To quote that noted rock philosopher Paul Kantner, “Life is change, how it differs from the rocks.” (Of course, geological change just happens on a slower scale.) The Amherst dining scene is alive and well, changing with the times at human speeds.
On Main Street, CRAZY NOODLES has taken the place of MARY JANE’S breakfast place. Offering noodles in styles ranging from Mediterranean to Asian, Crazy Noodles is right on top of the latest trends in dining. Across the street, FRESH SIDE took over the space vacated by the late, lamented AMBER WAVES. Fresh Side did so well selling tea rolls, soups and other Thai- and Vietnamese-inspired dishes that earlier this year it moved around the corner, facing the Amherst Town Common. A couple of doors down, CHEZ ALBERT is successfully bucking the double trend of Asian cuisine and small dishes by running an authentic French bistro that’s so busy that you’ll want to make a reservation for almost any night.
But the biggest renewal story in Amherst is the Amherst Cinema building. Originally a stable, the Amherst Cinema closed some years ago due to complete neglect by its owner. A plan to renovate the theater didn’t work out, and the building remained vacant until developer Barry Roberts and architect John Kuhn came up with a new concept. In addition to a cinema, relocated to the back, the building would house office and retail space.
Early tenants had the advantage of getting space designed for them. AMHERST COFFEE was the first, taking most of the street frontage and quickly attracting a number of loyal regulars with not just coffee but single malt scotches, brandies and wine, along with a small selection of pastries, many from Amherst’s HENION BAKERY.
Kuhn Riddle Architects moved into the second-floor space, and the building began to fill up. Plans for a Mexican restaurant fell through, fortunately, because Emily Wadham and Adrian d’Errico opened the tapas restaurant TABELLA in the space instead.
d’Errico is an Amherst Regional High School graduate and a wine aficionado. Wadham became pregnant when they planned the restaurant and the birth of their child coincided with its opening.
For those not familiar with the concept, tapas are small dishes that are served with drinks in Spain. Tapas have become quite popular in the United States, since they allow you to graze rather than commit to a full meal and their variety provides something for everyone. Tabella offers some traditional tapas, such as garlic shrimp ($8.50), grilled chorizo ($5.50) and mixed olives ($5), as well as more contemporary dishes in the tapas style. Among the dishes that my friends and I have enjoyed are an orange curry crusted cod sprinkled with pistachios ($13) and pan-seared calamari with roasted red peppers, olives and shiitake mushrooms ($9). My friend Betsy tells me she’s never had a bad fish dish at Tabella. The meat is pretty good as well — offerings like organic leg of lamb with a mint pesto cr￨me fraiche ($19.50), a curry, grape and pistachio-spiked organic free-range chicken salad ($11) and grilled venison with an Earl Grey smoked pepper sauce ($15).
As you can see, the food at Tabella has some reach to it. The dishes are always tasty, and always beautifully arranged. The Moroccan chickpea fries ($7.50) arrive stacked like Lincoln Logs in a pool of chili aioli. The outer crunch quickly melts away into a cumin-spiked creaminess that is surprising if you were thinking french fries. The St. Louis ribs in chipotle/espresso barbecue sauce were clearly baked and not simmered into tenderness, but could have used a little more time in the oven. The phyllo roulade ($13), filled with sun-dried tomatoes, quinoa, Cheddar cheese and lentils, was great on its own and the accompanying tomato sauce was unnecessary. Fried green olives are stuffed with feta cheese and are crunchy and agreeably tart, but unless you are a big fan, you might want to include them as one dish for a large party.
The style of dining at a tapas restaurant lends itself to conversation and leisurely dining. You can order all at once if you have a movie to catch, but you can stretch out the evening. Order a glass of wine and a couple of dishes, eat those and then order something else. I am waiting for the warm weather to arrive so I can sit at the outdoor patio.
I asked my friend Kitty, a self-professed “wine guy,” for her take on the wine list. She went through it with growing enthusiasm. “Three Sauvignon Blancs, from California, France and New Zealand! It’s organized by varietal and the vintage is on the list,” she gushed. “I wonder how often they have to reprint it.” Her final opinion: It’s a great list, with some good bottles to be had for $30, which is not often easy. There are less expensive bottles on the list as well and glasses priced from $6 to $9. Kitty liked the Quivira Sauvignon ($9) and the Writer’s Block Syrah (also $9). I try to stay away from anything called Writer’s Block, but it certainly was a full-bodied Syrah.
Given the range of choices and the tendency to order “one more dish,” you’ll find yourself spending some money. One dinner for four, where we overate contentedly, with wine and desserts and tip, came to $45 per person, which is not out of line for one of the better restaurants in the area.
Trying to get Northamptonites over the bridge is hard work and it’s likely to get even harder during the next year of Route 9 road construction. However, I’ll stack the Amherst Cinema’s stadium seating and great indie movie choices with a pre- or post-movie dinner at Tabella against anything Northampton has to offer.
Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, June 01, 2007