Best Bites: The Valley’s Best Dates

“Gastronomy” is one of my least favorite restaurant phrases. First of all, like “good wine” or “fine arts”, it is a snobbish expression, which implies that other restaurants are not doing well. (Antonyms for “good,” according to Thesaurus.com, include “bad,” “inferior,” and “ugly.”) Second, it describes a style of service more than the quality of food. I’ve had some of my worst meals at self-proclaimed “fine dining” restaurants with overly sophisticated cuisine and an awkward, stuffy ambience, and some of my best meals at simple, humble places that would never use words like ” good “. ”

There is, however, a special category of restaurants that take the service and food experience to the next level. They spend a lot more than your average restaurant on labor, ingredients and atmosphere, and you pay a lot more too – but they turn your meal into a special occasion. It’s not just dinner. It’s a date for dinner. In this context, I call these restaurants – or at least my favorites among them – “meeting spots”.

Here, I use “date” loosely: it could be a date night, or a family anniversary dinner, or a reunion of old friends, or a job promotion celebration, or even a date with yourself, a solo dining experience where you unwind over a sumptuous meal after a hard day’s work. Whatever the group or the occasion, the idea is to escape from the real world for an evening, in the hands of people who love what they do and whose cuisine and service transmit this love to you. .

Property, in the heart of Northampton town centre, is exactly that kind of place. Nowhere in Western Massachusetts will you feel more like a fashion-forward city dweller than in this sleek, warmly lit space, adorned with tasteful artwork and rustic wooden chairs, where you order from a menu filled with complex and exciting dishes. who have one foot in Italy and another in the local farms of the Valley of the Pioneers.

This kitchen does an outrageously good job with pasta – any pasta. The giant ricotta dumpling, with lightly spiced Italian sausage, tomato confit, rapini leaves and pine nuts has been my favorite dish here since it opened. Homestead’s version of spaghetti carbonara incorporates roasted garlic and dried egg yolk for a feast in your mouth.

It’s also hard to go wrong with protein. The meatballs get a delicious dose of ricotta salata (imagine if ricotta and parmesan had a baby) and fennel oil. Octopus with chicory, raisins and peppers is a fascinating mix of flavors and textures. Cocktails are an underrated force here – I love popping in for an early evening bourbon sour, expertly made with egg whites, as it should be.

Alina’s, Hadley. No one understands the old-world romance of a chic date better than Alina’s, where a lively bar divides two intimate, warmly lit dining rooms. One has a grand piano which is lovingly played three nights a week by local musicians like Ed Brainerd, who periodically blasts his trumpet at the piano bench. On Tuesdays, when most venues are closed, Alina’s not only offers live piano, but also a value-priced “date night” three-course meal for two, which includes a bottle of wine. .

My favorite way to start here is with a beautifully plated row of seared sea scallops in a deep mushroom reduction that reminds me of the succulent sauces of Switzerland or Austria. Another long-awaited appetizer is “Buonabocca,” with breaded mozzarella “pillows” stuffed with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes.

Here’s the difference between foodies and food snobs. Foodies celebrate any form of obvious delight, regardless of its origin. Food snobs like to avoid anything that isn’t “authentic.” Fettucinealfredo, an authentically American (rather than authentically Italian) dish, is a great litmus test for snobbery. Anyone who simply loves pure goodness will submit to Alina’s rich and creamy “spicy alfredo,” which incorporates chicken, sausage, shrimp and dried hot peppers into this children’s classic.

Still in the anti-snob vein, “Palermitana”, with angel hair pasta (aka “spaghettini” or “vermicelli”, a type of noodle that barely exists in Italy but is popular in Vietnam and has made its way into high-end Italian-American restaurants in the 1990s), green vegetables, garlic, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, raisins and red pepper flakes.

Alina’s deserves a shoutout for offering smaller, cheaper portions of some of its pasta dishes. This not only advances the cause of reducing food waste, but also saves some bellies that are easily tempted to overeat.

Watershed, in the magical Montague Bookmill, is your dream over the river and through the woods come true, a place where you can almost see the nymphs and satyrs darting in and out of the trees. Inside, old wooden beams frame a comfortable array of seating overlooking a tree-lined bend in the river. Outside you are by the river. Next door is Lady KillegrewCafé and Bookmill, which I wrote about in a previous column.

Come early in the evening if you want to choose the menu which, last time I went, included half a smoked chicken and jasmine rice risotto sprinkled with small diced vegetables; juicy, precision-cooked flank steak topped with chimichurri, creamy mashed potatoes and zucchini; and an excellent version of macaroni and cheese, made with cavatappi (like curly ridged macaroni), a little al dente, with just the right amount of creaminess.

Waxwing, in an unlikely location on Route 10 in West Hatfield, opened in early 2020. Brave move. But the fact that today you usually can’t get in without making a reservation several days in advance says a lot about what they’ve come up with through thick and thin.

This is a family-run restaurant, and the passionate chef-owners have transformed an old restaurant into a charming and elegant restaurant, with soft hanging lights, beautiful artwork, plants and old pasts. through the stereo. You can sit at a comfortable table or at the welcoming bar, from where you may be able to watch your meal being prepared and cooked. The staff maintain an incredible level of energy throughout the evening, and they permeate every inch of the space.

Your meal will start with an amuse-bouche, which can be a small cup of spectacular chicken broth or a small crepe with a dollop of homemade condiment. The menu changes seasonally and can include crispy oysters with kimchi and an excellent Caesar salad, well-executed pasta or the perfect schnitzel. The desserts are constantly changing, but they often include my favourite: ricotta with caracara orange marmalade and honey. The cocktails are unique and wonderful too.

30Boltwood is part of the Inn at Boltwood, Amherst’s fanciest hotel, but it’s no ordinary hotel restaurant. Under a covered outdoor porch there is a pleasant row of tables that have heat lamps to keep you warm in the cold as fall turns into winter. In the uncovered outdoor area there is even a fire pit. Inside, a classic bar towers over a trellis of oval-shaped semi-private banquette pods – equally terrific for a canoodling couple or a party of five. One of the most unique things about 30Boltwood is that it’s open on Mondays, when hardly anyone else is.

On my last visit, I was very impressed with an exceptionally rich and creamy Caesar salad, whose bouncy leaves are almost evenly coated in the satisfying crunch of breadcrumbs (micro croutons?). The clam chowder is thin but rich in milk, with lots of potato and flavor in the broth. Quinoa balls are what would happen if falafel and rice pudding had a baby they were raising in a curried yogurt nursery.

OsteriaVespa, also in Amherst, is right next to the Amherst Cinema with an ambitious Italian menu and pleasantly lively atmosphere that makes it a great hangout for dinner and a movie. The steaks are well-cooked to temperature, and the ground beef stewed penne (a fancy way of saying “bolognese”) hits just the right notes.

There are other great venues that I don’t have the space to cover in detail, including EasthamptonCalico, recently opened and still awaiting its liquor license. Further are Gill Tavernto Gill, and blue heron, in Sunderland, two beautiful places. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite upscale date restaurants that I’ve reviewed in a previous fried seafood column: legendary downtown Northampton. East side grill.

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