Tom Corbett

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Pilot Light: …And I’ll Take a Room on the Side

Ariane Batterberry - April 2014

Last month I wrote about the transformative new restaurants that have opened in hotels here in New York City during this new, post-2008 growth spurt. The small new “boutique” hotels attempt to capture the “edge” in cuisine, while the larger, more established (and often chain managed) properties strive to live up to Escoffier’s model of opulence and excellence.

Among new openings in the larger, established hotels, The Peninsula’s Clement is in the grand mold. Tucked behind an ear shattering bar scene, it sits in hushed elegance, all creams and grays, the noise masterfully defeated by deep cloths of fine linen, heavy drapes, and wall plaques that successfully smother sound. Here chef Brandon Kida produces a handsome tasting menu, offered with the ministration of an expert staff.

As is so often the case these days, the menu simply lists the ingredients of dishes that are, in fact, too complex to describe in a few words—leaving a lot to the waitstaff, now forced to mind-boggling feats of memory. Among the standout dishes are “Fluke – citrus dashi, avocado, sorrel juice,” the tender fluke sitting on an avocado puree, cut by the sparkle of sliced plums and enlivened with crisped rice for crunch, evinces a great balance of flavors. The “Foie Gras Tarte – quince, almonds, lavender” was a foie gras mousse in a pie shell, slathered with quince puree, thickly coated with toasted almonds, and accompanied by a dollop of crème fraîche, a dish of consummate richness and a balm to any raw nerve endings a rough day may have caused. Another winner is the “Porcelet – apple, cabbage, mustard crème fraîche.” Pork belly is on almost every menu, with numerous versions, varying from blissfully crisp to an unwelcome mouthful of fat. Here it is very meaty, topped with a square of crackling skin and perfectly matched with that mustard sauce. Again the balance of flavors is perfect. A tiny fist of boudin noir and rounds of cooked apple are happy accompaniments. “Citrus Four Play,” little dishes of such things as a chocolate/lemon tart and a citrus salad with lime jelly, supply a perfect ending.

Regarding the smaller establishments, Shaun Hergatt’s Juni in the Hotel Chandler offers a hushed luxury in the prevailing creams and grays that are associated with elegance just now. Hergatt has always been a chef to watch—Australian and not attached to any one cuisine. He gives us a touch of French, perhaps a beurre blanc, or a touch of Asian, perhaps an unfamiliar fruit. A recent lunch started with the comforting warmth of diminutive house-baked rolls. Next, “Winter herbs – young carrots – almonds” is indeed a puree of carrots with cardamom, interspersed with almonds and just cooled crunchy carrots. “Sea beans – prawns – pickled red onion” is an achievement, with the acidic sweetness of the onion setting off the delicate flavor of the prawn that floated in a gentle river of crème fraîche emulsion. “Pommes puree – tilefish – Ibérico” was a gently cooked rectangle of fish sitting on Ibérico-infused tapioca with a ham chip. The triumph in my view was “white beans, beef cheek, torpedo shallots – chickweed.” This proved to be a pile of dark and meltingly tender cheeks, its richness cut by red onion and Sherry vinegar with adzuki beans, flageolets, and sprouted lentils. Here the contrasting textures and flavors married into a satisfying symphonic whole. Pastry chef Mina Pizarro’s “chocolate – banana – rye” was, in fact, a luscious banana ice cream, over a chocolate disk in which sat rye tuiles scattered with caraway that did indeed impart a deliciously discordant interruption of taste.

Some of the smaller hotels are created around a theme. At The William (previously the clubhouse for Williams College), it’s England. I have rather special feelings about English food, as I well remember my days as a student at Cambridge, when tea was a great stodgy surfeit of crumpets and butter, and dinner consisted of a translucent shaving of lamb or beef, accompanied by watery Brussels sprouts and potatoes done two ways, followed inevitably by a steamed pudding (can be superb) with a viscous custard sauce (can’t). Of course, this is a far cry from Heston Blumenthal’s jelly of quail with crayfish cream. But even he tries very hard to capture some very English flavors. Try his brown bread ice cream.

The Williams is still very clubby, and hence very English. The Peacock is like the dining room in the kind of English country hotel you would want to visit. Downstairs, The Shakespeare, the hotel “pub,” sounds distinctly loud and pubby, while The Peacock does indeed enjoy the low buzz of gentility.

No lists of ingredients here. The dishes have names that go back centuries. Lincolnshire Haslet (terrine of pork belly, shoulder, and smoked bacon) is appealingly served with pear chutney, celery root salad, and toast. There is also Lancashire hotpot (a lamb stew) and bangers and mash (just what it says—sausages and mashed potatoes with gravy). The dishes here are a schoolboy’s dream of what they might be. The pies, as in England, are mostly savory, while the sweets are doused in toffee, treacle, and golden syrup. The winner was the rabbit pie with apple cider, a soft and flaky crust coddling a fragrant stew of wild mushrooms, smoked bacon, cipollini onions, and tender chunks of pale and delicate meat. Only the spotted dick (steamed sponge with currants and that vanilla custard) didn’t quite make it.

Hotels, and hotel restaurants, have their own unique challenges. Larger properties can have union considerations, along with kitchens and staffs that deal with room service and banqueting. Smaller boutiques with high profile restaurants can find the tail wagging the dog, as so often happens when a rural French three-star inhabits a 10 room inn. And then there is the question of perception, which may influence a hotel’s ability to attract ideal cook staff from schools as well as critics’ attention. But hoteliers large and small overcome these again and again. They have my admiration.

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher