Let them eat soup: French fare for the masses in Amherst
Perched atop North Pleasant Street in the center of Amherst is a veritable jewel of a restaurant. It is inconspicuous in its architecture, sandwiched between stores, allowing its prestige and clientele to speak for it. That restaurant is Chez Albert, a Parisian bistro in the middle of western Massachusetts.
On a chilly Friday evening, the staff was bustling and the place was packed. That’s not too hard for the location, which is smaller than a single in Sylvan and about as pricey. After getting a table, the server poured water and it was time to take a look at the menu.
For such haute cuisine, it was surprising to discover that there was, for one, a short and rather unimpressive wine list, and an apparent electricity moderation as well, with sparse lighting that comes off as Cretaceous rather than creative. Thus, this allowed very few options to imbibe while waiting for the food in the dark.
Deciding on the moderately priced French onion soup, $9, and the butternut squash soup, $8, was no challenge. However, the entrées went up from there. There is no prix fixe menu or middle ground, as the most economical entrée from thereon out is a paltry $23, which may be reasonable for dinner with parents, but college students can get a far better value elsewhere.
The bowls came out relatively quickly. The French onion soup was served in a rather rustic and simple style, in a classic soup crock with a small handle. It was warm and hearty, but unfortunately, those were its only merits. The onions, though plentiful, were stringy and tough, and soaked into the beef broth, imparting a flavor devoid of any other notes due to the intensity of the allium cepa. French onion soups usually include cream or cheese based toppings to cut the tang of the onion’s taste and mix in a different savory flavor. Nothing like that in this one, merely a bruschetta-sized baguette with more of a gruyere confetti than topping that quickly soaks up the soup, rendering it inedible.
The butternut squash soup fared for the better, with a multi-layered flavor from the crème fraiche and the pumpkin seeds. It was a delightful dance of spicy and sweet, indulgent and earthy, and large enough to serve two for a starting amuse bouche. If Chez Albert serves dishes to this level and depth, it’s no surprise that they’re so successful.
The dessert menu is dismally small. For such a creative array of main courses, it seems like the chef ran out of ideas while starting on pastries. Featured in the restaurant are desserts rehashed to retirement in stereotypical French cuisine – a plain crème brulee, tart tatin, what have you, but not necessarily representative of France itself. The crème brulee was fine, with a lovely but thick caramelization of sugar on top, requiring one to be more of a Charles Atlas than an Amélie when tapping it with a spoon to yield to the custard beneath. That being said, it’s a substantial portion, liberally dotted with vanilla bean seeds, and is a delicious, if uninventive finish to this small dinner.
Jess Watsky can be reached at email@example.com.