Westchester's All-Americans

This summer, celebrate our county's dandy Yankee treats.



We’re a cosmopolitan bunch, aren’t we?  One night it’s Greek, the next it’s Moroccan, while our kids  happily will eat sushi and kebabs. Ethnic cuisine is such a part of our lives that we hardly even notice it anymore. It’s become as American as pizza and Chinese takeout.

But this summer, let’s take a moment to appreciate America’s home-grown foods: clam bakes and lobster rolls; fried chicken and barbecue; doughnuts and red velvet cake (and, of course, hot dogs and apple pie, too). Because we know that, as the days get hotter and lazier, nothing satisfies like the old American classics.

So get out the flags and light the firecrackers. It’s time to celebrate Westchester’s favorite all-American treats.
 

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

 

Photo by John Fortunato

Who says Blue Hill’s sorrel Margarita isn’t as American as apple pie.

Is there anything as American as the cocktail? Conceived at the turn of the century, the American cocktail really caught fire during Prohibition, when the consumption of spirits was enhanced by the illicit thrill of law-breaking. There’s no better place to enjoy an all-American cocktail than at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Located on the 1930’s era Rockefeller Estate, this is where captains of industry drank perfect, bone dry Martinis. Nowadays, the cocktails at Blue Hill express the sensual, farm-to-table philosophy that won Executive Chef and Co-owner Dan Barber a James Beard Foundation Award (Best Chef, New York City, 2006). Look for seasonal drinks like sorrel Margaritas in spring, rhubarb Cosmopolitans in spring and early summer, purple basil Mojitos in high summer, and the apple-pie cocktail in fall. (The apple-pie cocktail is made with freshly juiced Golden Delicious apples and Heart of the Hudson vodka, a locally distilled apple spirit from Gardiner, New York.)

The local celebration doesn’t end there. While the Blue Hill menu changes daily, fans know to expect succulent Berkshire pork (as well as lamb, chicken, and eggs) raised onsite on the rolling Stone Barns slopes. Boutique purveyors like “Rabbi Bob’s” beef and pasture-raised veal lend off-site menu support, while Blue Hill butter, ricotta, and yogurt—from the Berkshires farm that lent Blue Hill Farm its name—add depth. This year, look for house-cured Italian-style sausages and honey.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find Blue Hill’s spin on that Sunday picnic favorite, strawberry shortcake: fried semolina cake with fresh, locally grown strawberries and strawberry sorbet. It starts with Anson Mills organic semolina, from Columbia, South Carolina. Anson is popular among several high-profile chefs (Thomas Keller, Michel Nischan, and Tom Collichio included), because it offers organic varieties of long-forgotten antebellum grains. Anson’s flavorful, coarse-ground semolina bases Blue Hill’s summery cake, which is deep fried and served with Stone Barns’ juicy, sweet, seasonal strawberries, also starring in the dessert’s accompanying sorbet.

The Dressing Room
27 Powers Ct, Westport, CT
(203) 226-1114; dressingroomhomegrown.com.


When Americans travel abroad, they’re prone to a sad realization: it seems that only the worst aspects of our culture make it out of the country. Baywatch, Knight Rider—and it’s even worse when it comes to food. To the rest of the world, American food means the cheap, poor-quality stuff served at McDonald’s or KFC.

Rediscover the value of American food at the Dressing Room in Westport, Connecticut. Even though Owner and Executive Chef Michel Nischan is adamant that his 18-month-old “nouveau barnyard” is a neighborhood place, it’s a neighborhood place with exceptional-quality food. This is just what one expects from Chef Nischan, always an outspoken pro­ponent of nutritious, high-quality ingredients. He came to national prominence by spearheading New York City’s Heartbeat, one of America’s first truly gourmet health-food restaurants.

Just as at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the food at the Dressing Room is ethically raised, sustainable, immaculately fresh, and staunchly local. (In fact, Chef Nischan shared a Vanity Fair profile with Chef Barber.) Chef Nischan is a tireless promoter of the “Eat Local” movement, so look for a seasonal menu celebrating field-fresh beans, greens, fruits, and starches. (Our favorite: the market bean salad with sweet peas and fragrant miso “cloud.”) Above all, a meal at the Dressing Room means top-quality, ethically raised meats.

If you’re going to have a juicy, medium-rare hamburger these days, make sure that burger is the best you can get. Never mystery meat, the Dressing Room’s beef (which also goes into their Yankee pot roast and meatloaf) comes from one of the best producers in America, Niman Ranch. These free-roaming, grass-fed cattle are not packed into filthy feed lots to be crammed full of antibiotics and cheap corn feed. Instead, Niman’s cattle roam in grassy pastures, just as nature intends. The Dressing Room burger, served with thick slabs of crisp, house-cured bacon, Amish cheddar, and grilled onions, is totally unlike the unholy McBurger. It’s so pure, flavorful, and delicious, it makes us proud to be Americans.

While the food at the Dressing Room is always top quality, it’s never puritanical. For dessert, don’t miss Chef Nischan’s pan-fried angel food cake. Here, that All-American molded cake (which was invented in the early 19th century by the Pennsylvania Dutch) is lightly sautéed in butter, which gives the airy dessert a delicate, caramelized crust. If you ask me, this is just what fat-free angel food cake needed—and its partner, house-made vanilla ice cream, is just icing on the cake.


Yvonne’s Southern Cuisine
503 Fifth Ave, Pelham
(914) 738-2005; yvonnessoutherncuisine.net

 

Photo by John Fortunato

Yvonne’s Southern Cuisine’s fried chicken trumps anything Colonel Sanders could come up with.

Soul food, like jazz, blues, and soul music, is one of the great African American traditions that defines American culture as a whole. After all, what’s more inherently
American than fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and red velvet cake—eaten to the strains of Aretha Franklin?

Unlike Sylvia’s in Harlem, Yvonne’s Southern Cuisine is not filled with bussed-in tourists, nor does it have (like Sylvia’s) a large merchandizing operation. Instead, Yvonne is serving real soul food to regulars who know and love the cuisine: it has a fundamental genuineness that more touristy restaurants lack. Plus, Yvonne’s rocking, soul-heavy juke box can’t be beat.

While a trip to Yvonne’s could mean indulging in any of the great dishes of the American South (like chitterlings, pork chops, fried catfish, and pig’s feet), we’ll always opt for the fried chicken. Why? Because Yvonne’s stays true to the real American tradition (hear this, Colonel Sanders?), with no too-thick, greasy batter to mask the flavor of the bird. Instead, all you’ll find is a tasty, shatteringly crisp, black pepper-laden crust that yields to reveal juicy chicken. Each reasonably priced chicken dinner comes with two sides, and, for our money, Yvonne’s sausage-scented, creamy black-eyed peas can’t be beat.
It’ll be difficult, but save room for a slice of Yvonne’s red velvet cake. This improbably maroon take on a cocoa layer cake is moist, gritty with sugar, and so perfect that even the two forkfuls you’ll manage will have you sighing with over-stuffed satisfaction.

Pälomino
1392 E Putnam Ave, Old Greenwich, CT
(203) 698-9033; palominorestaurants.com.


Before they’ve even seen the menu, diners will know what to expect at Pälomino. The restaurant’s huge dining-room mural depicts iconic American images, like buffalo roaming the range, all backed by broad, subtle stars and stripes. In less reverent hands, Pälomino’s Americana theme might be kitschy—but Chef Rafael Pälomino has enough admiration for our cuisine that he gave this restaurant (his fourth) his name.

Look for fun cocktails like the water­melon Martini and Mojitos, or sample Pälomino’s curatorial selection of America-distilled spirits, including boutique domestic vodkas, gins, and whiskeys. (High-end imports are present as well.) Once suitably lubricated, diners can tuck into tony treats like California white sturgeon caviar, East and West Coast oysters, and New York State foie gras—while those with simpler tastes can opt for mild, creamy mac ’n’ cheese topped with crisped pancetta.

Not surprisingly, Pälomino offers a tasty, organic, prime beef burger (which arrives with a cone of fries and stellar house-made pickle slices), but given a choice, we’ll always opt for its upscale take on a pork chop. Made with heritage-breed Duroc pork from Vande Rose Farms in Oskaloosa, Iowa, this succulent and tender malt-brined chop comes paired with crisp, mustard-seedy bread and butter pickles and lush applesauce.

Smart diners know to never leave Pälomino without the applesauce doughnuts served with Calvados sauce. Crumbly, cakey, and greaseless, these soul-warming treats are the purest distillation of down-home American comfort food.

Ebb Tide Seafood
1 Willett Ave, Port Chester
(914) 939-4810; ebbtideseafood.com

 

Photo by John Fortunato

Enjoy Ebb Tide's lobster roll outside under watchful seagulls.

If you’re pining for that New England lobster roll, look no further. This Byram-side bait-and-tackle has the whole clam-shack vibe down to a T. Look for cold beer, screeching seagulls, waterfront picnic tables, and lots of inexpensive seafood. All your favorite shore-side standards are here, from steamers and fried belly clams to codfish and chips and lobster rolls. Speaking of rolls, you won’t find one more abundant than Ebb Tide’s: practically innocent of filler, the succulent and sweet lobster/crab mix comes packed into a specially-baked homemade roll. Of course, it comes paired with those requisite clam-shack sides—coleslaw or a personal bag of potato chips.

Crabtree’s Kittle House
11 Kittle Rd, Chappaqua
(914) 666-8044, kittlehouse.com


There’s no better spot to celebrate America than at the Kittle House, which was built (circa 1790) when our rascally forefathers were still collecting mistresses, refusing to pay their taxes, and generally causing an international ruckus.

Why spend your Fourth on a mosquito-swarmed blanket, when you can have an excellent meal paired with excellent wines and a perfect view of the holiday fireworks (courtesy of the Mount Kisco Country Club next door)? This year, the Kittle House’s all-American favorites will include grilled Hudson Valley foie gras, local field greens, grilled prime sirloin burgers, and pan-roasted Maine lobster.

Of course, if lobster is really your thing, you might want to return for “Crabbie’s Clam Bake and Lobster Fest.” Named for owner John Crabtree, this annual resurrection of the ancient Native American feast features great wines, great beers, and a slew of Down East favorites. Look for mini lobster rolls, oysters Rockefeller, Long Island potato salad, Jersey corn on the cob, steamed Maine lobsters, and ripe summer tomatoes.

Or, if your tastes run toward the ­terrestrial, you could attend the other all-American tradition at the Kittle House: its annual Pig Roast and Barbecue. This casual summer evening centers on a spit-roasted Berkshire pig paired with four separate all-American buffets featuring grilled sea bass, stuffed squash blossoms, Jersey corn, braised prime short ribs, and grilled prime sirloin steaks.

Q Restaurant and Bar
112 N Main St, Port Chester/487 Main St, Mount Kisco
(914) 933-7427; qrestaurantandbar.com.


Barbecue is one of the most American foods we eat today—in fact, it’s so American, it’s pre-Christopher Columbus. When that geographically confused Italo-Spaniard washed ashore on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492, his surprised hosts had been slow-smoking their game for ages. They knew that nothing made a more succulent meat—or a better excuse for a party.

Barbecue is a true fusion food. Prior to Columbus, the Native Americans were working without pigs, sheep, goats, or cattle. When the Europeans contributed their domesticated animals, the barbecue rubber hit the road. The basic Native American “barbacoa” technique spread and diversified across America, with each barbecue region developing its own variations of rubs and sauces. When it comes to barbecue, meats are especially regional: look for pulled pork in South Carolina, ribs in St. Louis, goat in the hills of western Tennesee, and beef brisket in Texas.

But even though American barbecue is so diverse, you don’t have to pack up the pick-up to sample it all. At Q, owners Jennifer and Jeffrey Kohn have done the traveling for you. Look for their meltingly tender, juicy, beefy Texas brisket or their succulent, subtly spiced pulled-pork sandwich. Each of the meats is regionally accurate, and each has spent between 12 and 14 hours in Q’s mammoth, rotating smoker. Barbecue
fanatics will note the perfect smoke ring gilding Q’s meats. Located just inside its browned edges, this lovely one-eigth-inch wide fuchsia stain is the mark of true wood-smoke barbecue. Even casual fans will enjoy the flavors of Q’s sides and desserts. While Q’s biscuits, collard greens, and baked beans all are great, Q’s humble potato salad is a revelation. Made with mashed jacket potatoes, red peppers, and boiled eggs, it tastes like the best country picnic you’ve ever had. But while it would be temping to pig out on mains and sides, you must always save room for Q’s desserts. Beautiful, homey layer cakes and all-American pies (like apple and the divine, summery three-berry) come from the Kohns’ sister business, the Kneaded Bread bakery.

Walter’s Hot Dogs
937 Palmer Ave, Mamaroneck (no phone)
waltershotsdogs.com.


Modern America was built on roadside food, which was, at the time, a brand-new cuisine. This new American food style emerged to fuel a new market—hungry automobile drivers, who eschewed stiff, formal, sit-down restaurants. What they really wanted was a casual, quickly prepared meal to suit their newly sped-up lives. Hamburger joints, diners, and, yes, hot dog stands—all stepped into the breach.

Westchester is lucky to have a real, live American institution, still serving the same hand-held, driver-friendly food it started out with in 1919. From the start, Walter’s sold a distinctive pale pink hot dog made from a proprietary mix of beef, pork, and veal. This dog’s quality stood in stark contrast to the less-than-wholesome ingredients found in other hot dogs of the day (remember Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle?). Split and grilled in a mysterious “Secret Sauce” (Butter? Bacon fat? They’ll never tell), the dogs were topped not with mustard, not with ketchup, but with a distinctive spicy and sweet mustard/relish mix. All these little twists are the key to Walter’s success. While you could get a hot dog anywhere, it never would taste the same, or as great, as a hot dog from Walter’s.

The good news is that Walter’s is exactly the same today, serving the same specially manufactured dogs, frying in the same mysterious fat, all in the same wacky, Chinese-themed building. Pull up for a couple of classics, fries, and a malted—it’s like taking a step back in American culinary history.


Julia Sexton is a Westchester-based food writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. When not working as a food writer, Sexton is touring the barbecue pits of the Deep South.