Gramercy: Relaxed grace

Chef and owner Alexander Sandy Smith cooks at Gramercy Bistro in its new location at Mass MoCA, within the museum s mill campus.

Thursday May 20, 2010

NORTH ADAMS - It was Saturday night, and Mass MoCA beckoned. On stage at the Hunter Center was the puppet performance "Disfarmer," the tale of a reclusive small town photographer. The idea and images looked intriguing and offered an opportunity for a preshow dinner at Gramercy Bistro, recently transplanted to the sprawling North Adams industrial campus. Chef/owner and Vermont native Alexander "Sandy" Smith owned the popular Cobble Café and Mezze restaurant (with former wife Nancy Thomas) and Wild Amber Grille in Williamstown before opening Gramercy Bistro nine years ago across the street from Mass MoCA. Gramercy catered to a mix of loyal fans, local diners, and the occasional tourist that would venture out from the museum.

But steady growth over the past decade soon overtaxed the restaurant and its tiny kitchen.

"My old space was bulging at the seams," said Smith. "I was turning people away."

When the new larger space became available, the move, he said, was an easy decision.

Dining room capacity has since doubled from 40 to 75, with 25 more seats on the patio in the summer.

The addition of lunch and Sunday brunch required Smith to take on more staff, and his wife, Sarah, runs the front of the house.

With more space, more shifts and employees, and an expanded wine list, "our hands are full," Smith said. A self-described traditionalist, he updates classic dishes with French and Asian influences. Bistro standards like coq au vin and rack of lamb sit alongside crispy belly of wild boar and sweet breads au beurre noir. His summer menu highlights seafood and grilled fresh vegetables, and he supports local and independent farms and buys organic farm-raised meats.

His signature dish of sesame seared tuna, he said, has been with him for a long time.

"Every time I've taken it off the menu, the customers have demanded that I put it back on," he said.

In the restaurant, new light wood flooring set off caramel colored walls, crisp white tablecloths and jeans-clad waitstaff.

Landscape paintings hang on the walls as a benefit for the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.

The outlook onto the museum's entry courtyard of brick buildings punctuated with trees (both upside down and right way up) gave the restaurant a relaxed urban feel, without noise, crowds or traffic.

Prompt attention delivered delicious and not-too-Spicy Thai mussels, easing out of their shells into a savory red curry coconut broth spiked with plenty of refreshing cilantro. The remaining soup was spooned up to the last drop.

A spinach salad topped with thin apple slices, blue cheese and walnuts came fully dressed with a fortunately good balsamic vinaigrette. The coq au vin was everything it should be. Dark meat falling off the bone, rich wine sauce, strips of chewy mushroom, and the perfect roasted whole onion, served with egg noodles and firm slender haricots verts green beans.

Our server warned us that the paella plate was very hot - too hot perhaps for the tender seafood which lay chewy amid the petits pois on an afterthought of yellow rice. Super-salty chorizo sausage and a shock of hot sauce drove me to gulp a very drinkable Corbières red wine, a modest selection tucked away on an otherwise extravagant list.

Service for the nearly full, mostly pre-show seating was prompt enough to clear diners in time to enjoy an exceptional, unique performance of skilled puppetry, which captured mid-century America with evocative music, intricate scenarios and thoughtprovoking narration.

After viewing an exhibit of Disfarmer's portraits, we returned to the restaurant through the cool night air for coffee and dessert. Warm jazz music played softly in the background; bold French press coffee arrived in an elegant silver pot, and the melted sugar crust topping our crême brulée custard shattered with a deft tap of the spoon.

Flourless chocolate torte and mascarpone cheesecake topped the slim dessert menu - but perhaps not for long.

Always looking ahead, Smith mused out loud, "I think I'm in the market for a pastry chef."