Chez Albert is no ordinary French restaurant. But then, Paul Hathaway, who opened the award-winning bistro in Amherst after moving to Western Mass. from Boston 11 years ago, is far from an ordinary chef.
The self-taught food connoisseur and culinary artist makes everything in his restaurant from scratch and has carefully cultivated relationships with local farmers who provide him with their freshest seasonal produce. As a result, the menu changes at least six times a year, although seasonal dishes do accompany staples that customers choose repeatedly at the popular eatery nestled downtown on North Pleasant Street.
“We make our own pickles, grind our own beef, cure our own hams, make all of our desserts from scratch, and stay away from fillers and preservatives,” Hathaway told BusinessWest. “A lot of focus is placed on presentation. People eat with their eyes first, so we try to make things appetizing visually and by using flavor. We focus on utilizing local ingredients to the utmost in unique ways and pickle, cure, or preserve them so the colors or flavors pop in different dishes.
“Many people think French food is fancy, but they don’t realize it’s about using basic techniques,” he went on. “It’s a low, slow style of cooking that allows you to get the best flavor out of whatever you cook.”
Although the menu’s offerings rival dishes in restaurants known for fine dining — current seasonal plates include crab and smoked trout galette with spicy rouille, rabbit ragout with a farm cheese pierogi, and entrées such as pork confit with creamy polenta and a sweet glaze — the mood at Chez Albert was designed to be intimate, yet informal.
“We offer a relaxed, elegant atmosphere which is not stuffy; service is delivered with a smile, and we are always looking for ways to make people happy and get them to try new dishes such as rabbit or oxtail,” Hathaway said, adding they also serve sandwiches and burgers for those with less-adventurous palates.
His wife, Amy Paul, who runs the front end of the bistro and is its wine connoisseur, says music played during lunch and dinner ranges from soul to funk to jazz, which helps create a party-like atmosphere, especially on weekends, in the specially designed eatery with soft lighting that emanates from copper fixtures designed by a local artist.
Frequent patrons include professors from area colleges, as well as people from the neighborhood who sometimes have lunch and dinner at the bistro the same day.
The restaurant seats 48, with 20 additional seats on the patio, where lush flowering plants thrive during the summer. Events at Chez Albert range from business dinners to birthdays and rehearsal dinners, and reservations are suggested as the mainstay bistro is a popular spot and has earned accolades; it was feted with Trip Advisor’s 2015 Certificate of Excellence and named Best in the Valley by a Valley Advocate reader’s poll last year.
Hathaway loved food as a child, enjoyed baking, and looked forward to holiday dinners with family and friends that featured Italian, Polish, Irish, and other ethnic cuisine.
His culinary career began when he got a job at Seaside Restaurant at Faneuil Hall in Boston during his teenage years. But he didn’t become passionate about cooking until he left that eatery and went to work for Davio’s Italian Steakhouse in Cambridge.
At that point, he began to work his way up the ladder and hone his skills in some of the Hub’s best restaurants. “I had a real thirst and drive to learn new techniques and got my chops under some fine Boston chefs,” Hathaway recalled, explaining that he honed his skills under celebrity chef Todd English, James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams, and chef-owner Paul O’Connell of Chez Henri in Boston.
Hathaway became a chef at Pomodoro in the city’s North End, then co-owned Washington Square Tavern before he moved to Western Mass. and opened Chez Albert.
“French food has always been farm-to-table, and there are so many local purveyors and farmers here that people sometimes take them for granted. But I was young, ambitious, and excited about the opportunity that exists in Amherst and was inspired to do something in the European style,” he said, adding that he initially opened Chez Albert on 27 South Pleasant St. in a former bank that screamed ‘old French bistro,’ because it had high ceilings, marble floors, and a feeling frequently found in Paris eateries where people count on seeing friends and enjoying good food.
After the bistro became established, Paul was introduced to Hathaway through a friend. She began working for him, and they fell in love, got married, and had a daughter, followed by twin boys.
Paul’s need to focus on the children meant she had to curtail her hours at the bistro, but it continued to flourish, and four years ago when the lease ran out, the couple decided to move Chez Albert to its current location at 178 North Pleasant St.
The new location doubled their space; it took a major renovation to get it the way they wanted, and they often worked late at night. Great attention was paid to detail, and Hathaway hired local artists to design unique copper light fixtures, paint a mural on the bar, and create custom woodwork and cushioned seats throughout much of the interior.
However, his food has always been the biggest draw, and bar manager Michelle Kacich says patrons appreciate the fact that the menu offers French dishes that can be difficult to find locally, such as the popular appetizer pate de foie and the equally popular entrée pork confit. Although the menu does change with the seasons, some items are served throughout the year, such as escargot and Chez salad, made from local field greens, French green beans, dried cherries, shaved red onions, and crispy duck comfit tossed in a champagne vinaigrette and topped with shaved, hard-boiled eggs and croutons.
Hathaway keeps his focus on farm-to-table cooking, but it can be difficult during the winter, so he makes exceptions. But robust soups and other dishes that include a variety of root vegetables have become mainstays, and with the exception of daily specials, the menu doesn’t undergo much change until early March when spring brings freshly picked arugula, spinach, and radishes to the table.
Some patrons enjoy eating at the bar where they watch soccer and other sports on the flat-screen TV. The cocktail menu features signature drinks created by Kacich, and whenever she gets requests, she makes customized libations to suit palates that prefer sweet, savory, sour, or bitter tastes. Customer favorites include a pear ginger martini and a ‘honey bee,’ which is made from cardamom-infused bourbon, citrus, honey, and bitters.
Hathaway believes it’s important for businesses to evolve, and will make changes this summer that may include new artwork.
“We’re not erasing the old, but improving what we have built on,” he noted. “Every business needs to adapt and evolve over time.”
Prix fixe wine dinners that pair wines with foods from different cultures will be offered during the summer, which is a time when business tends to slow down. Since a similar dinner that features five to seven courses is sold out every New Year’s Eve, Paul expects them to be popular.
“My husband has a following, and people get excited when he cooks something other than French,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that, over the years, the menu has grown to include dishes with Asian, Italian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern influences. The wine list has also expanded; in addition to French, there are Spanish, Italian, and American wines, with more than 10 varieties served by the glass.
Customers appreciate being served by Emmanuel Proust, who comes from France and has worked at Chez Albert since it opened. Paul says many see him as the face of the restaurant, so they had a painting commissioned of him dressed as Napoleon that hangs above a cozy niche of copper-topped tables.
“We’re a playful group of people, and we do our best to make people feel like family,” she noted on a recent evening, as customers began filtering in, the music picked up, and the bistro came to life.