it seems it is indeed possible to enjoy that burger out on the patio if you plan your visit for the right time.

A range of salads are available as well, with the Med iterranean salad a house favorite with an ample portion of toasted pistachios complementing the feta cheese, tomatoes and golden raisins.

The duck breast entree was hearty and tasty, served over polenta and asparagus. An upside down mushroom and leek tart is served with mixed greens from Equinox Farm. A dinner special of swordfish was topped with a mango salsa and looked delicious; my dinner companion wasn't offering, though, so I'll have to hope to catch that again on a future visit.

About a dozen red wines, and a similar number of whites, are available by the glass. Four themed wine flights are on the menu as well. The beer list is rather predictable, though the Bash Bish Bosh by Wandering Star Brewery of Pittsfield was available when we visited, and proved a light and tasty accompaniment to dinner al fresco. Four house cocktails round out the drink menu. 

Alta isn't a great option for dinner on a budget, or necessarily the place of choice for the singles' scene, but it is one of Lenox's signature restaurants and offers a warm, friendly experience in a fine dining environment. And if you can get a reservation out on the patio, there must be few greater places in town to linger over a glass of wine -- with plenty to choose from.