John- Michael’s Restaurant: You Can Go Home(stead) Again
North Salem’s John- Michael’s Restaurant retains the charming appeal of its predecessor.
You Can Go Home(stead) Again
Some charm, some pretension at this North Salem landmark
There was a warm sense of familiarity as we pulled into the gravel parking area fronting Purdys Homestead. Even though its owners had changed since last we visited, there was much about the house that remained the same. There was the slightly forward-leaning, glass-enclosed porch; the quaint, narrow, split front door; and the twisted-iron front railing. Purdys Homestead, now John-Michael’s Restaurant, has an element of charm that’s so perfect it’s almost (but not quite) hokey: there are even horses dotting the grassy slope behind the house. Breathing the fragrant spring air as we crunched across the gravel, I thought, this is the dream suburb where we all wish we lived.
Photo by Cathy Pisky
Sweet corn-and-leek soup with a chilled Maine lobster salad is one appetizer to sample.
Since taking the reins from the Homestead’s last owners (Charles and Maureen Steppe) in November 2007, John-Michael Hamlet has made few changes to the venerable, Revolutionary War-era building. It’s still charming, and still a little down-at-the heels. While the main dining room features a wide-plank floor and a gorgeous fireplace, when the hearth is unlit (as it was during our visits), the room can feel subterranean; heavy, dark draperies intensify this effect. Some of the decorative tchotchkes defy the house’s dignity, and this old soldier should be relieved of the Christmas lights threaded through its fence—pronto. On the plus side, one can smell centuries of wood fire permeating the room’s very timbers (even when the hearth is unlit), and photos of Hamlet’s son lend the space charm. Tchotchkes or not, it’s one of the coziest spots in Westchester.
Chef Hamlet’s menu can feel a little striving at times, which strikes a false note in the modest farmhouse. The menu presents both a first and second course before the mains, and there is no elemental distinction or sense of progression between the two proposed courses: it simply feels like an upsell. That said, we were pleased with Hamlet’s signature roll-up (in fact, he’s trademarked it), “foiejitas.” Listed as a first course, these seared sections of foie gras are served, nestled beside caramelized shallots and marinated red peppers, in a spitting skillet. It’s served with delicious nutmeg crêpes. We ordered this dish twice after a problematic first go-round. The dish was placed before us too hot, and vaporized vinegar from the peppers blasted our sinuses, while the spitting skillet left an areola of grease on the tablecloth surrounding our plate. The second instance was better—the foie gras rich and soulful, nicely complimented by sweet shallots and contrasted by the palate-cleansing acid in the peppers.
The foiejitas also benefit from being one of Chef Hamlet’s least complicated dishes. Other dishes are ornate to the point of being baroque. For instance, the Nova Scotia salmon “second course” (which we ordered as an appetizer) came with a mini crab cake, avocado, smoked ivory salmon mousseline, and dill vinaigrette. I felt that the crab cake was a mushy afterthought, and the smoked salmon was marred by poor preparation: I had to remove a chunk of inedible gristle from my mouth after taking a bite. And though I’d heard great things about Hamlet’s smoked-oyster fricassee (with black trumpet mushrooms, potato, grape tomatoes, and shaved black truffle), we found the
oysters so mildly smoked that the wood was imperceptible, and the black truffles celebrated in the menu were represented by a single, desiccated, past-its-prime flake. Our rare seared tuna with tuna tartare was also past its prime; it was placed before us
accompanied by a cloud of fishy smell.
Sometimes it feels as though Hamlet’s dishes were designed for how they look on the menu rather than how they taste on the plate. Our pheasant Swedish meatballs with pickled cippolini onions, julienne of smoked duck, and grain-mustard crème fraîche were seasoned and smothered beyond any sense of pheasant at all. While the game bird looks fancy on the menu, the tender, creamy meatballs could have been made with anything.
Also, our rabbit three ways (braised front leg, cashew-crusted loin, and quick stew) suffered from none of the three elements being tasty—the loin was dry and the stew, extremely salty. We wished for less ambitious, more carefully executed fare, though the vanilla parsnip purée partnering the rabbit(s) was lovely.
Hamlet’s simpler dishes wind up being both tastier and more elegant than his overwrought ones. We loved his perfectly cooked filet mignon with butter-braised potatoes and green beans, for instance. Served with an elegant, beefy veal and red-wine reduction and eggplant purée, this hearty dish honored the Homestead’s straightforward rusticity. Our large seared sea scallops were also good, their pretty caramelized sear yielding to a lusciously creamy interior that paired well with potato and leek partners. Sadly, its sauce was overly salty.
Our desserts were satisfying and charmingly made in-house. We loved Hamlet’s white chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier chocolate truffle (though its garnish, out-of-season strawberry, let it down), and our Granny Smith apple crème caramel was delicious, too. Only the bread pudding was confusing, if just in nomenclature—it was a cake rather than a conglomerate of bread chunks and custard.
Although we took exception to the menu’s pretensions (and some execution failures), our enjoyment of John-Michael’s at Purdys Homestead was only slightly hampered by this. With its wood-smoke smell, ancient floorboards, warm service, and idiosyncratic charm, this restaurant is as appealing as ever.