North of Average
Sans their James Beard Award-nominated chef, the handsomely appointed Restaurant North is still an on-trend dining destination despite struggles with consistency.
(Clockwise from left) whole fried chicken with classic fixings is one of several new shared plates; the elegant dining room looks much the same.
The bread plate says it all.
On our first visit to Restaurant North in Armonk, the server delivered a slate tray with two types of brioche: classic dinner rolls and impressively light, soft, and eggy, ping-pong-ball-sized gluten-free rolls, accompanied by a dollop of flavorful (and, surprisingly, not greasy) lardo and appealingly funky anchovy butter. It was an interesting, creative, and on-trend start, but one that would not be repeated on a subsequent visit, when those same gluten-free rolls were dry and nearly crunchy. In truth, once slathered with the still-perfect salty butter, we didn’t mind the texture as much.
Maybe it was the incongruous mingling of creativity and missteps, the beautiful artwork in the casual but elegant dining rooms, or perhaps the enthusiasm of the servers for the locally purveyed, quality ingredients, but we found ourselves trying to forgive the lapses by smothering them with a chorus of, “Yes, but…”
The burger roll, listed as an English muffin, was very dry and seemed more like an over-baked Parker House roll than an English muffin... but the burger itself was juicy and savory.
We couldn’t detect even a hint of fennel and saffron, described on the menu as part of the preparation for the sea bass… but the fish was tender and moist, with perfectly crisped skin.
The carrot-top pesto had a bitter and brackish bite to it… but we love the concept of putting potential waste to use.
Service in the upstairs dining room was slow and awkward… but we preferred the quieter, more private feel of the serene room.
We loved everything about our squid-ink pasta… but there was nary a hint of the crab that was supposedly a featured part of the dish.
We wanted to like — no, love — Restaurant North. Not just because it was James Beard nominated under the original chef, Eric Gabrynowicz, but also because there were, in fact, many creative concepts; new, cutting-edge ingredients; and some well-executed dishes.
Montauk tuna “carpaccio,” served with apple chips, crispy julienne of parsnip, ginger, wasabi, and citrus, was the kind of dish where every bite brought a contrasting pop of texture and flavor — all of which played beautifully with the clean, mild sea flavor of the fish. (As with the aforementioned sea bass and English muffin, the description on the menu did not reflect what we were actually served: The fish was thicker, as in crudo, which is what it was actually listed as on our bill.)
The terrine of foie gras with black truffle was as described and then some. In addition to the lovely, rich flavor of the liver and the hint of earthy black truffle, there was a mysterious sharp flavor we couldn’t identify — and would have been happy to do without.
On the other hand, we wouldn’t change a thing about the starter of crisp, little sweetbread nuggets served with what was essentially sriracha-laced Thousand Island dressing. Sweetbreads were an unusual and quite tasty departure from the typical fried calamari or chicken.
Swordfish with fennel and blood orange ranks as one of the best dishes on the menu
After tapping a starter of fried hazelnut crust around a soft-cooked egg, the canary-yellow yolk oozed over shredded Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower dressed with yuzu kosho, a fermented Japanese paste made with citrusy floral yuzu and hot chilies. The combination of nuttiness, creamy richness, slightly bitter vegetables, and distinctive sauce made this a dish not to be missed.
Another lesser-known ingredient, dukkah, played an important role in one of the best executed dishes. A moist, tender and thick swordfish steak was sprinkled with the nutty and aromatic Middle Eastern spice blend and served with a fennel-and-blood-orange salad and a tahini-yogurt spread. Once again, the balance of flavors and textures made this a highly satisfying dish.
Not every dish was as satiating. While we always want more caviar than is served, we were surprised at the meager portion of red caviar on our potato blini starter — the tiny hit of salty brine barely came through against the large pancake, crème fraîche, and micro-greens.
Dessert was as much of a mixed bag as the starters and entrées. What’s not to love about the aptly named Super Awesome Chocolate Chip Cookie served in the 6” cast-iron skillet in which it’s baked? It is a huge, classic, chocolate chip cookie served warm and topped with a scoop of Hudson Valley-based Jane’s Ice Cream.
Other desserts were less successful. Chocolate ganache was tasty but accompanied by bits of chocolate cake that tasted like the dry ends of over-baked brownies and dense, dusty meringues. The baked Alaska also had a meringue component, but when it was doused with Everclear and fired tableside, it burned and got a bitter, scorched flavor. That, too, was served with a dry chocolate cake.
There were so many reasons we wanted to love Restaurant North, from its noteworthy history to its lovely ambience to its work with and promotion of local farmers and producers to its use of new and interesting ingredients and glimpses of creativity. For now, though, we will hope that time will give this restaurant an opportunity to get back on a more even keel.
Marge Perry and David Bonom are food writers whose work regularly appears in Rachael Ray Every Day, Fine Cooking, Cooking Light, Newsday and online at Food Network, The Kitchn, and A Sweet and Savory Life.