This past Thursday night was a highlight of my time at Amherst; it will forever endure as a cherished memory.
At 6:30 p.m., my friend Marisa and I met outside Stone and marched into town, chattering excitedly as we strode through blustery gusts of biting wind that blew heavy, wet snowflakes into our faces and hair. We hiked across the park and past Fresh Side, CVS and Miss Saigon before finally reaching one of my favorite restaurants in the world.
Chez Albert is a small French restaurant and bar situated down Pleasant Street, one minute past CVS. In the bright and balmy months, they provide comfortable and casual seating outside; sitting inside in the winter months is a cozy escape from the bitter drafts of a raw Massachusetts winter. As we stepped inside, passing through the coatroom to reach the host, we began stripping away our scarves and jackets, already thawing from the frosty walk.
We requested a table for two, although we could have chosen to eat at the bar as well. Soon we were sitting at a candlelit copper table, pouring over the menu, exclaiming over each option and comparing the merits of all. After a few moments, Emmanuel, the host — whom I consider to be the face of Chez Albert — arrived to announce the specials, which included house cured salmon with horseradish beets ($12) and a hangar steak with roasted potatoes and tomato bordelaise ($26).
Emmanuel left us in a tizzy. Now we were entirely confused about what we wanted, but we had a plan. Rather than have the full meal of an hors d’oeuvre, an entrée and a dessert, we were going to try and share multiple appetizers, basically creating a meal of French tapas.
We startled Emmanuel as we began our order of six appetizers with no entrees in sight, but he quickly caught on and requested that we allow him to decide the order of our meal. I exclaimed, “Of course,” happily trusting him to make our meal unforgettable.
As we awaited our first course, Marisa and I delighted in nibbling on the simple sourdough bread and creamy white bean, rosemary and olive oil spread. This bread and spread are an unwavering staple of Chez Albert that I cherish. I’ve even tried to make it at home, with varying but hopeful results.
And then our meal was underway! Emmanuel started us off with our six oysters ($2 each) and the escargots a l’Albert ($9) that still bubbled and sizzled cheerfully. We started with the oysters, not wanting to sacrifice our taste buds to the heat of the escargots. Each oyster had been beautifully shucked, scraped and dressed with a simple mignonette sauce of vinegar, shallots and chives. We savored the mild bite of the sherry vinegar that mingled with the slightly salty brine of the oysters as the shallots added a soft sharpness. Too soon the oysters were finished, and we turned our attention to the escargots. I quickly popped the first escargot into my mouth, praying that I wouldn’t immediately regret my impatience. As I tenderly chewed the snail, I delighted in the rich flavors of garlic and olive oil. Soon I was dipping the sourdough bread into the leftover oil and garlic, hoping to collect extra pieces of the cooked garlic on my bread. As Marisa and I finished the last escargots, I almost wished I could order more.
While we waited for our second course to arrive, I praised the restaurant’s atmosphere, enjoying the various French posters, the low lighting that creates a greater sense of intimacy, the booths that can accommodate larger groups and the light fixtures that glow with beautiful engravings of cows, pigs and roosters. We felt comfortable, and almost as though we were at home, even though this was quite an occasion for us.
Suddenly, we were onto the next course, this one being frog legs ravioli ($11) and the special hors d’oeuvre of crispy chicken hearts and chicken livers ($12). I began with the ravioli and could barely stop myself from eating more than half. I had never had frog, but I can now say that I have and that I love it. The tender meat and fresh pasta melded perfectly with the hint of lemon zest, the saltiness of the capers and finely shaved Parmesan, the sweetness of the roasted cherry tomatoes and the slight bitterness of the watercress. I almost didn’t want to share, but then I did want to try Marisa’s crispy chicken hearts and livers, which she described as “better than bacon.” We traded plates, I pushed aside any apprehension about eating hearts and I dug in, dipping a piece of heart in the drizzle of port wine reduction. The candy of the wine mixed with the crispy salt of the batter and the wonderful, rich flavor of chicken. Marisa was right. It was better than bacon. I then tried the liver, this time combining it with the arugula and onion salad. The onion supplied a satisfying crunch and tang to the tender liver, acting as the perfect complement.
Now, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this meal, and I’m only halfway through… So, onto the next course. We finished with the Chez salad ($9) and the oxtail ($10). Emmanuel told us we would be fighting over the oxtail, and I think that I could fight for it. Tender strips of oxtail lay nestled atop sundried beets while supporting a generous dollop of mild horseradish. The meat melted in my mouth while the beets counteracted the edge of the horseradish with a bit of sugar. After a few moments of pure rapture, I thought to look at Marisa’s plate and noticed that her Chez salad was not as I had expected. As she soon explained, the Chez salad is not your simple salad but rather one topped with an egg and duck confit, which is crispy duck meat fried in duck fat and is also better than bacon. Needless to say, her salad was scrumptious, and I was surprised she even wanted to share, until I remembered that she was getting the oxtail in return.
Finally, we couldn’t resist dessert, and we couldn’t just get one. We shared the chocolate pot de crème, topped with biscotti, and a pumpkin-infused crème caramel, complemented by a sweet piece of French toast. We ate slowly, savoring the comfortable atmosphere and the delicious desserts and realizing that we were entirely stuffed. However, we still finished the magnificently creamy chocolate pot de crème and the light, refreshing crème caramel, and as we checked our watches, we realized that it was nearing 9:30 p.m. and that we had been there for three hours!
As we left, I realized that I could have stayed even longer. The joyful ambience of the restaurant, combined with Emmanuel’s exacting care for and gleeful presentation of our meal, as well as Marisa and my shared loved of food, had made for one of the most enjoyable dinners I have ever had. However, I also realized that this meal was an occasion. I cannot eat at Chez Albert whenever I want, and for that I am all the more thankful for each opportunity I have to dine there. I will be begging my parents to take me next time they visit, but for now I shall savor each memory of Thursday night’s meal.