Sunday, July 26, 2009

Venus & The Cellar Bar: Fabulous French cuisine in the heart of Easthampton

Mr. ValleyWriter had a birthday recently and we decided to go out to a new restaurant that just opened up on Main Street to celebrate. We watched all winter long as the facade of the building was housed in a Tyvec shell, making bets on what would be revealed. We figured maybe a new professional office or a small, quaint artisan goods shop... so we were very surprised when a high-end restaurant and wine bar were revealed. But it was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Venus is the restaurant upstairs and The Cellar Bar is, not surprisingly, the bar downstairs. While there are 2 separate entrances, the two are also connected inside - and you can eat off the full Venus menu at the bar - so it's really like one restaurant spread out amongst 2 floors. As you probably figured out from the title of this blog entry, the cuisine is French; and in the nouvelle French tradition, the menu is short, the ingredients simple and fresh.

We started by ordering some of the special summer drinks from the bar. I had a passion fruit mojito and Mr. ValleyWriter had a "Brazilian blast," which is a version of a caipirinha with oranges in addition to the usual limes. Both drinks were nice and sweet, but not cloyingly so. The sweetness was clearly coming from the fruits added, rather than artificial syrups. After our drinks came and we put in our order for our appetizers, the chef sent out some Yukon potato chips topped with a bleu cheese foam. Now, I've never been much of a potato chip person, but this could change my tune. It was literally the best potato chip I've ever had - and the light tangy foam on top combined with the deep crunch of chip made for a perfect amuse bouche.

For our appetizers, we went with the crevette grillees (roasted shrimp) and the cheese plate (normally reserved for dessert, I know, but cheese is good for any course in my book!). Since the shrimp was billed as a blackened shrimp, I was expecting a stronger, spiced flavor than what was delivered. The taste of the beautiful shrimp definitely came through, but I think a little more seasoning was needed.

The cheese plate, however, was just right. We had freshly baked bread, apples, peaches and strawberries to accompany the selection of brie, bleu and gruyere cheeses - plus what I *think* was an aged Chantal. The mix of semi-hard and soft, mild and tangy, fresh and earthy cheeses was wonderful. We both agreed the cheese plate was the better of the 2 appetizers by far.

In between our appetizer course and the main course, we were treated to a citrus tarragon intermezzo to clear our palates. I wasn't sure how the tarragon would come through in a drink, but it was actually very refreshing.

For our entrees, I had the roasted chicken and Mr. ValleyWriter had the lamb. My roasted chicken came on a bed of asparagus and oyster mushrooms, covered with an incredible au jus. Every bite was absolute heaven. It was perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked - the skin of the chicken nice and crispy, the meat wonderfully juicy. The asparagus was lightly roasted and made for a fresh contrast with the rich-tasting au jus. The oyster mushrooms were nice and firm and soaked up the au jus wonderfully. I ate every single one with delight, even though I can normally take or leave mushrooms.

Mr. ValleyWriter's lamb was cooked medium, which he requested, but which ended up being a little more done than he might have wanted. I don't eat lamb, so I relied solely on him for the evaluation, but essentially he said that he thought it would have been better rare. It came with an orzo salad and yogurt sauce, both of which Mr. ValleyWriter said were good summery complements to the lamb.

I was thoroughly impressed with Venus by this point, but the piece de resistance had to be the trio of chocolate that we had for dessert. First was a white chocolate foam on top of a carrot puree. Next was a trio of rich, handmade dark chocolate truffles. And to top it all off, there was an incredible chocolate soup infused with orange liqueur. Oh my. If you like chocolate - this dessert is absolutely for you. We were in chocolate lover's heaven.

After dinner, we headed down to The Cellar Bar for an after dinner drink. The bar downstairs was ample in size and fully stocked with wine, beer and spirits. We drank our cordials and enjoyed the homey atmosphere created by the brick walls, wood paneled ceiling and soft lighting.
All in all, we were very impressed with our Venus & The Cellar Bar experience. While not every dish was a home run in our book, all were clearly made with deliberate attention to freshness and quality. We will absolutely be back to dine here again. The fine eateries in Northampton should take note of this newcomer - Venus & The Cellar Bar is sure to experience great success.

And since they don't have a Web site (yet?), here are some of the vital statistics:

Venus & The Cellar Bar

95 Main St
Easthampton, MA 01027
(413) 203-1910 (reservations recommended, especially on the weekends)

Appetizer prices were in the $7-9 range
Entree prices were $18-30
Wines start around $30/bottle or $7/glass

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