The next location I’m going to take you through is the wonderful small town of Amherst, MA. Located about two hours away from Boston and New York, Amherst is a quiet but beautiful town with a diverse downtown and a consortium of 5 top institutions (Amherst, UMASS, Smith, Holyoke, and Hamilton). Instead of focusing on just one restaurant today, I’ll highlight a couple of dishes from different restaurants to give you a good feel of Amherst. The four restaurants in question are Oriental Flavor, Crazy Noodles, Mulino’s and Johnny’s Tavern, all located on the same block in Main St except for Mulinos.
One of the most popular Pan-Asian restaurants in Amherst, Oriental Flavor sticks true to its name by delivering bold flavors while not straying from authenticity. Our favorite dish there was the Sichuan Cauliflower. The key to this dish is in its unique and exciting presentation, and high quality ingredients. Let’s start with the cauliflower. For this dish, a different type of cauliflower was used. Not your typical white head, big stem cauliflower but a thin stemmed, green veined cauliflower with a varying texture and slight taste difference. The way it is made is all high heat, with quick cook times being the key. First, the garlic and scallions are sauteed at a high heat to release the flavors and aromas and shortly after, the cauliflower is added along with any other vegetables like onions or bell peppers. This allows the cauliflower to crisp on the edges, without making it too soft on the inside, but not raw either. Finally, the flavorings are added, likely chili garlic oil and soy sauce. The chili garlic oil is the base of the whole dish, with a slight numbing spice and umami forward taste, while the soy sauce adds much needed salt to these dishes, and brings out the flavors of the garlic and chili. Overall, this dish was wonderful. The organic cauliflower was delicious and well complemented by the wonderful flavors of the sauce and scallions.
The other restaurant I will highlight today is Johnny’s Tavern, likely the best culinary experience in all of Amherst. During our week long trip at Amherst, we stayed in this small Bed and Breakfast located right of the main downtown, Amherst Inn. Run by an older couple, the Amherst Inn has been running strong for the past 30 years, and has built a reputation as one of the best places to stay in Amherst. One of the owners, Anne, is also a foodie like me so had a ton of recommendations for us to try. Out of all of them, the one she insisted on us visiting was Johnny’s tavern, so on our second night in Amherst, we headed out excited to see what Johhny’s offers. Johnny’s Tavern does it all, from unique takes on Pan Asian to fresh salads with a variety of flavor and textural combinations. For example, we had a beet salad with whipped blue cheese, arugula salad with corn, fennel and salmon (cooked perfectly might I add) and a truffle caesar salad with kale and breadcrumbs. Every dish was so well thought out, making sure to have something funky like truffle, blue cheese, or fennel, and textural contrasts with breadcrumbs and the smooth and creamy whipped blue cheese. But none of that topped the pork belly. Pork belly in general is great, how cannot be, it’s basically bacon. The way Johnny’s Tavern had cooked was less like bacon, but more like a burnt end. Cubed into 1 inch cubes, the pieces were crisp on the outside while falling apart tender on the inside. Cooking with fat is not always easy, if it doesn’t render out properly, it becomes chewy and inedible, but unsurprisingly they nailed it. To top it all off, the pork was marinated in asian spices and soy sauce and served with a thick glaze like sauce that was slightly sweet and quite peppery from the peppercorns.