In the large windows near the end of the maze of rooms at Green Street Café, tremendous gourds hung down, their interiors transformed into doll-house chic, complete with tiny curtains and odd furnishings. Beyond those diminutive curtains and the plate glass, staggering cold lurked. It wasn't a whole lot warmer just inside the window. Then again, I've never found Green Street, despite its considerable culinary charms, particularly warm in the metaphorical sense, either.
We'd been told to get inside fast, then rushed past the restaurant's noted fire and roasting ducks toward our window perch. We were there, like many patrons, to eat at Green Street before its Jan. 21 "last supper."
If, a few years ago, the owners of Northampton's Green Street Café had announced the closure of their restaurant, that event would likely have been a bitter occasion. Owners John Sielski and his husband Jim Dozmati were, back then, embroiled in a fight with Smith College, which bought the building housing the restaurant some years ago and announced plans to build Ford Hall in the Green Street neighborhood. Smith offered them money to relocate, but Sielski and Dozmati said it wasn't enough. Then, because of fire code violations, the café lost its liquor license.
Green Street escaped those doldrums, and Sielski and Dozmati maintained that their intent was to go out on top, to close the café's doors when it had triumphed over adversity to return to peak form.
Ask around, and you'll quickly get strong opinions about Green Street Café. Some fans maintain that it wasn't just a good restaurant, but the very pinnacle of dining in what they claim is an otherwise cuisine-poor valley, an outpost of fine dining surrounded by food that can't hold a candle to that found in major cities. Where those fans will now have to go for a shot of escargot and vegetables in parchment one can only guess.
Another camp of diners tend to say they steered clear of Green Street after finding its staff or one of the owners arrogant or unfriendly. To be sure, the frosty gaze of Sielski seems at times to dissect one's sense of gastronomic discernment.
But we didn't visit Green Street to be coddled. We didn't visit for an all you can eat buffet. We went, rather, for a distinctly Northampton experience, one which is now a thing of the past. We were dining at ground zero of the fight, on the street where the college stirred tremendous ire in its drive to replace a neighborhood with a new building. It's not surprising that some of that ire seems still to waft along in the chill. It felt right somehow to be hurried to our table by Sielski. It felt right, too, to get the hand-penned menu and choose from some heady entrees.
When my arctic char arrived, it was perfectly cooked, surrounded by its mustardy sauce and perched atop mashed potatoes and a cross-hatching of French beans. It was exceptionally tasty. It was a good deal smaller than the folded napkin, but that, too, is to be expected on the far side of that Maginot Line marking the point at which portion sizes decrease proportionately to bill amount. (The fried chicken, on the other hand, came in a surprisingly large serving.) The meal came to a delicious conclusion with a chocolate pot au crème, once more doll-house in dimension, but this time swimming in such impressive flavor that any more would have required absolution.
Green Street, love it or hate it, was a thoroughly Northampton spot. Its focus was one that's dear to many a Valley resident: inventive local fare. Around a year ago (in "Pioneer Valley Terroir," Jan. 6, 2011), Sielski summed up his and Dozmati's thinking on their food: "We've been thinking that there should be a new category: Connecticut River Valley cuisine. Instead of French, Italian or anything else." Certainly a worthwhile mission.
Green Street did more than cook with local ingredients; its impressive murals lent it an air of art-town chic, and its lineup of jazz musicians made it important to the ever-shrinking list of venues for live music. Though its owners have announced their intention to carry on through the cleverly named Greens Treat, a CSA offering organically grown herbs, vegetables, fruits and flowers, the café's distinctive slice of Valley life will be missed. Sielski and Dozmati seemed intent on avoiding the perception that they'd been drubbed in their battle to stay open on Green Street, and going out at the top of their game was a clever bit of strategizing. They'll be missed, rough edges and delicious pot au crème alike.