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Friday, October 22, 2021

The Main Events

From the Food Vault Dept.: The restaurant visit described below took place twenty years ago. It turns out that the space we visited has seen a tumult of eateries within, going back at least to the 1970s, when it was the Capitol Restaurant. In 1997 it became Zoie’s; three years later it became Fifty-Five Main, but that lasted only two years, at which point it became Milan at 55 Main, under which aegis it had a six-year run. In 2008 it started an eleven-year run as The Hub, until Mark Meehan and Debra Morandi bought it and renamed it the Capitol, as which it still operates ... but the place is for sale. Here’s what we found there in 2001.


WITH THAT ARRAY of once-dark factory buildings now bustling with light and art as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), the old industrial town of North Adams, Mass., is easing back to life. It couldn’t be a more pleasant drive than now, with colorful trees accompanying your journey past Troy and through Williamstown, and the museum has so much to offer that your afternoon will be well filled.

The property at 55 Main, in a
much more recent view.

Then you’ll want something to eat.

The short stretch of Main St. is a short walk from the museum, and tucked away in the storefronts, between an excellent used book store and a small live-performance theater, is a restaurant whose name is its address, 55 Main. Ray Arsenault quit the computer business to open the place, and he bustles between the bar and the door, greeting and seating, making sure folks feel welcome and happy.

As befits a restaurant in a town newly defined by art, the place is decorated with an array of sculpture and design. Make sure you check out the kitchen area, in full view of the floor, to see the unique design elements there, protecting chef Susannah Warren.

Tables are small and undraped with linen, which works just fine – they’re handsome and fit well with the design. The menu, too, is sleek and brisk, with a good array of New American offerings.

We’re used to deep-fried bar food – jalapeño poppers, fried mozzarella sticks – that are plunged, frozen, into the fryolater and slathered with store-bought sauce. And I have to confess a weakness for them, especially when I’m working through a couple of beers. But they’re nothing by which to judge a restaurant. How pleasing, then, that 55 Main pilfered the concept and spun it around tomatoes – cherry tomatoes, to be exact, offered the night we visited as spicy poppers ($?).

Spicy they weren’t, except in a subtle way, so my daughter forewent the soup she ordered to commandeer the poppers dish, enjoying the sensation of the small, sweet tomatoes crunchy with breading, swiped through a blue cheese-laced dipping sauce.

That soup ($4.50) was too good for my daughter’s doughty but limited palate. Coarsely chopped butternut squash melded with white beans in a vegetable stock that, being a vegetable stock, had a light but penetrating flavor. Besides, this soup was more about encountering the various flavors, not just a blend. So I took over that appetizer.

Susan found tough choosing among the starters list, what with spanakopita ($6.75) and crab cakes ($8) among the offerings; she chose lobster ravioli ($8), in which the filling is a combo of Maine lobster bits, onions, peppers and a light ricotta mixture. The pasta itself was bi-colored, naked on one side, inky on the other, presented under a creamy sauce through which wafted flavors of tomato and lobster.

Bread and salad accompany entrées, with bread appearing early on – a basket of a short, warm loaf that we caused to be refilled. House salads, as you’d expect, featured very fresh greens and a bevy of crunchy accompaniments served on top, served with a house dressing of balsamic vinaigrette unless you ask otherwise.

Because it’s vegetarian friendly, 55 Main has more than the usual share of tofu-enhanced dishes. I think of tofu as not much more than a culinary place-marker, offering mass without flavor, but my wife is fond of the stuff. One option is tofu 55 ($16.50, available with chicken if you must have meat), stir-fried with fresh tomatoes and feta, seasoned with basil. Susan ordered teriyaki tofu ($15), in which the tofu slices found flavor in the tangy marinade, so I can’t cavil about it. And they do offer an appropriately contrasting texture to everything else in the dish, which keeps it interesting. Asparagus, summer squash, snow peas, carrots and onions completed the melange, served over rice.

Our server steered me toward chicken Boursin ($16.50) as a show-off-the-chef recommendation, a dish that, not surprisingly, featured the aforementioned creamy cheese as a stuffing in a large breast served with – what a deft touch – dates and a sour cream-based sauce. Served with mashed potatoes and shredded, sautéed zucchini, it was a wonderful confluence of old and new. Nouvelle comfort food, I’ll call it.

We finished with tea, nicely served in pots. Fifteen years ago, when we started this review journey, it was impossible to find Earl Grey tea in restaurants. Not any more. The few dessert choices included flan, carrot cake and cheese cake, but we indulged our daughter with (and dipped our spoons into) a sundae made from Berkshire Ice Cream and Ghirardelli chocolate fudge.

The servers are young and energetic and kept us well attended. This restaurant is the kind of gem that sets me hoping for a good ongoing North Adams renaissance, because it sets a fine example.

Dinner for two (with a little extra for the third) with tax and tip, dessert and a glass of wine, was $109.

55 Main, 55 Main St., N. Adams, Mass. 413-664-xxxx. Elegant fare served in an artistic setting, with good vegetarian dishes as well. Try the chicken boursin for a sample of nouvelle comfort food. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-2, dinner Mon-Sat from 5 PM. AE, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 25 October 2001

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