From The Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — Uh oh: Now there is bahn mi to be had on Stockbridge Road.
I kid you not, whatever may be lacking in the global street food department around here is going to be rectified at Prana Bar, Shelly Williams’ new venture after she realized her breakfast and lunch place, Haven Cafe & Bakery, was unsustainable here on the outskirts of town.
Breakfast and lunch places, it appears, need to be smack downtown to survive.
While the 8-year-old Haven Cafe & Bakery in downtown Lenox has a wildly devotional following, the 4-year-old Great Barrington attempt at replication just didn’t work, Williams said.
“Part of it is that we’re out of the downtown,” she said. But the other part is that replication comes with some standards and risks. “It’s one of the hard things about a brand. The Haven brand is so established and so well loved in Lenox, unless you are going to replicate that place exactly — like McDonalds — it’s going to be hard. It got really hard for me to hear the comparisons.”
So she had the idea of doing a “Haven at Night” thing. She showed the menu to Studio Two’s Kevin Sprague, genius of branding and web design, and he told her to start fresh. She showed him the menu and said she wanted to do “elevated street food,” based on the kind of thing you find when you’re traveling. “When someone tells you to go to some little hole in the wall. We want to do it here with our own twist, use good ingredients and food from local farms. Because with street food, who knows what’s in it.”
Sprague’s idea for her interior and marketing was inspired by the graffiti and murals of Wynwood Walls in Miami, Florida, where he is now based year round, and they came up with a sexy spicy montage.
But let’s talk about the food. First of all, Williams says all this Haven love was unplanned. “I never set out to do what has happened with Haven,” she said. “I just wanted to cook for people and then it just kind of grew.”
Part of this is her unswerving devotion to top-notch, organic and local ingredients, which she will go to great lengths to hunt down. She uses rice oil to fry. It’s as expensive as olive oil, she says, and is loaded with vitamins and minerals. And for baked goods she uses only rapadura organic sugar and flour. “We never make an exception, period.”
She’s come to a personal ah-ha moment after so many years of this love of cooking turned into “fixing machines and managing people and writing contracts, doing payroll. I need to work on the line, create recipes.”
She said it’s the hazard of being a restaurateur, especially one who got into the business for a love of cooking. “It’s kind of a lonely place,” she said. “In order to be a good leader you kind of have to be removed and you have to be somewhat vulnerable but also inspiring.”
Williams didn’t go to cooking school. “I’m a cookbook gal. I will research, try tons of recipes and combine them to make something I like.”
But not her head chef, Matt Schweizer. Schweizer, she says, is a “true artist, who does everything himself.”
I find myself in the kitchen with Schweizer as he sautés the shredded pork in a lime vinegar for the bahn mi. Flames are erupting and, as it is approaching the dinner hour, I get distracted by these scents, wondering what is even going on my own table, picturing my two teenagers, already scrounging around my own kitchen. But never mind.
Last summer Haven catered for the Jacob’s Pillow restaurant all season long. With Schweizer also cooking, Williams went full out and loved doing this. It was, she said, what made her realize she wanted to be doing this style of dinner menu, and she saw that people really “loved the small plates — a movement right now.” People were asking her why she didn’t do dinners at Haven in Great Barrington.
She said Schweizer’s steamed buns for the Pillow, with duck confit, sour cherries and pickled veggies was so heartbreakingly good, one regular had a trophy made for Schweizer, just for that. That man found Williams in the kitchen one evening and said, “I love that duck.”
There’s a steamed bun with duck variation on the Prana menu, too.
At Prana there are rice bowls and Ramen bowls, a variety of little bites and snacks. There are made-up things with made-up names that Schweizer concocted, like Piccolo Delizia: smoke-dusted cheddar puffs.
“Matt invented this menu,” she says.
Schweizer had worked for her at Haven, moved on to Baba Louie’s in Pittsfield, and now Williams is thrilled to have him back, she said.
She personally loves foods that strike the palate in the four flavor spots of sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. She loves Indian and Thai food. It’s not on the menu yet, but only because she hasn’t had time to work on it.
Williams is from Southern California, and lived in the Seattle, Washington area for years. She came to the Berkshires to go to Kripalu for yoga teacher training, worked there for a while, got married, had kids, and started a catering business.
Williams says restaurant work is not about “the bottom line” for her.
“We want to make people happy,” she said. “Why else be in this business?”
In that vein, the cocktail menu includes a Mai Tai with Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ragged Mountain Rum. And if that doesn’t help, Charlie Robinson, Prana Bar’s charming bartender, will whip you up a spiced rum drink called “Painkiller.”
Open Thursday through Monday, 5-10 p.m., 325 Stockbridge Road.