Thursday August 2, 2012

NEW MARLBOROUGH -- My friend Nicole told me a bit about the Southfield Store where she works. I pictured a general store with a few pre-made sandwiches, coffee, and pie in the middle of nowhere. But she claimed that the place gets pretty hopping at night and often fills to capacity.

On Sunday I made the trip. The first thing I learned was that its location is hardly remote. Situated in the bucolic Southfield village of New Marlborough, I arrive at the Store 10 minutes after leaving downtown Great Barrington. The next revelation was that it's no dusty dry goods outpost or coffee-and-doughnuts gas station. It's a tastefully decorated restaurant and bakery with indoor and outdoor seating and a fetching menu.

Expect to be confused at first glance. There are rustic dining tables surrounded by Shaker chairs, a small bar lined with sleek Deco stools and top-shelf liquor, a coffee bar replete with espresso machine and Barrington Cof fee beans, a sandwich counter, and a refrigerated case full of decadent homemade pastries.

"I'm dining alone tonight," I told the waiter. "Should I choose a stool at the bar." I had no plan of hogging a four-top alone while a line formed out the door. "No," he replied. "Just pick any table you want."

He cleared three of the place settings and left me with a feast-worthy table. Before glimpsing the menu I was struck by the tasteful 1930s New England furnishings and décor. The building was erected in 1931 and housed a general store and post office for decades. Aside from a few mechanized hints of modernity it still looks as if plucked from that era. The warmly worn tables, simple but elegant bar, and high windows letting in a summer breeze are not replicas. It's an authentic Edwardian setting offering a traditional (though creative) New England menu with some exotic additions.

Co-owner Meredith Kennard and her husband, Peter Platt, have owned New Marlborough's Old Inn on the Green, wearing Zagat's ‘Best in the Berkshires' crown, since 2005. Pratt serves as executive chef, before which he helmed Wheatleigh's renowned kitchen. Pratt recruited fellow Wheatleigh veteran Gustavo Perez, originally of Oaxaca, Mexico, to oversee the Southfield Store's kitchen when Kennard and Pratt purchased the building in 2006.

The couple built a bakery in the back of the Store which provides fresh pastries daily for the Old Inn, Rubiner's Cheesemongers and Grocers in Great Barrington, and those clever enough to arrive at the Store early in the morning.

Opening at 7a.m. seven days a week, the Store also offers egg dishes and gourmet breads. During the lunch hours of 11a.m. to 3 p.m. hot and cold sandwiches are made to order. Dinner seats at 5:30, which is exactly when I arrived. "Get there early," Nicole warned. "The tables fill up fast."

I'm glad I listened. While there was extra room when I arrived, the restaurant was packed by the time I paid the check. Judging by stylish clothing and celebratory banter of the other diners, I deduced that the Store is a nighttime hub during the summer.

The dinner menu is small but attractive, speaking to my two gustatory passions: Mexican and New England cuisine. Appetizers run the gamut from an Asian plate with salmon sushi and tempura vegetables to duck confit flautas (excuse me while I swoon). These generous small plates are priced between $8 and $14.

Entrees, all priced in the low $20s, reflect equal creativity and hearty appeal. marinated pork chop with roasted garlic potato puree, Swiss chard, and served au jus made flirtatious eyes at my stomach, but the petite tenderloin with gnocchi, mushrooms and seasonal vegetables did more than just flirt.

The flautas combine rich, moist duck meat with crispy Mexican tortilla, avocado dressing, and onion salsa as if France and Mexico married years ago. This creative union is simply beautiful in flavor and texture, the ingredients noticeably fresh. My two flautas were filling and could easily be split by a couple.

The tenderloin was even better. Far from "petite," it was a hearty steak dinner with steamed root vegetables and flavorful juice. Robert, the amiable waiter who kindly indulged my many questions, never asked how I wanted the steak cooked. This is clearly because chef Perez has a keen sense of meat temperature. Some where between medium rare and medium, it was soft but not chewy, dripping with juice and flavor.

When I return it will be for Thursday's Oaxaca Night. I'm eager to see what Perez accomplishes with his native cuisine. Or maybe I'll just nurse a cocktail at the bar. The impression I get is that the Southfield Store is, from dawn to dusk, a crowd-pleaser for local regulars and out-of-towners alike.

When you go for dinner arrive early or make a reservation -- because, as Nicole said, the restaurant really does fill up fast.