Category: Restaurants

Cactus Rose in Wilton, revisited

Cactus Rose in Wilton, revisited

Cactus Rose has been in Wilton since 2011, although their building has suffered through two plumbing related floods that closed them in 2015 and again in 2016. They were able to retain their staff during this most recent shut-down and we went back to see how they’ve evolved.  In 2011, they started with a fairly elaborate menu, but when we revisited in 2013, their menu has been simplified, along with their service.

However, when we visited Saturday evening (always a challenging night for restaurants) the service was excellent. We had two servers, one who provided water and drink orders, and one who took the food order. Other staff delivered the food, but all of them were pleasant and hard working and genuinely interested in whether you were happy with your food. We arrived about 6:15, and by 7 pm, the restaurant was lively and very busy. But the service did not flag.

Our table was set with two square plates that might have been for some sort of appetizer. However, they weren’t for bread, as none was provided or on the menu. They eventually cleared them when our appetizers arrived.

There are now about 10 dinner entrees, priced from $19 to $29, some of them with a Southwestern theme such as fish tacos, black skillet fajitas, lobster enchiladas, and tequila chicken, as well as salmon, blackened tilapia, paella, baby back ribs, steak frites, littleneck clams and grilled vegetables on a mushroom risotto.

The appetizers included their “most interesting clams,” steamed in Dos Equis, and as we recall, it is very good. They also offer a number of appetizers ($7-$17) including taco and nachos, seared shrimp, lobster quesadilla, seared wild shrimp, and a number of salads ($7-$15).

In addition, they offered a separate menu card of “specials,” including carrot and ginger soup and grilled calamari appetizers, and Seared Prime Filet Mignon ($35), Wild Chilean Sea Bass ($35), Seared Lamb Chops ($30) and Organic Half Chicken ($23).

It is interesting to note that the specials were for the most part more expensive than the main menu items, except for the chicken which apparently had a number of takers. We generally don’t order chicken out because we have it so much at home, and try to avoid any dish labeled “organic,” which is just an excuse to raise the price on dishes that are otherwise identical to conventional ones.

beetsFor our appetizers, we chose the beet salad with candied walnuts, goat cheese,
arugula, cilantro, balsamic glaze ($9). They were happy to omit the cilantro in our portion. While the salad was good, there were more beets there than anyone needed, and we didn’t finish it.

quesadillaOur other appetizer was the Lobster Quesadilla ($17) which was four filled tortilla halves with goat cheese and lobster. There was also a side of some related cheese and some chopped tomatoes (pico de gallo). While there was indeed lobster in every quesadilla, the cheese dominated, and the result was a very filling appetizer that we didn’t finish.

We decided to splurge and order the Sea Bass shown at the top of the article, ($35) served with sautéed spinach and everybody’s favorite trendy vegetable, quinoa, along with a brown sage butter sauce. The fish was a huge tall piece, moist and with a bit of browned skin, but it was essentially unadorned and not all the flavorful.  And the mixture of spinach and quinoa into a sort of risotto was decidedly weird. It didn’t work very well.

Our other entrée were the Lobster Enchiladas ($29) which was really quite spicy, overpowering the lobster flavor. Incidentally, the presentation and amount of spicy sauce has changed substantially since our 2013 visit. This version had bell peppers, onions, jack cheese and chipotle cream sauce. Again, this was too filling to finish.

Their dessert menu was recited, and included crème brulee, churros, cookies, and a few other things, but none tempted us after this filling meal.

cotton-candyThey do still provide a little complimentary puff of cotton candy in a mason jar to finish the meal, and this will undoubtedly impress young diners.

Overall, the staff was uniformly friendly and the service very good. But the food could have been better, we think, and in this sort of menu, less is more. Our bill with 3 glasses of wine and tax, but before tip was $140.

facade

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Le Penguin in Westport

Le Penguin in Westport

doorwayLe Penguin opened in Old Greenwich in 2013, in the space occupied by Jean-Louis, and proved to be a very popular semi-classic French bistro. The owners, Antoine Blech and Anshu Vidyarthi, opened a second Le Penguin, with the same menu in Westport last August in Sconset Square, where The Blue Lemon used to be. It, too, has proved very popular and reasonably priced.

The menu features a number of delicious starters, including Tuna Tartare, Salmon Rilletts, Escargot and Country pate, as well five salads. If you only want a light meal, they have both beef and vegetarian burgers, salads and Croque Monsieur. The main courses are quite varied, including Mushroom Ravioli, grilled Cajun chicken, red snapper, grilled salmon, steak frites, and Mussels (Moules) a la Penguin.

The menu is interspersed with wines by the glass and bottle and they have an additional wine list as well.

mirror-shotThe restaurant is comfortable and informal with excellent service as well as outstanding food.  The mirrored wall on one side makes the place seem more spacious, and the warm lighting makes the overall effect very comfortable. In addition to the menu, Le Penguin announces its daily specials on a blackboard, we gravitated to a couple of them.

For one of our starters we chose their Tricolor salad special with raisins, hazelnuts,  blue cheese and sherry vinaigrette. It was large and flavorful with a nice blend of nut and berry flavors with the lettuces.

The menu offers their Mussels ala Penguin as a starter ($15) or an entrée ($22). It turns out, that either way you get an enormous number of mussels. The difference is that the dinner version comes with frites. You get to choose the sauce Marinieres (shallots, garlic, wine) or the cream sauce with saffron, shallots, cream and white wine. The mussels were terrific, although more than we could eat, along with several small toast slices to dip in the sauce or eat with the mussels. The ends of the toast pieces were a bit too dark for us, so we just trimmed them off.

One of our entrees was Beef Short Ribs with Mushroom Risotto, and like the salad and the mussels was a huge portion, but certainly possible to have for lunch the next day, perhaps a sandwich. The beef was tender and juice and the risotto creamy with a deep mushroom flavor.

short-ribs

And finally, our other entrée was roast breast of duck with a berry sauce, shown above, and served with hash browns. Again, it was medium rare as we ordered and a very large but delicious portion. The duck was perfectly prepared and juicy, and went well with the berry sauce.

We didn’t have room for dessert, but did have coffee and tea. Special praise for Le Penguin as one of the few US restaurants that serves tea in a pot, already brewing instead of bringing a tea bag and some luke warm water.

Would we go back? Definitely. Le Penguin is a real gem and with their changing menu, we can pretty much be sure there will be a lot of things we’re going to want to try.  Congratulations to the owners on a great new place to eat in Westport!

blackboard

 

 

‘The Third Plate’ : Dan Barber’s book entertaining but fallacious

third-plateDan Barber is a highly regarded chef with substantial experience who is known for his two restaurants, Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester (Pocantico Hills). Both restaurants emphasize creative uses of vegetables and grains and de-emphasize meat, although their menus certainly include it, and represent some of the best examples of “farm to table cooking.”

His book, The Third Plate is an entertaining description of his restaurant and the accompanying farm give you some great insights into how great chefs think.  Unfortunately, his book has some serious fallacies that diminish its credibility as we describe later below.

Barber’s Pocantico Hills restaurant is located on the former Rockefeller estate. The renovation of the buildings as well as the accompanying working farm was funded by David Rockefeller, apparently to the tune of about $30 million. The book tells the story of how Barber’s Stone Barns restaurant developed in association with the farm, where they have the freedom to try out and breed unusual historical vegetables and grains. This “third plate” refers to an evolution in cooking from plates with meat and some small veggies on the side, to meat with better tasting and better cooked veggies, to some imagined future plate where the “steak” is made from vegetables and meat becomes a side dish.

Currently, Stone Barns offers one or two prix fixe menus, which for two with wine pairings, tax and tip can cost you as much as $898. With those prices in mind, you have to recognize that there are a lot of us who will probably never eat there. The reviews for that restaurant are exceptional and apparently so is the food. An evening’s dinner may consist of ten or more courses, starting with small servings of grains or vegetables, with meat in later courses. The menu varies frequently and may vary with each table depending on how the waiters feel you are appreciating what you have just been served

Barber is a good writer and story teller, and the book describes his work with the farmer and with plant breeders to develop and introduce the grains served in the restaurant, starting with the heirloom Eight Row Flint Corn, which was grown by early settlers but had all but vanished at the time he started.

His book is nominally divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, but the discussions flow freely around these ideas and you are likely to find some topics revisited in each section.

Foie gras

After his initial soil and farming discussions, Barber spends several chapters on foie gras, with a long bucolic description of a farm in Spain where geese are not force fed, but simply provided with sufficient food all summer and then naturally gorge on acorns in the fall. The farmer, Eduardo Sousa, simply talks to his geese to get them to do what he wants: and some call him a “goose whisperer.”

Then Barber visits the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company with Eduardo, and finds that the goose feeding is not cruel at all, where the “force feeding”  (gavage) takes only about 5 seconds per bird (ducks in this case). The kicker in this otherwise rather fascinating tale is that Eduardo decides that the Hudson valley ducks “didn’t know they were ducks.” And that Barber segues from that bizarre conclusion to his own: “What’s intolerable is the system of agriculture that it reflects.”

It is at this point that I lost touch with Barber’s point of view. Raising geese for slaughter one way or another, as long as they are humanely treated, seems to me completely comparable and I have no idea what he is getting at.

Fish Farming

Barber devotes over 100 pages to the sea and buying and cooking seafood sustainably, since many popular fish like bluefin tuna are threatened by overfishing. He visits the well-regarded chef Angel Leon of Aponiente on the Iberian Peninsula, who has learned how to cook the fishing fleet’s discarded by-catch, seasoning it with a phytoplankton broth. Barber also visits the fish farm Veta La Palma, where they raise fish in existing ponds and canals, where the fish are mostly fed from nutrients that occur naturally, producing some of the most sought after sea bass in Europe (and eventually the US).

He also describes the almadraba in Cadiz, where the villagers have been capturing migrating tuna using mazes of nets for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

He also spends some time praising Gilbert Le Coze, the founding chef of New York’s pre-eminent seafood-only restaurant, Le Bernardin, but for some reason avoids mentioning for many pages that Le Coze died in 1994, and that Eric Ripert, the chef since 1994, is principally responsible for Le Bernardin’s current exalted status in the food world.

Barber also tells us the story of Glenn Roberts and his founding of Anson Mills to produce artisanal grains, including graham flour (a kind of wheat) and revitalizing Carolina Gold rice, where they discover that the crops grown in conjunction with the wheat or rice affect the flavor of the grain.

Fallacies

While Barber’s book is entertaining enough to plow through in a day or two, there are some real problems with some of what he tells us.  Starting early on and repeating throughout is Barber’s insistence on the superiority of organic farming, although he provides no good reason for that, and does not acknowledge that “organic” is a USDA marketing label that allows you to charge higher prices rather than a set of superior techniques. At no point does he explain why the farm is “organic” nor why the farm would be less successful had they chosen careful conventional farming techniques.

Studies (USDA data) have shown that organic farming yield 50-75% as much as conventional farming, and that the produce is no safer or more nutritious or flavorful than conventional produce. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy promoted by the organic marketing associations.

One of the first anecdotes in the book describes farmer Klaas Martens, who had been farming conventionally for some years and suddenly developed a sort of weakness in his arms after spraying 2,4-D. According to the story, no doctors were able to diagnose his ailment, but this caused him to switch to organic farming because as his wife said, “he was being poisoned.”

The trouble with Martens’ story is that it contradicts all known toxicology data on 2,4-D. The National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet on 2,4-D says the “No occupational studies were found reporting signs or symptoms following exposure to 2,4-D under normal usage,” and even on acute oral exposure (drinking it) no symptoms like Martens had are observed. Since Martens condition was never diagnosed, we have to take this as mere rumor.

One particularly offensive statement later in the book comes from a young farmer who comes to Barber saying that “My father just got cancer, so I am switching to organic farming.”

Throughout the book, Barber continually mentions chemicals used in conventional farming as “poisoning the soil.” Since more than 98% of all farms in the US are conventional, this would imply that they must all be failing. Now, since most farmers have at least bachelor’s degrees and well understand how important caring for their soil is, this is pretty ridiculous. We would all be starving if this were true.

Even more ridiculous is Barber’s quote from Rudolf Steiner, who hatched the idea of biodynamic farming out of a series of mystical rituals, such as burying oak bark in a cow’s skull in the middle of your field. Steiner also had a lot of other crazy theories such as the one Barber quotes with a straight face, that the heart is not a pump for our blood, but that the blood that drives the heart. To support this nonsense he quotes “holistic practitioner” Thomas Cowan, who is deep into the same nonsense and Sally Fallon Morell of the discredited Weston A Price Foundation.

Barber is no friend of biotechnology either, making it clear he would never serve any genetically modified food in his restaurant (this is pretty hard to accomplish, actually). His example is the 2009 infestation of Late Blight that devastated everyone’s tomatoes in the Northeast.  There was one small patch of tomatoes on the farm that were not affected, Mountain Magic, an experimental seed from Cornell, bred to be blight resistant. (You can buy these from several seed catalogs today.) But Barber’s restaurant customers resisted them, fearing that they might be “genetically engineered.” He decided he needed to perpetuate the fallacy of tomatoes “bred the old-fashioned way at a land grant like Cornell, [versus] GM tomatoes from a company like Monsanto.”

The only GM tomato ever marketed was the Flavr Savr tomato, bred to be shipped ripe rather than green. Eventually, the tomato failed, but not because it didn’t have better flavor as Barber says, but because Calgene had trouble keeping costs down so it would be competitive.

Finally, Barber is skeptical about the whole idea of the Green Revolution, started by plant breeder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. His criticisms on the use of fertilizers to create higher yield seem to echo those of the mendacious non-scientific activist Vandana Shiva.

In fact, Barber is critical of the whole idea of modern agriculture, where farmers buy new seed each year rather than saving seeds from last year. Farmers have not saved seeds since the 1930s, because of the problems of storage and disease control as well as those of controlling new generations of seed. Barber thinks they should all be saving the best seeds from the fields each year on each farm instead, turning each farm into its own primitive seed development company. Few farmers would agree that this is a good division of labor.

In conclusion, Barber has written an entertaining and informative book on the relationship between high end cuisine and small scale agriculture, but seems oblivious to the fact that he and his restaurant are living a bucolic fantasy which can only work on a small scale, with the subsidies of the Rockefeller family and his high-priced restaurant.

Originally published on Examiner.com in September, 2014

 

Craft 14 Kitchen and  Bar opens in Wilton

Craft 14 Kitchen and  Bar opens in Wilton

After months of anticipation, Craft 14 Kitchen and Bar opened in Wilton about 2 weeks ago. Run by the team that manages the nearby Bianco Rosso, Mario Lopez and Cristina Ramirez, Craft 14, in the Stop and Shop plaza, has a lively, but informal vibe, and a small but varied and interesting menu. They call it a “polished casual New American restaurant,” and we think this describes it very well.

The restaurant consists of a bar area with high-top tables, and lower tables to the right, and a semi-open kitchen area where you can watch them from some of the tables. You can also eat on the semi-enclosed patio area in good weather. When the restaurant fills up, as it did last Saturday evening, it’s pretty lively, but you can still easily converse.

Normally we don’t write a real review so soon after a restaurant opens, since they deserve a shakedown period before being scrutinized, but Craft 14 really got everything right and we are going to dive right in and praise their food.

craft-burger
Craft 14 burger

The menu is divided into soups and salads, sandwiches, small plates, supper, sides and desserts.  In each category, you’ll find some simpler items and at least one spectacular one. For example, they have a conventional Wood Fire Classic Burger ($12) and an absolutely over-the-top Wood Fire Craft 14 Burger ($18), which includes ground beef, crisp pork, charred tomato, fried egg, brioche bun lathered with warm “cheese sauce.” We didn’t order this one (yet) but our neighbor did, and it was a burger requiring cutlery. In fact it required a couple of meals to finish, as he took half of it with him. But it really looked delicious. They also have a salmon and a ground chicken sandwich.

In the Soup and Salad category, you’ll find Clam Chowder, Halloumi Salad, and Beet Salad among other things. We’ll definitely try the clam chowder next time, but the Beet Salad ($15), made red and golden beets, Asian pear, pistachios orange segments and a yogurt and mint dressing was excellent.

Among the Small plates, we ordered the Ricotta Croquettes, served hot with applewood bacon, tomato confit and Chipotle honey ($12). You get four sizeable croquettes, so it is not unreasonable to share one or even half of them. The portions here are really generous!

mac-cheese
4 Cheese Mac and Cheese

 

And again, among the Small Plates, they have 3 kinds of macaroni and cheese: conventional ($11), Four cheese ($12) and Lobster ($15). We generally think that restaurants serving mac and cheese are silly, since it is so easy to make at home. But not this one! The Four cheese version was rich, hot and creamy. Apparently, rather than starting with a béchamel base, they started with heavy cream. Not only was it excellent, it was huge, and came home for lunch the next day.

chicken-waffles
Fried chicken and waffles

 

The Supper section of their menu included chicken, lamb, pork chop schnitzel, branzino, sirloin steak and hanger steak. But, to us, the spectacular item was the Fried Chicken and Waffles ($20), something you seldom see outside of the American South, and it was really well executed. The chicken was tender and juicy and the waffles crisp, but tender. A small amount of syrup was drizzled over the chicken and waffles, but a small pitcher of syrup was provided, giving you the chance of going either the sweet or the savory route. This was a fun find in a New England restaurant.

They have a small dessert menu including, I think, a mousse and some ice cream, but to top off the over-the-top theme, they  also offer a Banana Split!

This is a restaurant we’re going to be going to again and again, and we wish them well. Our bill, with 3 drinks was only $87.

 

Ventuno: Nantucket elegant Italian restaurant

Ventuno: Nantucket elegant Italian restaurant

signFive years ago Ventuno opened, replacing the old “21 Federal” restaurant with an elegant upscale Italian concept, created and managed by Scott Fraley along with chefs Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon, who also run Straight Wharf restaurant. The Chef de Cuisine is Andrea Solimeo. In this time the restaurant has only gotten better, but maintaining its clever menu of Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contorni (for sharing), Table Morsels and Dolci (desserts).

tablesMuch of the restaurant is on the second floor, although there are some first floor tables and a bar as well. The relaxed elegance includes white tablecloths and lovely place settings and attentive service throughout the meal.

A lot of the appetizers and antipasti are large enough to be considered full courses, and as it happened we both ordered their delicious meatballs (polpette, $16) as an appetizer.  These (shown above) are served in a tomato sauce with thin slices of pecorino and a sprig of basil. Three meatballs makes a pretty filling course, even though the menu classifies it as antipasti , it’s a good deal of tasty meatballs.

For our second course, we ordered the half-portion of pappardelle al sugo d’agnello or tomato braised lamb, with taggiasca olives, pecorino and marjoram ($19). The pappardelle was perfect for absorbing the lamb and tomato flavors, making an elegant dish.

Our other second course was a half portion of strozzapreti ($19), which is spicy chicken sausage with broccoli rabe and pecorino. This was moderately spicy and was enhanced by the generous serving of pecorino.

picata-gamberi

Just so you don’t think everything is a pasta dish at Ventuno, they also offer a fantastic piccata di capesanti e gamberi, or grilled Nantucket sea scallops and wild shrimp, with baby spinach, leeks, cauliflower, pine nuts, caperberry and lemon ($36). Order a small appetizer of salad if you order this one!

For dessert we sampled Bomboloncini ($12), consisting of bittersweet chocolate filled donuts, coffee gelato and chocolate sauce. Since there are two substantial donuts, you could split this one without feeling left out, but we noted they also offered Gianduja Semifreddo ($11) a chocolate cake, hazelnuts and a honey and bay leaf gelato which is pretty spectacular as well.

You are certainly not going to leave Ventuno hungry, and are likely to be more than satisfied with the more than imaginative food and excellent service. We try to get there every year!

Cru Oyster Bar: Nantucket’s newest bar

Cru Oyster Bar: Nantucket’s newest bar

Cru Oyster Bar opened about 5 years ago and received deserved praise from diners and the food press. In fact, Chef Erin Zircher was even invited to cook at a James Beard Foundation meal. The restaurant, at the end of Straight Wharf (site of the former Rope Walk) has a fantastic harbor view through the huge glass windows, some of which open when the weather permits.

We’ve eaten at Cru 4 previous times, and described most of the meals with high praise, as an elegant family restaurant with a terrific view. We remember seeing young people coloring on the provided menu pages with crayons, and seeing our own brood eating from children’s portions.

No more. The menu is simpler than it was formerly, but certainly not cheaper. Three minutes after we were seated at a nice window table, a group of about 8 men (ages 30 to 50) came in and began shouting to their comrades at the bar, which was just behind the window tables. This continued unabated. While this certainly showed a lack of consideration, it was apparently not unexpected, as the restaurant management did nothing to quell this disturbance.

We immediately asked to be moved to another table where we could actually converse, and they did move us to the second, darker dining room, where the noise was still substantial but more diffused. Here we were able to converse by cupping our hands behind our ears. In fact, this racket never really subsided during our entire meal. Cru is no longer a classy restaurant, but a raucous bar that serves some of the same food, albeit with less care.

For starters, we ordered a Blue Crab Cocktail ($23), served over lettuce and a horseradish crème sauce. There was plenty of crab, but it was kind of a dull presentation. On the other hand, the Shrimp Cocktail was priced a $5 a shrimp. (Really? Five dollars each?). It turned out that these shrimp made jumbo shrimp feel completely inferior. Each of them was gargantuan (we ordered 3 and couldn’t finish them). Something a considerate waiter might have alerted us to. Honestly, shrimp that big are just preposterous, and as you’d expect, not as tender as smaller ones would be.

One of our entrees was a really fine Nantucket Lobster Roll on a warm, buttered, toasted brioche roll for $36. There was a tremendous amount of lobster in this roll, and it was tender, buttery and delicious. In fact it was more than one of us could finish. This turned out to be fortuitous considering the other entrée.

Taking a turn away from the Nantucket’s emphasis on fine local seafood, we ordered their Chicken Under a Brick ($36). This is essentially half a spatchcocked chicken roasted under weights to help with uniform cooking, and served over a “summer bean salad.” Here is how Mark Bittman describes this recipe. In this case, it didn’t work very well. While the dark meat was good, the breast meat was tough and dry. When the waiter checked on us, we told him it wasn’t very good and he said he’d “tell the chef.” This did not, however, result in any changes. Fortunately, I was able to eat the rest of my wife’s lobster roll instead.

As soon as we could finish we asked for the check without even considering dessert in that din, and were shocked to find a bill of $171. OK, we had 4 glasses of wine, 2 while we waited interminably for our entrees, but they had offered no price adjustment on the terrible chicken dish. The waiter protested that my wife had “finished the chicken” so we weren’t due a refund. When we set him straight, he went away and eventually came back with a $139 bill. This is still a lot of money for at best middling food with none of its former distinction, and no dessert or coffee, but we paid and left.

If you’ve ever been hired for a job that turns into quite a different one after a couple of years, you can understand the chef’s predicament. She is doing a huge business with a rowdy crowd not really there for the fine food, but probably making a lot of money. And the waiter assured us that this was a quiet night after Labor Day and that it has been louder than this all summer. But this is not a place for comfortable dining and we won’t be back.

 

Le Languedoc: echoes of past island elegance

tablesWalking into the lovely upstairs dining rooms at Le Languedoc is like walking into a time warp, revealing island elegance we thought long past. In fact Le Languedoc has preserved it in the wonderful service and décor, and apply classic French techniques to dishes made from local or nearby ingredients.

And no wonder! The same partnership: Alan & Ann Cunha, Neil Grennan and Ed Grennan have been running Le Languedoc for an astonishing forty years! The food and service are as elegant as ever, with a warm, friendly staff attending to your every need and request.

The menu at Le Languedoc includes appetizers, main course entrees and “bistro favorites.” At one time, the lower level served only the simpler bistro items, but now you can order any item in either dining room. And that means that you could, if you wanted, order their famous cheeseburger, considered one of the island’s finest anywhere, as well as the more elaborate courses.

We proved that by ordering their fantastic chopped salad ($14) from the bistro menu as one appetizer. It’s a huge salad mixed with blue cheese and buttermilk, and simply delicious, although you may not be able to finish it.

And, in a show of versatility, we were delighted to be able to order the Escargot with Lobster Roe Fettucini, garlic butter and lemon ($18.50) for our other appetizer. Again, this one is also pretty filling, but the flavors in the pasta and sauce were unique, and there were an amazing number of escargot buried in that pasta. You won’t find either of those two dishes anywhere else on the island.

One of our main course items was actually listed as an appetizer, but as substantial as any main course: Pressed Veal Sweetbreads ($18.50) with parmesan, pancetta and pea risotto. Again, a truly creative mix of tastes in an excellent presentation.

Finally, our other main course was quite traditional: Traditional Steak Frites ($29) with watercress, truffle vinaigrette and béarnaise. The steak was as tender as any we’ve had, perfectly prepared (medium rare) and the béarnaise perfect. The French fries were clearly freshly made and very hot, and stayed that way served in the tall paper-lined dish. Just about perfect in every way.

While we could easily have left without it, we were interested in the Duo of Custards dessert ($12.50), where one was a traditional, but perfect, Crème Brulee, and the other a Butterscotch and Sea Salt Budino. They were truly irresistible and vanished in seconds.

custards

Despite the excellent food and service, our bill with 3 glasses of an excellent Pinot Noir was only $142. We’ve been coming to Le Languedoc for 20 years and have never been anything but delighted.

The Ship’s Inn on Nantucket

signLast year, we were pleasantly surprised and pleased with our first visit to the Ship’s Inn on Fair Street, a pleasant basement restaurant which we found elegant and understated.  Perhaps Chef Mark Gottwald had the night off, or perhaps the crowd got ahead of the kitchen, but this visit wasn’t as successful.

We arrived at 6:15pm, when things were still quite quiet, and placed our drink order and our dinner order. The drinks and the starters arrived fairly soon, before the crowds did. But by the time our main courses arrived, the restaurant was packed and deafeningly noisy. Conversation was nearly impossible, probably because of the low ceilings, and the chairs got increasingly uncomfortable during the meal.

The serving staff was professional and courteous, but the food was far below what we had expected from our previous visit. Almost every dish seemed to be accompanied by a similar, somewhat sour brown sauce.

Our order of Oysters Mignonette ($18) was six ample oysters on ice, with a small bowl of mignonette sauce in the middle. Mignonette sauce is just a mixture of red wine vinegar, shallots and pepper, but this one just seemed to be vinegar, and you were misled by the amount in the bowl that you should dip the oysters in it. That is too much vinegar:  the sauce is best drizzled or dropped on the oysters: otherwise it overpowers them and your sinuses.

The other starter was their seafood chowder ($12), the only non-brown dish, and it had ample pieces of some kind of seafood in it. But, while it also had a lot of potatoes and was made with cream, the chowder was thin (more soup like) and, oddly, included pieces of tarragon, imparting an unexpected flavor. It didn’t seem to really be a chowder.

salmon

One of our entrees was Paillard of Wild King Salmon ($39) with balsamic and Malbec reduction. It was served with two little warm lettuce leaf towers with carrots, celery, lettuce pieces and a few mushrooms. Really lovely presentation, but low on actual flavor. Likewise, the accompanying brown sauce was pretty nondescript, and didn’t really seem to go with the salmon. The salmon itself was very tender and not at all over cooked, but also oddly flavorless.

 

vealFinally, and brownest of all was the veal scaloppini citron ($34) with house made spinach and egg fettuccini. The ubiquitous brown sauce went a little better with the veal, which consisted of a 3 huge sautéed slices of veal, relatively tender, and served with a carrot puree and a spinach or perhaps kale puree. The downside of this dish is the visual effect of these huge brown veal slices and only a limited amount of the very good fettuccini. The plate presentation was simply off-putting.

Finally, we let the waitress up-sell us a chocolate soufflé ($12.50), which was delivered soon after our meal was cleared. It was a perfectly standard, undistinguished soufflé that any of us could make in our kitchen, with nothing to recommend it.  The waiter poured the sweet cream sauce into the soufflé as expected and we dug in. It was fine, but nothing exciting.

While there was nothing really wrong about our visit other than the deafening noise, there was nothing really right either. Everything was sort of bland and OK. With two glasses of wine and tax, but before tip, the bill was $164. We found that kind of high.

Toppers at the Wauwinet: superb island dining

We had the great pleasure of again dining at Topper’s restaurant, which is part of the Wauwinet hotel in Nantucket. Chef Kyle Zachary has put together a superior , creative menu and the dining room has far away the best service on the island. You can order from the menu a la carte, but you will do better if you order the prix fixe 3-course menu for $90: appetizer, entrée and dessert. You also have the option of the 6-course tasting menu for $125, and can order $105 in wine pairings to go with it. In either case, you will be eating the finest food on the island.

map

The Wauwinet is some distance from downtown, with Wauwinet Rd off Polpis Rd about ¾ of the way to ‘Sconset. You can drive there, take the shuttle from in from of the Federal St Information Center, or in good weather take a free motor launch across the harbor.

Since we last visited, the Wauwinet has expanded the dining room, serving both on a new covered patio and added a glassed in dining area. You now enter through the patio dining area and can dine inside or on the patio itself. While Nantucket dining has become quite informal in recent years, Topper’s is one of the few places where you would be comfortable wearing a jacket. It’s an elegant white-tablecloth restaurant with a host of staff to tend to your needs.
Soon after we were seated and had placed our drink order, the waiter arrived with an ice bucket containing two screw cap vials. Not shades of Walter White, but a small sampling of a delicious gazpacho. You just unscrew the cap and chug the tube of soup.

Then right after that, a waiter brought two “eggs” of butter, one plain and one salted to use with the basket of delicious breads he brought with him.  All this before we’d even placed our order!

We chose the $90 prix fixe menu, and while there were 5 first courses (vegetables, risotto, foie gras terrine, poached egg and cured King Salmon) and 5 main courses (butter poached lobster, Wagyu Beef,  Milk Fed Pork, grilled halibut and roasted eggplant) we both ended up ordering the same two items risotto and Wagyu beef.

risotto

The risotto is formally described as “Carnaroli Rissoto “Fruits de Mer”; Maine Sea urchin, Jonah Crab, wild Gulf Shrimp, Bottarga, and Brown Butter emulsion. But the description doesn’t do justice to the beautiful presentation of risotto rice full of pieces of seafood, partly covered with a creamy sauce and decorated with chives. Carnaroli rice used in this dish is firmer and longer grained than the usual Arborio rice used in risotto and made the texture much more interesting. Every bite was exquisite.

For our main course, we ordered the 7X Ranch Wagyu Beef: Sirloin and Short ribs, with swiss chard, chanterelle mushrooms,  cipollini onios and potato “gratin.” This elegant dish had a $15 supplemental charge, but was well worth it as the short ribs wrapped in chard were meltingly tender and flavorful and the sirloin fresh and tasty.

wagyu

tapiocaBefore dessert, they brought us a complimentary pre-dessert: a tiny bit of a delicious coconut tapioca pudding topped with apricot jam, served in a little egg cup.

And finally, the dessert. We ordered a Chocolate Parfait they describe as Maracaibo Chocolate Bavarian, Hazelnut Crunch, Mascarpone Ice Cream and Hot Chocolate Sauce. But in this case, the presentation is everything. They bought out a parfait class covered with a white disk, which turned out to b white chocolate. The waiter poured the hot chocolate sauce on the disk, causing it to dissolve and collapse into the parfait, in a clever piece of culinary theater. Needless to say, every bite was worth it: a crunchy mixture of chocolate, cake and ice cream that you hoped you would never get to the bottom of.

But this wasn’t the end. Before the check, they brought out a plate containing squares of a raspberry gelled candy and crunchy pecans covered with chocolate.

treat

Clearly there are very few restaurants like this: it is considered the top restaurant in New England and one of the very best in the country. It also has a Grand rating from Wine Spectator.

The bill, as you might expect was about twice what we paid at other restaurants so far this year. For two meals, 3 glasses of wine, one  coffee and one tea, the check with tax but before tip was $282.50. The Wauwinet illustrates what a truly fine restaurant should be like, and also how few of them there are.

 

American Seasons: reliable quality dining

facadeThis is Neil Ferguson’s second year helming American Seasons and things are going fairly well. The menu is somewhat smaller than under prior management, but covers a broad range of well prepared dishes.

However, when we arrived, they had clearly lost our reservation despite the fact that they had called the day before to confirm it.The hostess had just a handwritten scrap of paper with names on it, and ran back to allegedly consult a master list. She immediately offered us a table in the patio area right by the door and behind the hostess station which we declined. They eventually found us a table inside.

The starters last night included farfale pasta with confit chicken, beet salad,  rabbit terrine, heirloom tomatoes and melons, sea scallops, roast carrots and puree and hamachi and grapefruit.

The entrees included pork chop, cod filet, ribeye of beef, lobster salad, roast chicken breast, summer squash casserole and halibut filet.

For our appetizer we chose the beet salad with gem hearts, candied walnuts and homemade yoghurt dressing  ($16), which was one of the better ones we’ve been served recently, and Rabbit and Foie Gras Terrine ($20) with spiced pickled plum and hazelnut pesto. This was excellent and the spiced plum made an excellent accompaniment.

For entrees, we pulled a switcheroo and ordered the scallops appetizer, Roast Sea Scallops ($!8) with field greens and Vinaigrette Antiboise. This turned out to be a real bargain, since we were served 3 scallops, which is a full meal by most measures. They were tender and perfectly prepared.

And, for our second entrée, we had Cod Filet ($36), with Roast Lemon Puree and a fennel bulb, and a brown butter whey dressing. The waiter delivered the perfectly prepared cod and poured a little pitcher of the brown butter dressing over top. While it was excellent, the portion seemed a bit skimpy, especially compared to those scallops, but it was absolutely delicious.

dessertFinally, we sprung for one dessert to split: Chocolate custard, caramelized banana and chocolate bouchon (basically a cylindrical brownie) for $15. This was a lot of dessert, and we each got a share.

For a Thursday evening, American Seasons was very busy. By the time we left every table was taken and the staff was running to keep up. This may be because it was right before Labor Day,  but it is certainly an endorsement of the quality of Ferguson’s cooking and the staff’s service, both of which were excellent. The sudden influx resulted in some delay before out dessert arrived, and the waiter was most apologetic.  The bill, with 2 glasses of wine and tip as $144.50 and a far better bargain than many island restaurants. Oh, and bread was provided for free, and without asking.

table setting