Our Favorite Alfresco Dining Destinations
Ten top spots to dine en plein air.
By: Julia Bonar Published May 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM
Our Favorite Alfresco Dining Destinations
Ten top spots to dine en plein air.
Elegant Al Fresco Dining: Ten places where the meals are as breathtaking as the food.
By Julia Bonar
Take a drive around the Italian countryside on a fine summer night and you’ll see it everywhere you go: tables (and sometimes just boards placed on trestles) draped with snowy linens and set out under the stars. And you’ll see people clustered in the lamplight, enjoying long, leisurely meals in the fragrant evening air.
The Italians are no fools when it comes to elegant dining—they invented la dolce vita, after all. They know that nothing can turn a good meal into magic like taking it outside on a summer night.
So get away from the sterile chill of air conditioning and the harsh glare of electric lights—and enjoy your next night out in nature’s dining room. What follows is a roundup of Westchester’s 10 best places for an alfresco evening.
■ ■ Le Jardin du Roi ■ ■
95 King St., Chappaqua
(914) 238-1368; www.lejardinchappaqua.com
Setting: A casual, candlelit patio garden, tucked away from the road, with seating for 40 under market umbrellas.
If you blanch at the thought of having to re-don your tie (or heels) to get a bite of authentic French food, Le Jardin du Roi is for you. Feel free to sit outside in shorts and flip-flops enjoying a warm summer evening in Le Jardin’s flickering, flower-studded, lantern-and-candlelit garden. There, you can dig into such hearty bistro fare like coq au vin and steak frites, or more creative dishes like pan-seared lamb with eggplant caviar and raspberry sauce, all executed as they would be in Paris. And late commuters take note: just as in Paris, diners are welcome until midnight.
Commitment-phobic oenophiles are also welcome. Le Jardin has 20 wines by-the-glass and a wide selection of summer cocktails. Especially good is the not-too-sweet, subtly sparkling cocktail that Le Jardin calls a French Kiss: Stolichnaya vanilla vodka, passion fruit nectar, and a splash of dry Champagne.
A West Village transplant (by way of Algiers and Paris), owner Omar Kaghat has transported his successful Le Deux Gamins formula north to Chappaqua. Like any good French bistro, Le Jardin du Roi serves earthy Gallic comfort food morning ’til night: breakfasts of pain perdu and huge bowls of café au lait, lunches of croque monsieur and crispy frites, and late and lingering dinners enjoyed en plein air.
■ ■ Harvest on Hudson ■ ■
1 River St., Hastings-on-Hudson
(914) 478-2800; www.harvest2000.com
Setting: Dinner on the Hudson along wide, lushly planted terraces; cocktails, starters, and desserts in a riverside herb garden with an outdoor bar and chimineas.
Casually seductive, Harvest on Hudson is a sort of return-customer factory: you just can’t help plotting your next visit as you walk out the door. Maybe it’s the stunning Hudson River views overlooking a regal swoop of the Palisades (the site was reclaimed, if you can believe it, from a Robison Oil truck garage). It could be the sunny geometric garden bursting with the heirloom vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. The garden’s fragrant little seating nooks certainly help the return factor, warmed as they are by rustic terracotta chimineas. (Imagine them as your own personal wood-burning stoves). Whatever it is—you’ll be back.
Harvest on Hudson’s Mediterranean menu is nothing if not democratic, offering everything from steaks and foie gras to the more casual tapas, pizzas, and a raw bar. Many of the dishes are perfect for groups, especially the restaurant’s Tower: a vertical raw bar composed of raw oysters, clams, massive shrimp and meaty king crab legs (the latter two cooked). Chef Vincent Barcelona’s crowd-friendly menu is designed and executed with a refinement that shows his elite career experience—he’s worked beside many boldface names in the culinary world (Tom Colocchio at Mondrian, David Burke at Park Avenue Café). Everything he serves is on point, from his creamy tuna sashimi, pounded flat into carpaccio, to his lush treatment of the humble halibut: the impeccably fresh fish arrives salty and crisp outside, sweet and creamy inside, resting on airy little gnocchi and tart kalamata butter.
Pastry chef James C. Distefano brings an urbane touch to desserts, getting perhaps the biggest bang out of Harvest on Hudson’s herb garden. I can think of no better end to a sultry evening than to sit by the river amidst fragrant herbs, savoring a cool glass of vin santo and the bright and layered flavors of his desserts.
■ ■ L’Escale ■ ■
500 Steamboat Rd., Greenwich, CT
(203) 661-4600; www.lescalerestaurant.com
Setting: Large Provence-themed terrace overlooking Greenwich Harbor with popular outdoor bar and separate dining area.
L ’Escale’s Ivory Coast-born executive chef, Francois Kwaku-Dongo, cut his teeth working at such diverse gastronomic temples as Maison Troisgros in France and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in L.A. In fact, he was a key player in Puck’s empire, overseeing all the Spagos and co-owning Spago Chicago. The shorthand here is that he’s skilled at pleasing a wealthy and demanding customer—the kind of customer who pulls up to the restaurant (as they do at L’Escale) in yachts.
The terrace scene at L’Escale is relaxed yet swinging, with a hard-drinking celebrity- and power-crowd enjoying sunny views of Greenwich Harbor. The must-have terrace cocktail is the pretty raspberry Mojito, in which rum and lime are layered with fresh red berries, muddled green mint leaves, and a crystal-clear splash of 7Up.
At L’Escale, the attention to detail is impressive, from the dining room’s massive stone hearth (salvaged from an old château) to the 200-year-old French floor tiles. You see it in the Normandy butter accompanying your bread (seasoned with sea salt and pepper and laid over a fragrant fresh lemon), and in the relaxed yet attentive service. You see it especially in the flawless execution of Chef Kwaku-Dongo’s sunny, Provence-inspired menu. Not-to-be-missed summer dishes include his crisp, sweet, and briny soft-shell crab and his revelation of a seafood salad: lobster chunks, immaculately fresh fish, tender calamari, mussels, and nickel-sized squid, all allowed to shine through a sheer veil of pepper-infused oil.
■ ■ Scarborough Fair Restaurant ■ ■
65 Pondfield Rd., Bronxville
Setting: A candlelit, brick-paved garden between two buildings, planted with birch trees, climbing plants, and overflowing planters.
There’s something about Scarborough Fair’s romantic, brick-paved garden that’s very reminiscent of London. Maybe it’s the mossy bricks and overflowing planters, or perhaps it’s the walls overrun by climbers. You often see lush little oases tucked into the bricks of London—they’re almost like secret gardens. Those kinds of spaces always seem more precious because they’re a surprise.
The London association is not far off from the restaurant’s origins. Scarborough Fair started as a prim tearoom, serving Darjeeling and cucumber sandwiches to an older, mostly female crowd. That changed in 1987, when Dublin native Chef John Byrne came to town. Fresh off several corporate food-service management positions, he discovered a foundering business in a wealthy community—a perfect site to showcase his real cooking skills. Since then, Scarborough Fair has become one of the most chic restaurants around. Finally shedding Scarborough’s tearoom past, Byrne nicknamed the spot SF, and spearheaded a jazzy interior redecoration with Dr. Seuss-inspired banquettes and elegant silk lighting fixtures.
Nevertheless, you can still expect carefully executed, classic cuisine at Scarborough Fair. Look for dishes like the seared foie gras with aged balsamic vinegar and portobello mushrooms, crab cakes with micro-greens, and filet mignon with seasonal risotto. Or try his Tasmanian trout (a wild salmon-like species), served ruddy and creamy over asparagus tips. You can get a burger—Kobe beef, of course, with perfectly crisp outside/fluffy inside steak fries.
■ ■ Sonora ■ ■
79 Rectory St., Port Chester
Setting: Seating for 22 on an intimate torch- and candlelit deck.
What is there left to say about powerhouse Chef Rafael Palomino? He’s Westchester’s celebrity chef, winner of numerous awards, with three cookbooks in print and a new product line available at www.latinochef.com. While fame and side projects can sometimes spell loosened standards in the kitchen, Chef Palomino’s grip on Sonora is firm—you’ll taste his will and intention in every bite.
Sonora strikes the difficult balance between a fun and relaxed dining experience and a graduate-level course in the wide-ranging foods of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. It’s produced by a skilled kitchen on a serious didactic mission—to illuminate the beauty of these often overlooked cuisines in a way that’s simply a sensual pleasure. They’re successful. The saffron smell rising from a pan of Palomino’s loaded-with-lobster, chorizo-rich pa- ella will take you to sunny Spain, while the sweet and succulent lobster and pomegranate ceviche taste like a well-earned, four-star Caribbean vacation.
Don’t miss Sonora’s flawless, thoughtfully crafted cocktails—espe-cially the tart cachaça and lime Caipiriñha and the spicy Pisco sour. This hard-to-find national drink of Peru uses a Peruvian brandy made from white muscat grapes.
While Sonora’s outdoor deck is intimate (with seating for a select 22 guests), when the candles and torches are lit, it’s the perfect setting for Chef Palomino’s sensuous food. With flavors like this on a balmy night, air conditioning would almost be a crime.
■ ■ F.I.S.H. ■ ■
102 Fox Island Rd., Port Chester
(914) 939-4227; www.fishfoxisland.com
Setting: Candlelit deck overlooking a residential turn of the Byram River with overflow seating.
F.I.S.H. (Fox Island Seafood House) is a perfect example of how much serious thought can go into a successful, breezy, and casual restaurant. The whimsical décor uses its limited resources to the fullest: the building’s awkward, low-ceilinged and noisy rooms are disguised by a smart use of paint and sound baffles that look like sails. The restaurant’s outdoor space is also fully exploited—from the inside, with large sliding windows, and from the outside, with a deck—and overlooks a surprisingly residential turn of the semi-industrial, not-quite-prime-waterfront Byram River. In short, it’s one of the most shrewdly conceived, deftly executed restaurants around. F.I.S.H. takes an iffy premise and makes it work…beautifully.
That’s not even taking into account the food, all of which is good in a robust, boldly flavored way. While fish-phobes are given more than token consideration (with lots of terrestrial pizzas, salads, chicken, steak, and burger dishes on the menu), the fish is what you come for. Highlights include spicy tuna flatbread: a crunchy sashimi pizza for a crowd, wasabi-hot enough that it’ll have you reaching for your tasty, Swedish Fish garnished F.I.S.H. cocktail. Or, if you see them (and you may not—Chef William Rosenberg’s menu changes every six weeks), go for the flawlessly sautéed diver scallops. They’re hard-seared outside, creamy and nearly raw inside, perfectly seasoned and treated with the respect they deserve. And speaking of respect, F.I.S.H. sells no farmed or unsustainably harvested species. You’ll see no flabby farmed salmon or Chilean sea bass here.
■ ■ Equus Restaurant ■ ■
400 Benedict Ave., Tarrytown
Setting: The stone terrace of a historic, castle-like mansion with extensive Husdon views.
There’s no alfresco dining site in Westchester more unapologetically swank than the terrace at Equus—a fact not lost on its well-heeled regulars. Housed in the hilltop pile formerly known as Axe Castle, Equus’s outdoor dining terrace offers spectacular Hudson views from a vantage point of baronial luxury. Bustling Tarrytown disappears under a canopy of trees, and all you’ll see from your crenellated perch are manicured sculpture gardens dropping off to swaying treetops and the majestic Hudson beyond.
Chef David Haviland’s daily prix-fixe menus are French-based with a healthy injection of local ingredients and American flair. Take his uptown version of the classic shellfish and chorizo called lobster truffle brandade—hunks of lobster formed into lightly breaded cakes, served over a tiny dice of chorizo, and capped by a trio of massive shrimp. In a nod toward modern Spanish cuisine, the entire assembly is gilded with fragrant lobster-cognac foam. Or try his cool and luscious tuna tartare: chunky quenelles of ruby-colored tuna stacked high between crisps over a briny seaweed salad.
Equus (in keeping with its aristocratic tone) is manned by a formal, European-trained staff. And bucking the increasingly casual trend of America’s top restaurants, Equus suggests that jackets be worn in the dining room. Nevertheless, the mood at Equus is never stiff: the kitchen is happy to serve picnic meals to diners looking to spread a blanket in the sculpture garden or even beside the whimsical, oversized chess set.
■ ■ Crabtree’s Kittle House ■ ■
11 Kittle Rd., Chappaqua
(914) 666-8044; www.kittlehouse.com.
Setting: Secluded torch and candlelit lawn surrounded by trees, herbs, and flowers.
A true local institution, Crabtree’s Kittle House has always mirrored Westchester’s growth. When Westchester was a farming community, the structure, built in 1790, was a barn. When Westchester became a country retreat for wealthy businessmen, the Kittle House became an estate. And now that Chappaqua is an urbane and well-heeled suburb, Crabtree’s Kittle House is a sophisticated restaurant with an epic, nationally recognized wine cellar.
That doesn’t mean that the Kittle House has forgotten its roots. Current owner John Crabtree (who purchased the inn with his father) makes it a point to showcase local produce in his restaurant. You’ll find Rainbeau Ridge goat cheese from nearby Bedford Hills, and eggs from Mount Kisco’s Cabbage Hill Farm. You’ll even find Pleasantville’s Captain Lawrence I.P.A. on tap. (And then there are the locally foraged ramps brought to the kitchen door by a woman known only as “The Ramp Lady.”) Satisfying Kittle House dishes like heirloom baby beets with fried Rainbeau Ridge goat cheese and hazelnut milk make you proud to live in Westchester.
It’s no surprise that the Kittle House’s yearly fireworks-lit Fourth of July clambake sells out so far ahead. There’s no more sophisticated, yet inherently American, place around. Where else would a $10,000 bottle of 1900 Château Margaux and a luscious mango/jalopeño lobster roll (with tiny fingerling potato chips) show up on the same menu?
■ ■ Vox ■ ■
721 Titicus Rd., North Salem
(914) 669-5450; www.vox-restaurant.com
Setting: Two candlelit patios with outdoor bar and rolling, park-like grounds.
Vox is as pleasing as a good French country antique—it’s got the comforting patina of age and casual quality. Even though the menu has undergone a modern shift since its days as Auberge Maxime, the refinement of the French landmark is still there. You’ll find it lurking in the perfumed velvet of Vox’s lobster bisque and in Chef Christopher Cipollone’s masterful treatment of duck: crisp-skinned, fuchsia magret fanned over a soulful confited leg, paired with forbidden black rice, baby bok choy, and a plum-wine sauce. It tastes like a dream of Gascony—and the reason God made ducks. More contemporary dishes are equally pleasing, especially the addictive artichoke salad with sweet green apples, the thistle’s heart and tender stem tamed by a vinegary marinade and some quality time over a smoky fire.
The outdoor space at Vox takes full advantage of its location in one of the prettiest corners of Westchester