Olé Americana! Castle Street Café Still Its Ethereal Self
By Nichole Dupont
Castle Street Café has always been a mainstay of the Berkshire food scene, under the watchful eye of owner/Chef Michael Ballon. Every era must end, though, and a new one begin. That seems to be the way of things, especially now in Great Barrington, where new eateries and stores are popping up as quickly as they are quietly shutting down. There isn’t much about Castle Street’s exterior that has changed. It is under new ownership now, bought by Vern Kennedy — a tech CEO who also purchased the iconic Morgan House in Lee — and Chef Luis Zambrano (mastermind of the now-closed Viva, a tapas hub in Glendale, Mass.) now heads up the kitchen. Although the dining room is still under renovation, the long, “ethereal” bar is open and that was a relief walking in with my date, because we both needed a little magic. Also, I needed him to test out any red meat situation that looked interesting.
We caught a cozy little booth by the window (it was only 6:30 p.m., but the place starts to fill up around 7:30 p.m. or 8 o’clock in anticipation of the live jazz, which continues in the same vein as under Ballon). The place was already humming with Friday night feels. I sipped at a classic old-fashioned and my date ordered his usual, a root beer. The old-fashioned was solid, which is a high compliment for a bourbon drink coming from this Bywater bayou snob.
“Hmm. Strong,” I muttered, sinking back into my seat a little. “But not too sweet.”
The menu is not the three-page fanfare that perhaps regulars to the “former” Castle Street had become accustomed. What we were looking at was one page (Chef Luis Zambrano will debut a new menu every week), broken down into two simple categories: Smaller and Larger. The “smaller” section offered six choices, including more basic, seasonal fare like green apple and quinoa salad ($11), a rich garden soup ($8), and flatbread pizza topped with figs, ricotta and arugula ($15). The more adventurous aspects were duck-in-a-blanket (duck sausage and duxelles in a puff pastry with pepper relish, $13) and beef empanadas ($9). The duck truly called to me, but I was saving my adventure for “larger” and possibly for the dessert menu.
While there were only five options listed under the “larger” umbrella, both of us faltered a little when making a choice. Me because the duck confit pasta with mustard cream sauce ($20) appealed to several of my diet-related Achilles tendons (I’m French, mustard cream sauce is…kryptonite); he because there was a burger option, and that is his thing. I had almost settled on the pasta, but then spotted Luis’ fried chicken.
“Shoot, they have fried chicken,” I said. “With ranch.”
No regrets. The “two-hands” burger ($16) lived up to its name — a generous, well-seasoned affair topped with crispy fried shallots, horseradish cheese, lettuce, tomato and served with a side of truffle fries, a new staple on the Berkshire eats scene. He cleaned his plate, even the lettuce, while I dove hands first into the dark meat fried chicken, resisting the urge to stick my finger in the homemade ranch dressing and go to town.
“I can’t stop,” I said. “Do you want a piece of this before it’s gone?”
He shook his head, too focused on the meaty task in front of him.
We took breaks, ate fast, ate slow. The service at Castle Street needs to be noted here, because everyone was incredibly attentive, and relaxed, and classy. And despite leaning back after our meal was done, and almost giving up, I still asked for the dessert menu. I’m no quitter. Neither is he.
We ordered coffee (espresso for me, straight up for him) while mulling over the sinful situation that was the dessert menu. My hunch was correct, and so, the chocolate mousse cake (gluten free, $8) arrived in short order. For him, a classic crème brulee which I had no problem helping myself to. I made a half-hearted offer to share some of the cake (covered with homemade whipped cream and a fat strawberry).
The band was just tuning up as we were getting ready to leave. People were filing in, waiting, ogling the half-eaten cake on my plate.
“Well, let’s make room for the others,” he said.
From the outside, the place still had its warm, familiar glow. I leaned in to look at the “paperwork” taped to the window.
“Oh my god, they have paella and tapas on Wednesdays,” I said.
“Next time,” he said.
Castle Street Café
10 Castle St., Great Barrington, MA
Open 5 p.m. until closing.