Our server poured the coffee with precision and great care, despite the slight tremor in his hand. What he lacked in experience and confidence, he more than made up for with elegance and correctness.
We were looking forward to a delicious lunch at The American Bounty Restaurant where guests are the classroom subjects as well as customers for the students. At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY the polished restaurant experience is all the more remarkable, because the whole meal is put on as part of the curriculum.
Wild mushroom ravioli, chicken fried quail, sautéed king salmon, or roasted duck breast are all prepared and served by students. Some, just beginning their training, perform basic tasks, while those nearing graduation are the cooks and servers doing the real deal. It’s an effective system of hands-on learning.
Our meal was near perfect.
The CIA has four full-service restaurants at its campus along the Hudson. The American Bounty is a clubby spot for regional and national farm to table food. The casual no-reservation Tavern at American Bounty presents every day fare at a very high level. The Bocuse Restaurant, named after the legendary chef Paul Bocuse, offers elegant
French cooking in a stylish setting. Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici in a recreated Tuscan villa serves authentic Italian food.
We ordered glasses of Wölffer Long Island rosé and Millbrook Hudson Valley chardonnay from the list of well-chosen (mostly) New York State wines. Our window-side table looked out over a charming courtyard, perhaps a cloister from the days when the school was a monastery, but now a distraction from studying the menu.
A half dozen perfectly-shaped golden Parker House rolls, polished with butter and crowned with a few grains of salt, broke our reverie. I wish I could make rolls with their perfect texture and buttery flavor. Believe me, I’ve tried.
It was then that I noticed that the table was only set with butter knives. After the order is placed, the proper utensils for your choices are brought course by course. The service here is impeccably correct, if a little tentative. Students bustle to and fro, while in the background the unflappable Mâitre d’ Hôtel Instructor, Bruce Lavender, keeps it all humming.
Marsha started with grilled asparagus presented with sauce gribiche, frizzled leeks, lardo (cured fatback) and béarnaise foam. Pretty as a picture and tasty too. Marsha proclaimed the leeks to be the best ever.
I seldom use the word succulent, but it’s the right one for my cider-braised pork belly. A thick cube of fatty pork braised with cider so that the fat is rich and unctuous while the streaky parts are porky and salty. A tangy pear salad offset the rich apple infused meat.
I’m telling you, these kids can cook!
Marsha went on to perfectly-done sautéed cod with spring pea purée, chanterelles, and pea shoot salad. A picture on the plate almost too pretty to eat, and then it was gone.
They say chefs judge one another by their roast chicken, so I like to give it a go. This moist bird was cooked just so and then artfully carved — an example any chef would have been proud of. This deceptively simple presentation was surrounded by wild mushroom agnolotti (little pockets of woodsy flavor), glazed golden beets, squash purée, and Madeira sauce. The chicken had some serious competition from the other flavors on the plate.
Between courses I took a stroll through the handsome dining room. Arched windows along a brick colonnade looked out over the courtyard. Burnt sienna leather placemats on ebonized tables matched the chairs and contrasted nicely with the floral sound-deadening carpet.
To one side a large bay window opened into the kitchen where the students are hard at work as hawk-eyed chef instructors stand by. The hot food is cooked in the rear while the elegant desserts are plated out front for all to see.
Much as we each wanted our own, we elected to share an espresso mousse cake. Back by the kitchen window, hoping to get a picture of our dessert under construction, I met chef-instructor Michael Zebrowski. He told me this particular dessert was his specialty, one that he has passed on to the students. We watched together as it was assembled on the plate: a log of mousse cake glazed with dark chocolate, paired with a scoop of mandarin sorbet on a bed of chocolate nibs, all elaborately sauced.
Sometimes at a good restaurant, the kitchen sends out a little nibble, a gift from the chef to start things off. At American Bounty the end of the meal brings a tiny square glass plate with a miniature cake and a dark chocolate candy studded with nuts and dried fruit. They know how to give you a send off.
Reservations are a good idea at any of the CIA restaurants. You can drop in unannounced to the Tavern at American Bounty or the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe for lighter fare. On the way out visit the Apple Pie Café Bakery counter for a few student-baked sweets to take home. Before leaving, spend a few minutes by the fountain on the plaza in front of the imposing school and don’t forget to take in the great views of the Hudson River.