Prairie Whale, A New Hangout in Great Barrington
Lots of restaurants in the RI region profess to be farm-to-table. And like so many of their well-intentioned customers, they keep the faith whenever they can, which is to say, when it isn’t too ruinously inconvenient, expensive, or arduous. Now Prairie Whale (formerly called Bell & Anchor, the name changed for trademark issues), a new restaurant brought to us by the formerly Brooklyn-based star restaurateur Mark Firth, has joined the fray.
“This is not fancy food,” Firth assures me on a tour of the kitchen one recent afternoon. “It’s the stuff you really want to eat every night but may only get around to making at home once a year at Thanksgiving.” That it takes the combined efforts of three talented cooks (head chef Stephen Browning, sous chef Dan Studwell, and pastry chef Megan McDiarmid, all of whom relocated to Berkshire County to work with Firth), plus the owner’s tireless dedication to sourcing (and schlepping!) local ingredients, explains why locavore perfection proves to be so elusive. Pointing to a tray of roasted turnips that look plenty good enough to eat as is, Firth asks his sous chef, “What are you going to do with those?” His reply, “They’ll get an apple cider glaze.” Ah, just the boost a prosaic turnip needs to propel it heavenward.
Firth, an affable, good-looking 40-something who grew up first in Zambia, then South Africa before decamping for boarding school in England, is renowned for taking the mickey out of adventurous modern cuisine. One of the places in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where he first made his name, still in operation under his former partner, is called Diner because it is one—and a downright funky example of the genre, at that. Diner looks like the sort of place the Joad’s might have stopped for a stack of wheats and a cup of java on their way out west. Yet its artfully downtrodden ambiance is belied by the enlightened modern menu. Seasonal and locally sourced, specials change daily and everything on the menu is a special except for the first-rate burger and fries. Those are present nightly because, well, we all have those nights when we’re not up for enlightenment. And nightly is approximately as often as Firth would like to see any given guest. His aim always is to build a hang-out and with Prairie Whale he seems to have hit the nail on the head. Evidence my husband’s comment on opening night: “I wish we had a place like this near us.” And we hadn’t even seen the menu yet.
The decor is pub-like and casual, as if a bunch of guys got together and, using mostly recycled materials, built themselves a clubhouse—more or less what occurred. Before Firth bought it, the building had been the longtime home of the Country Dining Room, a world-class resource for antique tabletop accoutrement—Limoge oyster plates, sterling silver asparagus grippers—and the ambiance had been intractably ladylike. Not a trace of that remains; Firth’s redo, overseen by the architect Gaetan Lachance who co-owns Broken Hill Manor b&b in Sheffield, is all boy. Even though the midnight blue paint is barely dry on the formerly yellow exterior clapboard, the place inside and out looks as if it has always been this way.
In contrast, the menu is full of breaking news. A beet salad starter uses beets as a foil—as a pickle would be—for other textures and tastes—peppery salad greens dressed with horseradish creme fraiche, a couple of oversized “croutons” that are actually cooked lamb’s neck meat formed into tidy patties and rolled in something crunchy, then fried. Those cider-glazed turnips arrive at table beneath a pile of tender, lightly sauteed kale on a plate anchored by a chicken leg and thigh that have been crisped beneath a weight, resulting in skin that’s admirably brown and meat that’s still delicately moist. The grass-fed cheeseburger (with optional homemade mayonnaise, no less) and fries are straight out of a comfort-food dream. At this point, nearly everything is locally sourced, but Firth refuses to over-promise in that regard, “much as I aspire to it. Especially as winter draws close and the local produce dries up. We are just trying to do the best we can with what is available.”
Firth, who tried giving up the restaurant game when he moved with his family to a Berkshire County working farm a few years ago, also swears he’s being honest when he says he “told no one that we’d be opening tonight.” Then how did all these people find out? There isn’t even a sign out front yet (it’s still being vetted by the town fathers), and the place is hopping. Firth’s pretty wife Bettina Schwartz, pitching in as needed while the waitstaff gets its choreography down, says with a laugh, “It’s Farmers’ Night Out.” No kidding. At one table, Equinox Farm’s Ted Dobson goes head-to-head with Farm Girl Farm’s Laura Meister (both center at right). At another, Moon on the Pond’s Dom Polumbo, who had blown in earlier proffering a be-ribboned bouquet of celery (above), holds forth. It seems as if everyone in the joint already knows everyone’s name.
How do you build a “Cheers” in one day? What do we know? Ask Mark Firth. — Marilyn Bethany
Prairie Whale (formerly Bell & Anchor)
178 Main Street
Great Barrington, MA
Open Sunday, Monday & Thursday, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Closed Tuesday & Wednesday