In the display kitchen, the cooks plated the desserts with the intensity of World Series pitchers. They were carefully placing each element on the plate, caramelizing sugar with a hand-held torch and dabbing on sauce with a squeeze bottle, as though creating a work of art.
No ordinary cooks, they were students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. As part of the curriculum, they cook and serve in one of the school’s three world-class restaurants: American Bounty, The Bocuse Restaurant and Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici.
It’s always been a treat for us to take the drive to the CIA for a unique dining experience. Students take two turns in the restaurants, once at the beginning of their two-year program and again just before graduation. The old hands take the lead, acting as servers and cooks. The newbies take a supporting role.
But make no mistake. This is a fine-dining experience. The elegant, carpeted dining room in the American Bounty is lit by chandeliers hung from the high ceiling and overlooks a courtyard garden. The tables are set with heavy flatware. Glassware sparkles. Service is proper and correct. Silverware is changed for each course and menu item. There’s a little restaurant theater as soups are poured into garnished bowls and dishes are sauced at the table. An order of sparkling water required a change of glassware – a secret code for pouring refills.
The menu is ambitious and well-executed. Each dish is creative and complex with a number of flavors and textures that all work together. Chilled Oysters ($15), for instance, came as a complete dish with a dice of citrus, a whiff of ginger, and mignonette sauce all on the shell. No sides of sauce here.
Pear Salad ($12) included smoky roasted pears tucked under a tangle of hearty greens with spicy hazelnuts and a dusting of cheese. The ideal bite for me was a sweet melt-in-your-mouth pear and a zingy, crunchy nut – contrast and harmony all at once.
After we ordered, I had a moment of panic, fearful that I had forgotten to order the fluffy and flavorful Parker House rolls that I remembered so well. Without bidding they came to the table, a half dozen in their own cast iron baker, dark-honey brown with a lick of butter brushed on top. A ramekin of good butter sprinkled with sea salt was the crowning touch.
Pan-roasted halibut ($28), the fish of the day, was accompanied by artichokes, pancetta, fava beans and Swiss chard. The tomato and herb broth was poured over the presentation at the table.
Duck breast ($27) was also pan-roasted and done a perfect medium as requested. Braised greens and smashed roasted peewee potatoes came with it, but the rhubarb chutney was the selling point for me.
Our server Morgan, who hailed from Pittsburg, was about to graduate. She shared her plan for a career in the nonprofit world to deal with food insecurity and help to bring good and nutritious food to underserved schools. A lofty goal indeed. Her knowledge and skills were impressive.
After seeing the intensity of the dessert station, we couldn’t resist. Three beautifully browned mounds of the Warm Vanilla “Soufflé” ($11) sat atop orange angel food cake and red currant-cranberry jam – as tasty as it was glamorous.
Milk Chocolate-Peanut Butter Mousse ($11) with flourless chocolate cake, salted peanut praline, and stout ice cream was a work of art. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t this. The flavors were each distinct but worked well together – lots of chocolate, peanuts of course, the occasional burst of salt, the crunch of the praline, and cool malty ice cream.
A drive up the Taconic Parkway through the fall foliage with a detour through upscale Rhinebeck was an added bonus. Surprisingly, despite the dry summer, the fall color is some of the best in recent years.
Lunch (or dinner) at the CIA is always worth the trip. The earnest efforts of the students, the impressive facilities and the beautiful setting on the Hudson River add up to a memorable experience.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.