My Most Memorable Meal

Warning: Don’t read on an empty stomach.


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My Best Meal of the Year

 

What makes the best dining experience?

 

We asked five local foodies, including a chef, a reviewer, a blogger, and Esquire’s editor-in-chief (who was too camera-shy to be photo-graphed) to tell us the most incredible, most transcendent,  most perfect meal they’ve had in the last year. We guarantee surprises.

 

 

 

Now, That’s Italian

 

By Julia Sexton | Sexton is a Westchester-based food writer and restaurant critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and a host of other publications.

 

 

 

We were greeted warmly but with A CERTAIN amount of curiosity. Unlike Florence, Rome, and Venice, Bologna receives few American tourists. Fewer still wind up in Savigno, a small town high up in the hills and about a 45-minute drive from the city.

 

Our host at Trattoria Da Amerigo showed us upstairs to one of the three small dining rooms, each holding only about 20 diners. It was a cheerful room, decorated with heavy linens, comfortable chairs, and pegs on the walls for coats. But even settled with apertivos of sparkling Pignoletto (a wine particular to the Colli Bolognese), we felt a little unsure of ourselves—as if we’d barged into a dinner party. One of the other diners, perhaps sensing our discomfort,  wished us a cheery “buon appetito.” He then raised his glass to the other diners at his table and wished them the same. That broke the spell—we instantly felt welcome.

 

After dropping off an amuse bouche of tiny sandwiches of polenta and coppa di testa (a regional sausage made from the heads of pork), our waiter tried to take our order. He was chagrined to learn that our Italian was rudimentary–my own limited to food nouns. We pointed to the tasting menu.  “E vino?” We hadn’t even looked at the wine list.  We were relieved when he said, “Allow me to choose.”

 

The entire meal featured food and wines grown, raised, hunted, or foraged in the neighborhood. First to arrive was an earthy borlotti soup, the large, creamy beans made heady with sage and buttery, crisp-roasted porcini mushrooms. It was flawlessly executed, soulful, lushly terrestrial—and sexy. Even Wylie Dufresne would weep at such simple, earthbound perfection. 

 

As I bowed over my dish, our waiter poured us glasses of Pignoletto Vallona, a non-sparkling version of the wine produced right down the road in Fagnano. Amerigo has three wine lists: one listing wines of the Bolognese hills, one listing wines from the Emilia-Romagna, and one listing wines from all over Italy. Our waiter was bringing us only the wines of these hills. Best of all? He poured the glasses and then he left the bottle—no stingy pour-one-glass-per-course-and-walk-away stuff here. At Amerigo, diners are free to enjoy the wines as liberally as they enjoy the food.

 

Not only did we snag the last available table at Amerigo, but we also happened upon Savigno’s truffle festival. Savigno is in the middle of the Emilian truffle country, and November is peak season. Our waiter explained that to celebrate the upcoming festival, we would both be served a very special seasonal passatelli with cream and white truffles.

 

The passatelli—an odd Emilia-Romagna pasta made with fresh bread crumbs, Parmigiano Reggiano, eggs, and sometimes lard—filled the room with the scent of truffles. No ostentatious waiter arrived with a shaver, there were no miniscule black flecks—this dish was half passatelli and half big slices of white truffle. I had never seen so much of the fungi together in one dish before. This almost too luxurious pasta was matched with a redolent Sauvignon Superiore from Monte San Pietro, another of the towns we’d driven through.  As with all the wines, it was delicious.

 

At some point during the meal, I took a look around the room. Many of the diners were toasting each other, flushed with good wine and food. A small group of culinary school students had arrived—recognizable by their pointy, Italian rubber cook’s clogs—and were sharing and discussing their dishes animatedly.  Meanwhile, our waiter was pressed into photographing a large family table at one end of the room. The whole room participated—giving advice, standing up to make room, laughing when the waiter couldn’t operate the camera. The diner who wished us buon appetito at the start of the meal lifted his glass to me—by now, understanding, I winked and lifted mine back.

 

{Tratorria Da Amerigo, Via G. Marconi, 14, 40060 Savigno (BO) Italy 39-051-670-8326}

 

Glorious Olive Funk

 

By David Granger | A resident of Croton-on-Hudson,

David Granger is the editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine.

 

 

It had been a while since we’d been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The thing was, the two times we’d been there, it just wasn’t all that good. 
I know, I know—one is not supposed to say such a thing. After Dan Barber and the Rockefeller clan teamed up to do the whole organic/holistic/
eat-the-food-you-grow-when-it’s-grown thing, the enterprise was immediately deemed to be so stinking laudable that no one was willing to posit (at least out loud) that the food just wasn’t particularly tasty. And tasty is where it’s at when it comes to food, especially food that is not only as pricey as it is at Blue Hill, but food that is served with the religious fervor (“this is good and you’re so lucky to be able to eat it!”) with which Blue Hill’s food is served. Such is the reverence for the ingredients grown just outside the kitchen, it seemed, that the kitchen staff just didn’t do much to those ingredients, and the food on our visits ended up tasting kind of white—kind of, you know, bland.

 

That said, one of the better culinary experiences of 2006 was had at the bar at Blue Hill. We stopped in on one of the rare slow evenings there and ordered drinks.

 

Uncharacteristically, one of our drinks was a martini. Now, the martini was solid, nicely presented and all, but the olives that accompanied it were stellar. First bite: Wow! The taste was not so much the taste of green olive as it was the taste of all the vegetarian things that live in the ground in Italy. You know, that glorious funk that resides as much in white truffles as it does in olives and garlic and every herb that pokes its head out of the Umbrian earth. The bar at Blue Hill buys a funk-infused olive oil from the Italians, our bartender informed us, and marinates not only its own olives, but pickles and mushrooms and all other imaginable bar vegetables in this brew. It is these bar veggies that were one of the highlights of Westchester dining last year. They are glorious. They offer delight. They give me hope.

 

{Blue Hill at Stone Barns 630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills
(914) 366-9600; www.bluehillfarm.com}

 

A Busman’s Holiday

 

By Peter X. Kelly  | Peter X. Kelly is the owner of the Xaviars Restaurant Group, including Xaviars at Piermont, Freelance Café, Restaurant X and his newest X2O Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers. Kelly has appeared many times on network television and most recently defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America.

 

 

To experience a great meal, many ingredients must line up in perfect harmony, and not only those that go into the food. The wines must be appropriate to the great food, the setting commensurate to the celebration, and your companions as jubilant as you just to be out for a “busman’s holiday.” I had one of these exemplary meals not long ago at a restaurant in Briarcliff Manor that is run by a somewhat temperamental yet extremely accommodating host who serves the finest porterhouse steak that I am aware of, and I am aware of many.

 

To eat at Flames Steakhouse is to take a step back to a time before foams and fancy garnishes, when a restaurant was judged by the quality of its products and not the height of any food sculpture; a time when a great wine list was judged by its depth of vintage and its availability of wines produced long before “boutique” wines were ever heard of. 

 

When I last visited the restaurant, my wife and I were entertaining some friends, a couple who were visiting from North Carolina. Our friends are rather simple eaters but they appreciate quality. Mike, who was a star running back at Chapel Hill back in the day, has a rather large appetite and a thirst for California Cabernet Sauvignon with at least 15 years of bottle age. His wife, Sharon, a petite blonde with real southern charm, loves to cook but much prefers to dine out. I knew Mike would enjoy the owner’s sarcastic wit and Sharon his eastern European charm. My wife and I would just enjoy sharing a night out with good friends, good food, and good humor.

 

First courses at Flames run the usual gamut of steakhouse favorites, and our evening began with four of them. Sharon was presented with the first, a colossal lump crabmeat cocktail, a portion that was close to a half a pound of sweet white crabmeat. No vinaigrettes, no spicy peppers, no exotic fruits—just naked lumps of crabmeat with a spoonful of Russian dressing on the side. Next up my wife had what she always has as a first course at Flames steakhouse: a small portion of the restaurant’s spaghetti carbonara. This is the single best interpretation of this classic that I have had served in Westchester.

 

The pasta is house-made, tossed simply with a generous amount of cracked pepper, minced pancetta, and a parmigiano cream—this is comfort food at its very best. Mike’s first course, grilled bacon, was presented as four thick-cut strips charred on the grill but left tender within. The smokiness was heady. My own starter, one of the night’s specials, was indeed special. Two center portions of Alaskan king crab legs, done oreganato style, were cut from the thickest part of the leg and split down the center, drizzled lightly with herbed breadcrumbs and sweet butter—nothing more. The dish could not have been improved on.

 

For our main courses, we took the owner Nick’s suggestion and ordered surf and turf. What the kitchen prepared for us was nothing less than awesome. The surf portion was a six-pound lobster pulled from the live tank in the dining room. When the creature was presented to us for our inspection, it looked as if it should be on a leash. When it returned to our table in its fire-engine red shell, the meat was sweet and tender and served simply with drawn butter for dipping. The turf portion of our entrée was a spectacular porterhouse steak, cut close to three inches thick and charred on the bone; on one half rested the filet portion tender as butter, on the other the sirloin well marbled with a velvet quality. The beef which had the undeniable tang of well-aged meat, was sauced with nothing more than its own juices. The final accompaniments were perfectly fried shaved onions and creamed spinach with just a hint of grated nutmeg. With this Rabelaisian feast, we drank two bottles of 1987 Châteaux Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that helped put Napa Valley winemaking on par with the great château of Bordeaux.

 

Since none of us had the gall to order dessert after such a meal, Nick, the quintessential host, brought to our table a single tall goblet with four long spoons. The glass was layered with a silken mocha mousse and chilled English custard scented with vanilla bean. It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

 

{Flames Steakhouse, 533 N State Rd, Briarcliff Manor (914) 923-3100; www.flamessteakhouse.com}

 

French Comfort Food at Its Best

 

By Barbara Marshall | Barbara Marshall is the owner of Marshall’s Cheese Shop in Dobbs Ferry. Previously she worked in the film business and digital media.

 

 

When I think of the great
restaurant meals I’ve had, the most memorable ones were those that offered a respite from the outside world. The meals were simple and satisfying, served in informal rooms and shared with friends. Fine food, of course, is an equally important part of a great restaurant meal, but without lively companions and a convivial, welcoming atmosphere, the experience would be diminished. After such a meal, I can take on the world again.

 

The Red Hat Bistro in Irvington, a sophisticated, urbane brasserie that reminds me of some favorite downtown spots like the Odeon, Florent, and La Gamelle, has provided ideal dining experiences for me on a number of occasions. One particular occasion that c0omes to mind was May 17 of this year—my birthday.

 

On that day, much to my annoyance, I had to appear at Small Claims Court in White Plains late in the afternoon. (If you win a judgment in Small Claims Court in a town in Westchester, the losing party can just keep countersuing you in different towns. Nice!) A couple of friends accompanied me so that we could have an early dinner afterward to celebrate my birthday. We ended up at the Red Hat, where we were seated in a little alcove and soon served glasses of Bordeaux that we ordered from the wonderful, rotating list of wines by the glass. We felt excited to be in a safe harbor. For me, bistro food is comfort food, and I was greatly comforted by my order of tender gamy duck with crispy skin and raspberry glaze. For dessert I had an intense chocolate torte, a tawny port, and espresso. My friends and I relaxed, laughed a lot, and the events of the day evaporated.

 

I’ve eaten at the Red Hat with friends from Manhattan, too, all of whom were delighted with the movie-set-ready, 1930s-style bistro—all dark wood, gaslight-like lighting, and black-and-white tiled floor. Raymond Chandler would have felt at home here. On one warm, hazy night last summer, my friends and I ate appetizers of goat cheese salad, a coarse country pâté, and pan-seared Maine crab cakes—all fresh and flavorful. On another night, we ate plump and juicy Prince Edward Island mussels, accompanied by cones of pommes frites, and we drank glasses of cool Sauvignon Blanc. Afterward we walked along Main Street feeling like we were on a Hollywood back lot.

 

Just before Christmas, we went again and fell under the spell of the shimmering holiday decorations. The hanger steak frites with the wild mushroom, red-wine reduction, and horseradish sauce was tender and earthy, especially accompanied by a glass of equally rustic Portuguese red wine. Again I capped off the meal with the trifecta of chocolate torte, Port, and espresso. My city friend was surprised to find her favorite, and rare, single-malt Scotch on the after-dinner drinks menu. I left with a warm glow, having cheated the outside world once more.

 

{The Red Hat Bistro, 63 Main St, Irvington (914) 591-5888; wwwredhatbistro.com}

 

 

Yum—from Finish to Start

 

By Jack Kirby  |  “Jack Kirby” is editor of The WesFoodie’s Eating in the Burbs website: www.wesfoodie.com. When not eating his way round the ’burbs, Kirby can be found bemoaning the exponential growth of waistlines in direct proportion to the number of sleepless nights of childrearing and other immutable laws of mid-life in the suburbs.     

 

 

It was at Plates that I had a most extraordinary meal. As if out of one of Alice’s adventures, the dinner is best described backwards. Perhaps this is because nothing captures the spirit of adventure and whimsy in Chef Matthew Karp’s cooking as much as his signature, grown-up Ring Ding dessert. 

 

The Ring Dings are topped with a thick disk of dark chocolate that breaks under a firm press of one’s fork to reveal a dense, cocoa-laden cake filled at its core with cool, white-butter cream. The cake immediately brings you back to the plastic covered treats of childhood, but Karp’s rendition is set apart by a depth of flavor and sculpted textures that only an adult palate can appreciate fully. It is at once both whimsical and utterly serious food. 

 

The entrée was no less satisfying. When duck is on the menu, it is hard for me to resist. And at Plates the duck was cooked perfectly; the meat was tender but with the body of game; the skin crisp with just enough fatty succulence. Served with pears and native grains, the dish evoked the bird’s origins in the fields and completed the experience of eating something not far from the wild.

 

Earlier this year Chef Karp procured a naturally raised pig from a small farm in Vermont, and with that, along with top-quality beef, he set out to reinvent in the Northeast some of the handmade delicacies he enjoyed when living and traveling in Italy. The charcuterie appetizer offered a chance to sample some of his excellent craftsmanship in curing and sausage making. The cured meats each had their unique textures and tastes; the beef had a delicate herbal flavor and dense texture that was unlike anything I’ve tasted. It made for a subtle start to a meal that finished in whimsy and was extraordinary throughout.

 

 

 Click here to read the August 2006 Feature, "My Most Memorable Meal"

 

 

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