Cultivating Happiness at Bistro Le Gras

It was Friday, hot and humid, and I had my new wide-legged flare pants on and a date with my friend David to get food and hang out in Northampton, MA. Feeling kinda snazzy in my new duds and platforms—yes, I am a 48-year-old woman still wearing platforms (and still using the word snazzy)—I redirected his suggestion of sushi at the local okay place and lured him into the oft-praised Bistro Le Gras for something a little more special.

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve decided I don’t want to eat just anything anymore, I want to eat something good. Write one food review, and I’m a total snob. But it’s not about snobbery, is it?

I’m a divorced single mom with a chronic illness in her late forties (yikes, I know), which means my willingness to compromise my own happiness is limited. I am especially no longer willing to feel eh about experiences I cultivate myself. Eating is one experience I can control, and I want food grown with integrity, lovingly prepared and attended to, eaten with reverence, and enjoyed with friends. Eating this way promotes an overall wellness, in my opinion. Sure, hunger alone could drive me to a McDonalds or a family gathering might land me in an Applebees, but guaranteed I’ll feel like shit afterward. And I’m done feeling shitty.

I hadn’t been to Bistro Le Gras in several years, but they have a good reputation in the farm to fork community in western MA. The menu, a solid offering of relatively conventional fair, changes weekly, and they make everything in-house, applying their modern French approach to every dish, even when the dish is not typically French. I remembered an ambiance-rich little place with well-dressed servers, bottles of nice wine waltzing by, and people at the bar clad in casual but stylish clothes talking intimately with their friends over appetizers and glistening glasses, which totally appeals to me. Plus, I wanted a decent wine badly, and there are not that many restaurants in town with a good list, so this was one of my only choices.

David was game, and even though it was a little above our budgets and we were not out for a full-stop four-course meal, we sauntered over in the heat looking for some respite. Despite no reservations and the full bar at 7:30, we were quickly led to a small table in the corner, dark and close. No blast of air-conditioned air here, by the way. We were comfortable but still warm until we adjusted.

Since friends are an important part of the cultivated dining experience, let me introduce you to David, a friend I made post-divorce. He’s a seriously smart artist and writer turned coffee roaster with an odd wit and a sweet soul. We like each other a lot and even dated for about a week over a year ago. But what’s great about David and I is we are dedicated to building a strong friendship, so when we get together, it is always a pleasurable give and take whether we are wining and dining or out on an errand. While I was married, friends were hard to come by. My ex was an introvert who preferred his free time in front of the TV watching Hoarders and eating rolls of chocolate chip cookies. Unhappy wife that I was, I desperately longed for nights out on the town with good company. Sometimes when the kids were asleep, I’d sneak out and get a glass at the local bar just to remember what it was like. But it’s hard to sidle up to a stranger, and the wine was never great. All this to say, being here with David felt like a miracle if I used my old self as a gauge. Plus, he knows everything about wine and is officially my new tutor. He’s worked at vineyards in Oregon for years, and although his new thing is coffee (he’s about to launch Oddfellow Coffee), he’s like a walking wine encyclopedia.

Surprisingly, David rarely drinks, but he will sample mine, slurping and swishing with gusto, which always makes me laugh. I ordered a simple white burgundy from the Macon Villages in the southern Burgundy region of France: the Pascal and Mureille Renaud. Basically, it’s a chardonnay, and I’m not always a fan, but from that region, chardonnays are lovely. This was full-bodied, complex and bright. Normally about $17 a bottle, I enjoyed it as David and I swirled and slurped like pros. I ended up drinking two glasses.

Otherwise, we decided to keep things simple. David ordered the hamburger and pommes frites and I a basic salad and steamed mussels.

It seems to me if you’re going to order a burger and take in all those fats and calories, let them make you drop to your knees. This burger, made from dry-aged River Rock Farm beef from Westport, MA, was as close as I’ve had in a long time. With nothing to cover its nakedness but a little gruyere and a hint of Dijon, the meat, perfectly seasoned and medium rare,  became the star. That first bite, Oh My God!! I’m sure I groaned. I’m a true believer in the soft-bunned burger over a towering hard roll so many places use for the ooohs and ahhs. Those buns are almost always dry, too chewy, and way too big. Our mouths are not that wide, people! This brioche bun was so soft and doughy, it sank into the meat. The frites, unfortunately, not so good–more like potato sticks than fries. I like the feel of soft potato in my mouth.

My salad consisted of a plate of lush greens (I’m sure from a local garden. This time of year, local salad greens throb with freshness) dressed in a white wine vinaigrette. I think this was a typical French vinaigrette because it’s the same I had in restaurants in France—made with white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and sometimes shallots. The combo of Dijon with white wine vinegar gives the dressing a pop, almost like a sharp cheese has been shaved into it. With such basic ingredients, you’d think everyone would make this vinaigrette all the time, but no. We’re a nation of ranch dressing lovers, and it must stop.

And the mussels—each open shell revealed a decadently plump, if not shy, inner self. Shy because it was like they had been talked into coming out of their shells wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Steamed in a light white wine and butter broth, it’s shellfish like this we crave, buttery and a little squishy. David and I go out for mussels quite a bit and were lamenting all the mediocre mussels we’ve eaten after trying these.

And then–the homemade coffee ice cream. I think coffee and ice cream are David’s two favorite things, so how could we not? Truthfully, I dreamed about this ice cream that night. Dark with coffee and smooth with cream, it made you just want to give everything up. What’s the point of making anything when this coffee ice cream exists in the world?

Our food was pricier than what you’d normally pay in a lesser restaurant but worth it. Bistro Le Gras matched our back-to-basics order with elegant simplicity that let the high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. And they treated us well. We walked away with a bill of about $80, though $22 of them were for my wine, which doesn’t count in my book. (My solution to spending that much in one go is filling the rest of the week with salad greens and French vinaigrette, locally grown tomatoes in season and other lovely and cheap things from the farm stand.)

By the time we left, Northampton was draped in night, and it had cooled. We walked through town slowly and silently reveled under the lights. My pants and platforms still lit me up, but I felt less sassy than earlier, more contained, grounded. The company, the food, and the wine made me long for nothing else.



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