This is a relatively new place in Northampton, opened up by the owner of Cha Cha Cha, and everything that bugs me about Cha (chilly ambience, loudness, too bright and "brittle" feeling, but great food)has been remedied here.
To be clear -- it's a different sort of restaurant, much more upscale with a far more adventurous menu and appealing to people in search of intriguing food ideas. A bit hard to find -- tiny street sign, you enter through the Michelson Gallery door then take a series of doors and stairs before you're actually in the place -- it is located in the basement of an old bank, and in spite of no windows and concrete walls feels remarkably intimate and cozy. Enough about the visual aesthetics, all of which are very nice, let's talk FOOD!
The spring roll appetizers were exceptionally fresh and "green" tasting filled with a great balance of mango and bitter greens and a sweetplum/vinegary dipping sauce with just enough of a fiery edge to make things interesting. Other raves at the table were the "Lively Greens" salad, and the roasted beet and orange salad. One quibble -- the Caesar salad, while supremely satisfying and flavorful, was presented as a standing up "bouquet" of sorts -- whole romaine leaves stood on end and wrapped in a cucumber strip, secured with a skewer -- visually stunning but a little unwieldy to deconstruct and actually consume.
My entree was the Chilean sea bass -- a toothsome filet perched on top of a bed of luscious wasabi mashed potatoes and a sprinking of stir fried savoy cabbage. Puddled around the plate was a thin sauce that I'm guessing (should have asked -- D'oh!!)was tamarind/sesame based and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. It was a perfect balance of soft, silky, crispy, crunchy textures and buttery, tangy, sweet, sharp flavors in a portion size that was just right. Other hits around the table were the sirloin topped with a vidalia onion chutney of sorts and a wasabi cream sauce (yes, they like their wasabi here, but they use it well!)
Desserts are straightforward, geared toward tummy comforting yumminess. As I deconstructed the meal for a friend later in the evening, he commented "The miniature sugar cookies on the creme brulee were your favorite, right?" I asked him how he had guessed and he replied "I've never heard anyone actually purr the word 'cookie' before."
A few things I really liked about this place:
1.) Competent, friendly and efficient staff who were appropriately unobtrusive.
2.) We did not know that they only had a seasonal liquor licence and therefore had not BYOB'd, but our waiter scored us each a glass of wine from some stash out back -- on the house. Wasn't great wine, but was a really nice touch.
3.) While the food is complex and artful, I did not once feel as though any one in the kitchen was shouting "Hey look at me!!"
4.) Portion sizes were just right. There was not a single plate on our table that had not been completely licked clean, but we all walked out of their feeling very well fed without having tipped over into thatterritory of "I think I'm gonna die!"
5.) The room is well organized, plenty of space between tables and a very comfortable noise level.
I was really prepared to be cynical about this place, figuring it to be a pretentious "boite" with aspirations to a degree of hipness I do not happen to fully apreciate, but I've gotta say that they have really done it right here. Other diners ranged from a table full of banker types to couples and four tops of completely normal casual folks who clearly love good food. No showing off here, just a quiet confidence borne of a well designed menu, perfectly executed technique, helpful and non-invasive service and a warm ambience that draws it all together.
So please try it and let me know what you think!!