How often can a person fall in love? Casanova and Don Juan managed it almost daily, it seems; Juliet and Desdemona only once. Perhaps the proper question should be "How often should a person fall in love?" for then the answer might be "as often as necessary for an individual’s psyche to thrive." I’m in love, today, with a restaurant in my city. I drive by when she’s closed, just to look at her. I’ve been inside her four times, once on a private tour with the owner when the place was still under construction, and three times for her food. Much of what impressed me during that private pre-opening tour still impresses me, but the food, ah, the food has carried my heart along singing.
Spice, still not entirely completed, is serving up the sort of meals - and in the sort of atmosphere - that kept me in New York City for the majority of my adult years. A good, capable restaurant only needs a single meal to qualify it as good, but a great place needs much more, a visit-revisit at least. I’ve now had three chances to indulge the whims of chef Douglas Luf and, tasting the food on the plates of seven other friends as well, know the portions I praise.
First, a word about the place itself. Located at 297 North Street, and taking nearly half of the block north, it is large enough to hold a small army, but designed to only feed a single regiment. It is gracious, spacious and it rambles through historic halls. The dining room takes up the entire southern sector with one half of its elegant bar inside the dining room. Tables are spaced in such a way that you can see and recognize your neighbors, but you cannot hear their conversations. Seats, banquettes and booths, highlighted by the Housatonic painting by Gabriella Senza are comfortable, which is a good thing as your meal might take two hours or more. That, by the way, is a good thing. You are not rushed through the experience, but you are never deserted by the staff, once they start working with you.
The bar extends past the large, open archway into the bar and lounge area, snaking its way across, back and across again. Small banquets are possible in the front area. Through the next archway is an extraordinary room containing a wide variety of comfortable seating areas, including the largest conversation pit in three counties. And then there are the bathrooms, another dining hall, or party room and there are more rooms yet to come. So, now you know the layout, and the basic look. It is dark, light, glamorous, expensive. You meet Spice, and you know she is not some cheap date. You’re hand in hand with quality.
On my second evening there one friend, after taking in the entire evening - almost three hours - remarked, "If this place was in New York, I’d be there at least three times a week." I repeated that comment to one of the owners, Larry Rosenthal, who quipped, "If this place was in New York, she couldn’t afford to eat there that often." In both cases a testament to quality (that word again - be prepared to read it more times below) and a key to what makes this such a fine dining experience.
Let’s discuss Spice’s cuisine: "familiar food with a twist" says the menu, and what that means becomes clear immediately. Familiar foods have been transformed by Luf into things both tempting and unusual for Pittsfield’s newest menu. I should say menus - plural - because right now there are two, the Lounge and the Restaurant. My first visit brought me samples from the Lounge menu. It was delightful enough to entice me back to the restaurant. I don’t want to spoil the surprises that await the individual pallate, but five items on this bill of fare must be discussed.
First the "Roasted Chicken Drumsticks," a taste treat bar none. Fat, juicy and covered in a honey-lavender glaze they both whet and satisfy the appetite. Not sweet, they way many honey glazes can be, this has a floral pungency that surprises and titillates and satisfies, all at the same time. Add to this "Bambi in a Blanket", venison sausage in a fine crust, baked and served with Spice’s own maple yellow mustard sauce and you already have a fine idea of what else the Lounge has to offer.
"Lobster Filled Deviled Eggs" are truly to die for. "Lobster and Scallop Flat Breads" made with bacon, spinach and creme fraiche make an excellent combination with the "Moroccan Lamb Meatballs" served with a lively cucumber-yogurt dip. It would be easy to indulge in a light, pre-theater meal of just these five items, ordered for the table and shared. None of these, individually, costs more than $13 per portion.
In the Restaurant, none of these items are generally available. While I was initially annoyed about that, for I wanted friends to sample some of these items, the Restaurant’s own selections are equally intriguing and satisfying. You should start, as I did, with the "Wild Mushroom Toad in a Hole", a hybrid dish with an egg custard, bread, sauce and perfectly cooked mixed wild mushrooms. This palate-teaser sets up an evening of indulgence that needs to be balanced, somehow, with a good wine (and the list here is a fine one). An alternative I have already enjoyed is Luf’s "Scallop and Charred Melon Gazpacho," a cold soup made with ceviche-style scallops surrounded by a sweet tomato soup, lightly spiced and flavored with the innards of a baked fruit which complements the acidity of the tomatoes, the texture of the shellfish and accent of cilantro and lime. Both of those starters cost $8.
Alternatives to the above include a "Roasted Beet and Local Goat Cheese Terrine" served on a bed of tangerine and endive salad. It’s the same price and must be tried at some point. Luf and owner Joyce Bernstein have resolved to use as much local produce as possible in creating the dishes for Spice and this is one dish that displays the results of that choice, using the finest Berkshire Chevre in creating the terrine. It’s a taste treat I won’t soon forget.
A "blast from the past" in the Ladies Room at Spice; a Besse-Clarke elevator found during construction.
The entrees are beautifully presented, fabulous to look at, and to smell (oh, those aromas), and consistently different on the tongue. There is no way to confuse one dish for another here, nothing that overlaps in the creation of these familiar, but not familiar, dishes. There are two different beef steak platters, each prepared with unusual herbal accompaniments. The "Grilled New York Strip steak is served with Shaker butter and a rustic stuffed potato while the "Charred Hangar Steak," declared "perfect" by two different dinner companions, comes with hand-cut fries and a house steak sauce that has a light tang and hearty taste.
Three of my table-mates on these latter two visits enjoyed the "Macaroni & Maine Lobster," a dish you shouldn’t try to eat alone. While the lobster was shelled, succulent and resplendent, the macaroni with its spinach, bacon and chive cream sauce seemed to be inexhaustible. My own first dinner consisted of the "Spice Rubbed Center Cut Pork Chop" served with truffled tater-tots and onion jam. Here is a case of never believe what you read or overhear from someone leaving a restaurant, someone you don’t know. Pre-warned that the pork chop was too spicy to eat and that no one should be served fozen, packaged potatoes, I ordered it anyway. Well, if there’s a package of these potato tasties anywhere I’m stocking up. These are clearly an invention of Luf and his kitchen. They are soft, firm, spiced and sweet, delicately floured and quickly cooked. There is no grease, no aftertaste, no essence of anything other than good taste and culinary skill. And the chop is the best I’ve had in a restaurant anywhere outside of Durgan Park in Boston. Thick cut, lightly breaded with a delicious combination of warm spices - not hot - it is perfectly complemented by the onion jam, browned, sweet onions, deglazed from a dry pan and served in a honeyed ambrosia.
My other main course meal went in a totally different direction: "Grilled Lamb and Eggplant Sausage" served with a chilled, pickled cucumber couscous salad and a yogurt sauce. This proved to be a hearty, man’s meal with a delicate sensibility. I couldn’t have been happier with it. My next meal at Spice, I hope, will be their fabulous "Spiced Tomato-Saffron Fish Stew" with chorizo (sausage) and spring vegetables. I tried this on the first evening and I cannot wait to have one of my very own.
For the most part, desserts are still to come, but "Chocolate Oops" while small, is something you might want to order, and share in spite of its size. You’ll understand its name in the first bite.
The most expensive entree on the menu is $29 for the strip steak. The least expensive is $16. At these prices, about $50 per person for a two or three course meal with some wine, the evening out is affordable and absolutely worth both the time and the money.
When the food court and the take-out service open, later this year, I will be back to revisit what I’ve written and add a commentary on the final stages of Spice. For now, I’ll just go back whenever I can and enjoy what’s already there.
Spice is open for dinner Monday-Saturday, 5 to 10pm; the lounge is open Monday-Thursday 5-11pm, Friday-Saturday 5-11:30pm. They are both closed on Sunday. Reservations are usually necessary for the restaurant. 413-443-1234. They also serve kids portions at a unique price: $5 includes an entree, two side dishes and dessert.
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