Preservation Society Pays Homage to Simple, Sublime Food
By Nichole Dupont
The relaxed, library-esque quiet is almost inconceivable, especially knowing what’s going on on the other side of the wall. But that’s just part of the magic of Preservation Society, located on the south side of the bustling Route 7 Grill in Great Barrington, MA. I’m sure there were large parties of five or more, I’m sure that the bar was pretty packed with folks just getting off work, but I heard none of it in the wood-walled seclusion of the reservations-only, cozy 12-seat dining room and raw bar. The space is the brainchild of the Grill’s head chef Christophe Jalbert, who had a hand in building the tastefully sparse space, including the highly lacquered bar/expo kitchen area complete with a built-in, repurposed copper kettle drum used to house oysters on ice.
Chef Jalbert also builds the menu every week—Preservation Society is open Thursday-Monday with seatings at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.—which includes a raw bar, rich charcuterie options and a menu of either five ($100) or three courses ($65) as well as an extensive wine list heavy with higher-end options like Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc and Catena Malbec and several dozen in between.
The atmosphere is elemental—white tablecloths, bulbous wine glasses, sturdy flatware—and deliberately allows for the focus to be on the eats. On this particular night, the raw bar/charcuterie included Wellfleet oysters ($3), ceviche, salmon tartare, gaufrettes with greens and bresaola served with orange, fennel and frisee ($12). I chose the latter, intrigued by the combination of citrus and crisp fennel and thin strips of salted beef, which was surprisingly mellow when they all hit the palate in unison.
Throughout the two-hour meal (be prepared to languish, and for god’s sake bring something to talk about and someone who likes to talk), the motif of unlikely pairings and textures was a delight. Part of the fun of languishing and taking your time with the five courses is watching the chef prepare each course at the expo kitchen behind the varnished bar. With just two small burners and a narrow counter space, Jalbert carefully curates each dish, swirling olive oil over sweet tomatoes, shaving Parmigiano so that it drops into the right spaces. Nothing he does is without purpose, and every ingredient he uses is at the prime of its season somewhere on land or at sea.
Our entrée arrived and at one point, after his first bite of the spit-roasted beef tenderloin, my date was, in fact, speechless.
“It’s like it’s been wrapped in bacon,” he whispered between chews of the buttery beef, surrounded by crisp Japanese turnips, a potent garlic puree and a hint of preserved lemons, which cut through the natural sweetness of the dish at just the right moments.
While he mowed shamelessly and silently on the tenderloin, I attacked the monkfish cheeks. Perhaps this needs some explanation, as you might be envisioning two sad little slivers of fish face on a giant charger. The monkfish is a monstrous creature, known for its freakishly large head which is so big that the rest of its body is referred to simply as ‘the tail.’
The dish that sat before me was a near-softball sized mound of tender, smoky fish. Chef explained that much of what is prepared at Preservation Society is first wood grilled or spit-roasted out back then brought into the small exposition space for final preparation. I watched him simmer the fish in a citrus broth laced with cardamom and coriander, the smell alone transforming the entire dining room into a spice market in a far-off land. Because of this voyeuristic opportunity, the first bite was met with anticipation. And it was savory, tangy and devoid of the fishy taste we all brace ourselves for on these seafood adventures, thanks to the simple science of the grill.
I know that the entrée should be the superstar of the meal. But as dessert made its way to us, looking like something out of a magical Dr. Seuss tale, it was difficult to really name the course that shone brightest. The swirly, melt-on-your-breath lemon tuiles, held together by a rich (not runny, hallelujah) vanilla custard and topped with fresh blueberries, rendered us silent. The flavors capture what is left of the summer, and honor a way of eating that we’ve missed in the hustle and flow of, I’m gonna say it, modern America. Preservation Society is gracefully twisting our arm to sit down, and taste everything that we think we’ve tasted before, but didn’t have the time to notice.
999 Main Street (South side of the Route 7 Grill)
Great Barrington, MA 01230
Thursday-Monday, seatings at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.