There is a sense of history and timelessness to downtown Amherst - similar to how one feels after bumping into an old friend, or finding a dust-covered picture album. It's a college-town with a rich history and (mostly) liberal population. A large green lies at it's center, surrounded by buildings that foster education, religion, and food. During the spring and summer, many events are held on the green (and surrounding parking lots) - everything from festivals to the excellent farmer's market. Old, towering trees provide a large shaded area through the end of summer, upon which beautiful New England foliage bursts into life.
Although 26-story buildings loom overhead in near-by UMass, most of the surrounding area consists of farmland and 150-plus year-old homes. Down the road is your typical sprawl, offering big-box shopping and entertainment, but it doesn't stand-up to the rich history and culture of the area. Supermarkets provide year-round service, but almost everyone shops at the farm-stands which offer superior products at better prices (in-season of course).
Chez Albert has a small front facing the town green and it's entirely possible to walk by without notice. The location used to be an old bank, and the first thing you notice approaching the "Bistro" is it's large front windows. The front door leads you to a quaint dining room filled with rich woods, soft metals, and natural light. There are perhaps ten small tables, almost always filled except for one - the one you reserved. The kitchen is open to the small dining room, and the entire restaurant undergoes constant waves of great aromas - whatever happens to be on order at the time. Behind the old counter separating the kitchen from the patrons is a giant bank vault, it's elaborate door open, it's contents a mystery... (but likely wine and supplies I suppose). Specials are scribbled high above the counter on boards that butt the ceiling, and an eclectic mix of music streams from small black speakers.
Quality of service can vary, but when greeted by a well-fed jovial man with black-framed glasses, thick french accent, and large arm tattoo (the usual host) you are almost always ensured a great time. A big smile, big eyes, and open hands welcome you in from the downtown sounds, and there is a sense of common purpose beyond eating dinner - one of rest and relaxation. The tables are covered with a thin sheet of copper, folded and secured at the corners. A small candle is soon joined by a basket of great bread, and a ramekin containing white bean puree, rosemary, and olive oil. The bread is almost always warm with a crisp exterior and fresh, fragrant interior. The bean spread makes for a hearty amuse-bouche, or even a solid appetizer in and of itself. It's pleasing to receive good bread so often when I frequent this restaurant.
As the sun sets outside the lights are dimmed preserving the presence of natural light. Sometimes it's done excessively, but normally it's within reason. I rarely find myself having to tilt the menu or wine-list in search of just enough light to make a selection. The menu is seasonal, and everything fits on a single sheet of paper. Described as a French Bistro, I find the environment spot-on, but the menu a bit more diverse and reaching than the typical economy Blanquette de Veau or French Onion Soup. A strong Italian trend parallels the classic French dishes and technique. Chef Hathaway also includes many local ingredients - both common and expensive. He is often seen at the farmer's market come the first asparagus and Fiddlehead Ferns. Appetizers typically include a wide array of selections - from salads studded with dried cherries and duck confit to pumpkin soup with pepitas. You can get standard Escargots, or opt for my favorite - the sweetbreads served with a demiglace, frisee, and dollops of root puree. Appetizers are not to be missed - they are of high quality, and I've never eaten at Chez Albert without beginning my meal with one. A tasting menu consisting of two or three appetizers along with a dessert could be assembled for a light dinner, but I go to a "Bistro" to indulge after a long week of hard work, or even on special occassions (provided the right circumstances).
The wine list always includes many selections by the glass, so you can tailor your food accordingly. I almost always begin with a sparkling wine to excite my palate and wake up my taste buds - and It's often topped off as I progress from the fantastic bread through my appetizer. Entrees all seem to be based in French technique with the exception of the Risotto dishes. Many are classics, such as Beef Daube or "Bouillabaisse", but some just come across as great home-cooked meals executed with perfect technique. A simple piece of Haddock with Israeli Couscous, Swiss chard, and veloute. Pan-roasted pork loin with sweet potatoes and cider reduction. Obvious cross-culture dishes such as "Seafood Stew with Kale and Andouille" resonate with both the Mediterranean and South-Eastern New England - offering interesting choices for those who don't feel like the "usual" spread. The only entree I've found trouble with is the Steak Frites. The fries are wafer-thin, crispy, with no interior subtance. I'm sure they are intended to be served in this form, but they fail in filling that meaty french-fry appetite many have rumbling away when they order this dish. Traditionally frites are thin, but these are akin to those cans of potato sticks with the foil-top seal. That said, this small caveat in no way diminshes my confidence or desire when I view the menu. The portions are filling without being excessive to the point of boredom. I always feel like I've had just enough by the last bite. It's not pretentious food, it's something I would prepare at home on a day-off with hours at my disposal. I always feel free to order things I wouldn't at other places, because I know they won't be overcooked or brined to the point where they taste like some random piece of salty-sweet protein.
The desserts are hit and miss. Classics like chocolate mousse or creme brulee are always good, but tart-fruit dishes are usually failing proper balance. The lemon-curd and fruit coulees are almost always excessively acidic. Sometimes there are composition issues as well, such as one plate featuring rumpled phyllo dough that was baked, tossed on a plate, and then assaulted with a plop of the above-mentioned curd. No ammount of powdered sugar can cover that disaster up. But sometimes I'm quite impressed with the desserts, such as the fall day I was brought a warm ginger-cake with a strong vanilla creme anglaise. By the time I reach dessert, I'm normally so impressed with what I have eaten that I roll the dice and see what I get. As a standard prelude I norally have coffee with cream and sugar. This is brought to the table in a small French press along with turbinado swizzle sticks. It's almost dessert in and of itself, just like the bread fills the role of appetizer.
Chez Albert is my favorite Pioneer Valley restaurant, and one that deserves consideration if you're in the area. Even without a reservation, it's worth a shot to pop your head in and ask. Appetizers, desserts, and glasses of opened wine are typically $7-$10, and entrees are in the $20-$25 range. While it does have small faults and is a little more expensive than other restaurants in the area, you are almost guaranteed a fantastic meal that leaves you with a smile.