Main Street Blase – Williamstown’s finest?

I have been waiting all year to write a review of Main Street Cafe, and until recently it looked like I would have to trash the place. I won’t waste your time with stories of the nightmare meals I’ve endured there over the past few years, but I will say that until about a month ago things were bad. Really, really bad.

Could I be speaking of the Main Street Cafe? The place where parents take their kids to eat at seemingly every important occasion? The place that’s booked solid through every holiday and big college weekend? Unfortunately, yes.

So here’s the scoop: about twelve years ago Mr. Jeff Ben David opened Main Street Cafe in North Bennington. His restaurant was cleverly and appropriately small, allowing him absolute reign over both the kitchen and the dining room. The first time I ate there, about five years ago, I felt like royalty. Every table got the full treatment, and it worked.

But then a few years ago Ben David decided to move to a hotter location and a bigger space in Williamstown. To accomplish this he sought the aid of some outside investors, and soon enough the new restaurant was thriving.

It is a very different thing to run a tiny, intimate place than it is to manage a large bustling one with a much higher turnover. Ben David was no longer able to devote himself to each table, recommending the appropriate wine for this or that entree, pandering to his customers’ each and every whim.

Consistency and quality declined, the restaurant lost a lot of business, staff started leaving, and the nearby competitors Mezze and Wild Amber Grill started to squeeze Main Street out.

In early March, in a decisive and apparently necessary move, the investors replaced Ben David with the husband and wife team Drew and Leigh Anne Nicastro. And that is why I can’t write the scathing review that I had prepared myself to write. The couple, who were originally on Ben David’s staff, is young and hip but not naive, and the restaurant’s recent progress shows it.

So what’s changed? The Nicastros hired back some of the old wait staff so you’ll see some familiar faces. They’ve also mellowed the atmosphere considerably. No longer will your server hover over your shoulder for the duration of the meal. It’s still something of a “dining experience,” but it’s much more casual.

Unfortunately the menu hasn’t changed much. Leigh Anne said they wanted to just “tweak it” a bit but keep the “staples” such as the chicken and sausage dish, spicy chicken dish and that seafood combination dish they always serve to large groups. The new choices stay very much within the menu’s vocabulary; you’ll find a grilled tuna dish and a nice pesto crusted Atlantic salmon in the main course section, as filling as ever.

The appetizers have a few new ideas, including the very tasty mussels fabrizio in a white wine and garlic broth. They also now serve big salads, good for those of you that are tired of undoing the top button of your pants after just an appetizer.

My problem with this food is that it’s just too safe. The presentation and serving size are very impressive, and they obviously maintain high standards for food quality, but they don’t take risks on the palette. My roast duck, for instance, was excellently roasted, but that’s about it. Alongside some very boring green beans and potatoes, the duck seemed rather bland. My saffron risotto had a diluted flavor; it looked rich but certainly didn’t taste it.

For some reason the meals at Main Street all kind of take on a similar flavor, and I know many others share this feeling. When I go there I no longer expect to be impressed. If I’m going to pay $23.95 for some duck and vegetables, believe me, I want to be impressed. I would encourage Drew Nicastro to add some personal flair to his food and to surprise me on my next trip to Main Street, or I’ll stop going. Leigh Anne told me that there’s a long road ahead to regaining the consistent patronage of Williamstown residents. She’s right, and there’s simply too much good competition around to sit on a stagnant menu.

Of course, Main Street still offers an extensive wine list and a full bar to complement your meal, as well as a short but excellent dessert menu. It also serves lunch every day now, although this might be geared more toward the suits as the prices are a bit high ($10 burger, $8 sandwich). The skinny: if you’ve always loved Main Street’s food then you will love it even more, and much more comfortably, from the Nicastros, but if you find the cuisine lacking, you’d still best stick to the competition.

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