Blue Plate Special: Smithsonian Express
Peter Langlois at Smithsonian Cafe and Chowderhouse making lobster mac and cheese
Lobster mac and cheese from Smithsonian
Peter Langlois has honed his menu with care and flair. That was clear when the chef and business owner sat down with me recently at the Arts Block on Main Street in Greenfield to talk about his café there, the Smithsonian Express.
His son Niko presides over lunch at the café Monday through Saturday, and the senior Langlois cooks dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.
Peter Langlois has spent more than three decades in the restaurant trade, first working for others and eventually opening the Smithsonian Restaurant in Hatfield, where he lives, in 1999. He sold the restaurant in 2011. “After 11 years of a full-service, seven-day-a-week restaurant, we decided to downsize,” he told me.
The most popular item on the menu in the restaurant had been a rich seafood chowder. Langlois decided to use that soup as the center of a new, streamlined menu. “The concept was a core of high-quality items that would be fast for our customers and fast for the staff, yet homemade,” he explained.
The Smithsonian Chowder House in Hatfield was the first incarnation of the new concept. This small eatery serves soups, sandwiches and light desserts in Hatfield.
The expansion to Greenfield, Langlois informed me, came as a result of catering work in the Arts Block. “We catered a party here and saw that the kitchen was unused,” he explained. “I had a vision ... I decided to take a chance on it.”
He came to an agreement with the building’s owner, Ed Wierzbowski, and the Smithsonian Express opened in March.
The café’s lunch crowd is quite different from that of the Chowder House in Hatfield, Langlois told me. “Hatfield is more of a destination location. There’s no foot traffic. It’s a different feeling for us.”
He has found the business from Greenfield offices so encouraging that he hopes to expand in the near future to another location in downtown Northampton.
The lunch menu at Smithsonian Express is simple but plentiful. Seafood chowder and chili are always served, along with daily soup specials. Gourmet grilled cheese and other sandwiches are available, as well as popovers stuffed with such hearty fare as pulled pork, lobster salad, and meatballs with marinara sauce.
The dinner menu is also limited but imaginative. It includes prime rib, fish and seafood, and comfort food like a baked scallop casserole and the lobster macaroni and cheese Langlois threw together for photographer Paul Franz and me.
The Smithsonian’s large signature cupcakes may accompany both lunch and dinner. On the day on which Paul and I visited the cupcake case offered many choices, including red-velvet, Boston-cream, and cookies-and-cream cupcakes. Langlois particularly recommended the carrot cupcakes.
Langlois explained that the cupcake baker is a talented friend who used to be a stay-at-home mom. “I convinced her to come out of retirement,” he said proudly.
On Thursday evening diners can hear live jazz all evening. On Saturday and Sunday nights the sizeable Arts Block Café features live entertainment in varying forms. The Smithsonian Express serves food only until 8 p.m., allowing customers to enjoy the show without being distracted by waiters and the sounds of clattering cutlery.
Peter Langlois says he enjoys splitting his time between Hatfield and Greenfield, with catering gigs on the side. When Northampton is added to the schedule, his life may become a bit more hectic. He appears creative and organized enough to rise to the challenge, however.
LOBSTER MAC AND CHEESE
By precooking the lobster (and sometimes the macaroni), Peter Langlois can put this dish together in mere minutes. The time-saving nature of the recipe is handy in a café and would be handy in a home as well.
1 cup cream
1-1/2 cups cooked macaroni
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup shredded cheddar plus additional cheddar as needed
2 ounces cooked lobster meat, chopped into small pieces
butter as needed for sautéing
In a skillet, bring the cream to a simmer. Stir in the cooked macaroni, season it lightly with salt and pepper, and return the cream to a simmer. Add the 1/2 cup cheddar, and cook, stirring, just until it melts. Remove the pan from the heat.
In another, smaller skillet, briefly sauté the lobster meat in butter.
Place the macaroni/cream mixture in a pasta bowl. Toss a little more shredded cheddar on top. Place the sautéed lobster meat over all.
Serves 1 generously.