Route 7 Grill Comes of Age in Its 8th Year
It’s taken nearly eight years for the Route 7 Grill to become an overnight success. When Lester Blumenthal opened his restaurant south of downtown Great Barrington on Route 7 in 2006, he envisioned an updated version of the classic American roadhouse. A native of Brooklyn who’d been living in the Berkshires since the mid 1990s, he’d become friends with leaders of the local Slow Food movement—organic farmer Dominic Palumbo and cheesemonger Matthew Rubiner—so he decided that Route 7 would be a “farm-to-table” restaurant before that phrase became a culinary cliché. He settled on a menu that would be heavy on barbecue and smoked meats because he thought there was a niche for hearty, honest food that would appeal to working-class locals as well as food-savvy weekenders. “I wanted to create an environment where you might see the farmer who raised the beef for your burger or the carrots in your salad sitting at the next table,” he says.
Blumenthal was determined to do things right. He designed graphics with a hip but nostalgic sensibility. He hired Mark Mendel of Monterey Masonry to build a two-sided stone fireplace worthy of a Rocky Mountain ski lodge. He made partnerships with local pig farmer Paul Paisley and greens king Ted Dobson of Equinox Farm. He hosted community pig roasts to support Project Sprout, the student-run farm at Monument Mountain Regional High School. He got advice about sourcing from locavore chefs like Brian Alberg of the Red Lion Inn. He hosted monthly Green Drinks happy hours with Orion magazine. But the one thing he never did was hire a mature, well-seasoned chef who would revel in the challenges of updating the menu daily to reflect the seasonal bounty (or lack thereof.)
When Blumenthal hired Christophe Jalbert last summer, he finally had someone running the kitchen who not only shared his vision but also wanted to expand it. A native of Maine, Jalbert had learned to cook at Portland’s renowned Fore Street restaurant. He had worked as private chef for a demanding French family for several years, and he’d owned his own restaurants. “Christophe made changes right away,” says Blumenthal. “He insisted on baking our own brioche buns for the grass-fed burger and our pulled-pork and pulled-chicken sandwiches. He suggested we move the firepit to the lawn on Route 7 so passersby could watch us roast a whole pig. He became friends with the local farmers.”
Together, the men decided that, instead of being a restaurant focused on barbecue, Route 7 Grill should become a restaurant that celebrates cooking over wood, recasting the menu to include dishes such as poached lobster-and-Zehr mushroom risotto and house-made mozzarella panzanella salad (made with roasted red peppers instead of out-of-season tomatoes.) The epitome of the revised farm-to-table formula is the build-your-own charcuterie plate that has become the restaurant’s signature. Served on a handsome cutting board shaped like a pig, it includes a piquant pate (made with chicken liver from Abair Farm), silky cold-smoked salmon; a Long Island duck confit with a crispy, delectable skin; a housemade Merguez sausage (made from Mayflower Farm lamb); and crunchy, house-fermented sauerkraut; all of which is accompanied by buttery toast made from the house-made brioche.
Blumenthal (at right), who was severely tested when his Route 7 was completely flooded by Hurricane Irene in 2011, also changed his role in the day-to-day operation of the restaurant. He started bartending four nights a week, getting to know his customers in a new way and developing an appreciation for the challenges his staff faces in trying to deliver the best customer service possible. He was tutored in the art of mixing cocktails by Chris Weld, the founder of Berkshire Mountain Distillers, which is just down the road in Sheffield. A specialty of the house is the Old Fashioned ($7) sweetened with local maple syrup. He befriended the owners of Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield and now has three of their beers on tap. “The quality of the beer is exceptional, and if I forget to reorder, as I have been known to do, I can call them for a last-minute delivery,” he says.
With the encouragement of Jalbert (left), he decided to open the restaurant for lunch seven days a week and to offer a daily $7 lunch special that would attract diners who’d never eaten at Route 7 before. “As everyone knows, local food is more expensive, so we are really trying to make an effort to be accessible,” he says. Certainly, a locally raised roast chicken entrée for $18 is a bargain in locavore terms. A recent menu listed entrees ranging from $14 for a bacon cheeseburger with fries to a “spicy basil beef strip steak” for $34. It also included the now de rigueur mission statement plus an impressive list of 40 farms and other local food-and-beverage purveyors who supply the restaurant.
Route 7 Grill is not perfect—yet. Blumenthal acknowledges that the main dining room still is not cozy enough despite the mammoth wood-burning fireplace because the lighting is too bright. “We are going to work on cozying it up this winter,” he vows. It makes sense that someone whose vision was inspired by the Slow Food movement would have the patience and fortitude to allow his restaurant to evolve and mature organically. Now, after nearly eight years, Route 7 is a very good restaurant on the fast track to becoming a great one.
Route 7 Grill
999 Main Street, Great Barrington
Lunch Daily, Noon – 3 p.m.
Dinner Daily, 5-9 p.m; until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays