On Burglars, Snowstorms, and Eccentric Chefs

Wednesday night, around 6:30, I arrived home planning to pack and organize for a mid-week getaway in the Berkshires. The front door to the building felt strange, as if the lock were broken. Our apartment door was similarly weak, and when I opened it I discovered why: shards of splintered door frame lay scattered in our hallway. I rushed in, confused and curious—my first thought was that our two cats had gone crazy—and found a random pattern of destruction. Our living room, home to a variety of AV equipment, appeared untouched, as was S’s office, while my office and our bedroom were thoroughly ransacked. When I opened my office door I found our cats and the overpowering stench of cat poop—the burglar had locked these ferocious kitties away without food, water, or litter box, and one of them had been forced to relieve himself under my desk. Boxes and books had been torn down from the shelves over the desk, and all the drawers were open and rifled through. Oddly, though, nothing appeared to be missing—the few valuables we own had been found and, inexplicably, left behind. Even a crisp two-dollar bill I’d stashed away years ago lay on the floor, as if the crook didn’t realize it was legal tender. Same thing in the bedroom—the drawers had been searched, but nothing appeared stolen. I checked the kitchen, irrationally thinking that they might have recognized an expensive pot and made off with my new twenty-pound Le Creuset, but it still squatted on the table, pristine and ignored.

Over the course of the evening, there were seven different police officers in our apartment, each one courteous and respectful. It struck all of us as odd that nothing would be stolen, which made me wonder if perhaps the perps had only cased the apartment and were planning to return with a truck, to clean us out. I asked each cop: “Is it safe for us to go away tomorrow?” Finally, the lieutenant gave me a firm response: “If you replace this door, yes.” He couldn’t guarantee that the burglar wouldn’t return, but he found it much more likely that this was a rank amateur who heard a noise and panicked, leaving empty-handed. Two officers dusted for fingerprints without success, in the process coating countless smooth surfaces in tough-to-remove black powder. It was after nine by the time they all left, and nearly 1AM before S and I finally shoved a heavy chair in front of our broken front door and tumbled into bed for a restless night’s sleep.

The next day brought predictions of a snowstorm, starting mid-day. By ten that morning a worker was busy replacing our apartment’s door and frame with a heavy metal one, so S and I planned to depart around 1:30. I came home early from my freelance job, only to discover that the new door was taking longer than expected. We didn’t hit the road until 3, by which time the snow had already started, along with an early rush hour. It took us an hour and a half to reach Yonkers, about twenty miles north. The Taconic Parkway, a beautiful road with very little traffic, was a bit of a terror to us, urbanites unaccustomed to night driving on unlit roads in a snowstorm. At 8:00 Thursday night, we finally arrived at the Brook Farm Inn in Lenox, Mass—the anticipated three-hour trip had taken nearly five.

Luckily, though, the Inn provided a warm, comforting reception. Glasses of sherry awaited in our room, a log already in the fireplace, soft white linens on the canopy bed, fresh gingersnaps in the nearby pantry. After a nice dinner at one of the few restaurants still open at that hour, S and I settled in for a bit of relaxation, at last.

We spent the next two days poking around the area, in search of used bookstores and junk shops, with no goal except to Not Think About the Break-in. For the most part, we succeeded. My brother G was taking care of our cats, so at least twice a day while we were gone someone would be in the apartment, and by Friday afternoon S and I had fallen back into our comfortable road-trip ways—aiming for Mass MoCA, but not much caring that distractions kept us from getting there until just before closing; we shrugged and left without seeing the art.

Dinner Friday night was enough to erase any lingering worries. My friend M, who had recommended the Brook Farm Inn, also told us about an out-of-the-way spot in industrial Pittsfield called Elizabeth’s. She described it as a slightly unpredictable place in a private house, where Tom, the salad chef/host, might pull up a chair and join you while he explained the restaurant’s ground rules, where the food was incredible and new customers left wishing to become regulars. A sign outside said “We accept American money, personal checks, and IOUs,” confirming what M had told me about her first visit there, when she didn’t know they didn’t accept credit cards and Tom said to just mail a check.

Given the option of sitting in the upstairs dining room or on the ground floor in full view of the open kitchen, naturally we chose the latter. Here was my view:

That’s Tom on the far right, in the apron. I loved watching the small staff hustling to prepare our meals, and the amusing show put on by Tom—cracking wise with the young waitresses, yelling a greeting to one of the many regulars, explaining his philosophy to each newly seated table. His philosophy is this: The foundation of a good meal is “honest” bread and a great salad, so both those things come with every entrée. The bread is artisanal sourdough, the kind that isn’t all that hard to find in NYC but isn’t common everywhere else. And the salad! Oh, the salad is whatever Tom feels like throwing into a bowl each night. Every table had a good-sized aluminum mixing bowl perched upon it, wooden salad servers leaning on the rims. When we got ours, we discovered it included the expected lettuces and carrots, but also walnuts, raisins, kiwi, apples, chick peas, and parmesan cheese, tossed in a piquant balsamic vinaigrette. At my request, the aged cheddar and feta were served on the side (I’m not too big on cheese, but S loves the stuff). Here’s what it looked like:

We had a hard time holding ourselves back from finishing the whole salad, which would’ve effectively killed our appetite for what was to come—though I did a better job of restraining myself than S, who by the end was digging his fork directly into the serving bowl, skipping his plate entirely. While we ate, Tom popped out of the kitchen every few minutes to see how everyone was doing. The atmosphere was convivial, to say the least—small conversations sprang up between tables over and over, mostly concerning the fabulosity of the food. At the table next to us a young couple was seated, and it turned out the girl was a family friend of Tom’s. The waitress greeted them warmly and explained that Tom had set aside the last remaining order of the nightly chicken special for them. Of course they took it, and we felt just a little jealous. But when our entrées arrived we were so thrilled with them that it was hard to feel denied.

S had a baked pasta—shells with a hearty Bolognese sauce and a touch of gorgonzola, heated in the oven until a nearly-charred crust formed. I ordered one of the specials, a parchment-baked tilapia with tomatoes, capers, olives, cauliflower, and parsley, with a wonderful gratin of polenta and spinach alongside. As far as we could see, Tom’s wife Lizzie (Elizabeth!) handles all the entrees, making jokes with her husband and generally keeping everything on track. She’s doing a spectacular job—I polished off my fish in record time, and S did some major damage to his pasta. We were already moaning with that wonderful mixture of full-bellied pain and pleasure, when the young couple next to us got their dessert: a pair of large, rich-looking brownies.

When Tom heard us waffling over whether or not to order dessert, he jumped into action, explaining that Lizzie’s brownies were so fabulous that they only served them once a month—Jack Welch had gotten into the habit of buying them by the trayful, which struck Tom as unfair to his other customers, so his solution was to make them a rarity for everyone. That did it—we were sold. A few minutes later, our waitress placed a great big ol’ slab of brownie and two forks between us.

It was heaven: moist, nearly gooey inside, with a wonderfully substantial crust on top and large chunks of chocolate throughout. We licked the plate and considered ordering another.

Elizabeth’s is the kind of neighborhood restaurant any foodie worth her salt wishes existed in every neighborhood, but of course it doesn’t. We left there satisfied and happy, carefree and cared-for. I only wish we lived nearby, so that we might become regulars one day. And something tells me the crime rate’s a little lower up there, too.