America's Finest Dining: The Northeast

<< Back to Robb Report, March 2007

    You Must Try This
    Al Forno, Providence, Rhode Island
    Nothing bars patrons from sharing dishes at top-tier restaurants, but few of these establishments are suited to the practice. Often, one or more ingredients are missing: The portions are not the ideal size, the menu is insufficiently varied, or the atmosphere is discouraging, striking sharers with an uncomfortable sensation similar to that which follows laughing in church.
    Al Forno is the rare establishment that remains refined without inhibiting the desire to pass plates, an urge that will prove irresistible after sampling the roasted cod wrapped in pancetta, bread gnocchi with spicy sausage ragu, or chestnut honey-glazed confit of duck. Larger parties might move past simple generosity and turn the proceedings into a competition to decide who ordered the best dish—a contest that no one truly loses. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley



    The Vong Way
    Jean-Georges, New York

    Jean-Georges Vongerichten has honed a style of contemporary French cuisine that showcases aromatic, but not heavy, broths and sauces. Many dishes are assembled table-side, including the young garlic soup with thyme, which requires the waiter to spoon the creamy liquid into a bowl that has tender sautéed frog legs perched on its rim. - Kim Fredericks


    Barn Burner
    The White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, Maine

    Maine’s hallowed restaurant, set in the barn of an 1860s homestead, appears cozily grounded on terra firma, but the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport is tied by its apron strings to the sea, the source of the day’s catch. Executive chef Jonathan Cartwright’s lobster dish—when prepared with a Cognac coral butter sauce and covering gossamer fettuccine, carrots, ginger, and snow peas—is as light as sea froth. The menu changes weekly, so the crustacean might be dressed in white truffle/white wine butter and topped with shaved Alba truffle. Cartwright does not rely exclusively on the sea for local ingredients: He evokes the Maine woods with his toothsome wild hare and pheasant ravioli with forest mushrooms and root vegetables swimming in a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce. The restaurant’s tables are generously spaced beneath the hayloft to allow for background sounds of a piano and the soft creak of the barnwood floor, instead of the conversations of other diners. The wine room contains more than 7,000 bottles and a table that seats as many as 15 diners. - Karen Cakebread


    Roll Call
    CityZen, Washington, D.C.

    Cityzen’s setting is as sleek and dramatic as its name suggests, and Eric Ziebold’s food is impeccable, but what you likely will recall fondly years later are the Parker House rolls. Presented in a wooden box that contains the 10 tiny conjoined morsels, these rolls are worth fighting over. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley


    Cruel to Be Kind
    Jean-Louis, Greenwich, Connecticut
    Odd phrases can emerge when a Frenchman composes in English. Jean-Louis Gerin’s sea scallops do have a toastier hue than most, yet describing them as “brutally seared,” as he does on his menu, seems to be overstating their means of preparation. Rest assured that no scallops were brutalized in the making of this dish—they were enhanced with truffle oil and chicken juice emulsion. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley



    Plus Ça Change
    Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia


    When he opened his restaurant 37 years ago in Philadelphia, Georges Perrier, a native of Lyons, France, earned international acclaim for his culinary artistry and brought a new level of sophistication to a city formerly known for its moribund dining scene. Yet as Perrier himself allows, his landmark Le Bec-Fin remains a work in progress. He replaced the original, romantic Louis XVI decor five years ago with an elegant, 19th-century Parisian salon motif. The look of the waitstaff also has changed; once tuxedoed, then blazered, then tuxedoed again, they are back again in blazers. The menu now includes a four-course dinner with selections printed in English only; for the thrill of reading a menu in French, you must order the six-course dinner. The cuisine has become lighter, with greater use of citrus and less of heavy creams and butter. Perrier has expanded the wine list to include numerous vintages from California, Oregon, and Washington State. Most significantly, after experimenting with a series of chefs, Perrier has returned to the kitchen, creating such signature dishes as Galette de Crabe and cassoulet of snails in a Champagne and hazelnut garlic butter sauce. - Jack Smith


    Surf and Turf
    Le Bernardin, New York

    Hawaiian escolar, sea urchin, oysters, conch—every type of seafood imaginable graces the menu at Le Bernardin. But this shrine to the sea, located in Midtown Manhattan, recently added a new species to its offerings: the grazing kind. The surf-and-turf tasting menu presents seared Kobe beef, prepared Korean barbecue style, alongside buttery, raw white tuna. - Kim Fredericks 


    Manhattan Transfer
    Per Se, New York

    Although Per Se’s decor contains references to Thomas Keller’s West Coast stronghold—the false front door replicates the French Laundry’s robin’s egg blue door—it is distinctive, not derivative. Per Se’s 15 tables overlook Manhattan’s Columbus Circle and Central Park, and its 5,000-square-foot kitchen is larger than many city penthouses. Both features contrast with the pastoral charms of the French Laundry, but Per Se matches its California cousin by adhering to the same standards that Keller employs at his flagship. A video link helps him monitor both establishments: When he is supervising dinner orders at Per Se, a large screen in its kitchen enables him to watch the French Laundry kitchen team during its pre-dinner preparations. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley


    Dual Nature
    Palena, Washington, D.C.
    Palena is two restaurants in one: a café in front, where customers in jeans are welcome, and a formal dining room in the back. Chef Frank Ruta, who was a White House cook for Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, exploits each setting to full effect. He serves truffled cheeseburgers and house-made hot dogs at the café, but his dining room fare is remarkable for its lusty rusticity. Dishes that sound French—such as a creamy lobster stew that is dotted with chestnuts and sunchokes, or a petite pot-au-feu with slivers of veal tongue and brisket bobbing in a rich consommé—contain an Italian directness and simplicity. Those offerings that are grounded in Italian tradition, including a definitive rendition of gnocchi, betray a French regard for technical rigor. - Todd Kliman

    Arrows, Ogunquit, Maine
    Laboring under the constraints of a 100-day growing season, coproprietors Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier celebrate the best that the moment offers—flower-studded salads in summer, house-cured prosciutto with cauliflower flan later in the season—and focus their showmanship on elaborate entrées. Among them is a dish featuring three preparations of halibut—fried, sautéed, and poached—while the monkfish is a study in techniques that range from a fried chop with morel gravy, to a scallopini, to braised cheeks with root vegetables. The 18th-century farmhouse setting overlooking the gardens allows diners to gaze at the fleeting glories of the season while they feast upon them. No Maine country squire ever ate so well. - David Lyon


    Fear Factor
    Clio, Boston

    Clio. (Click image to enlarge)

    If you request Clio’s tasting menu, be prepared first to answer several questions: Do you have any other plans for later that evening? (The meal will last at least three hours.) Do you have any allergies? Do you have a sense of adventure? Are you sure about this? No one should dine at the mercy of chef Ken Oringer’s culinary whims without some warning. Even on Clio’s standard menu, emulsions, infusions, and untraditional taste pairings abound. The notion of Oringer going off book and creating whatever he wants for eight, nine, or 10 courses should frighten the timid. An evening this past fall began with what looked like a martini bearing a green oil slick and tasted like a basil-enhanced tomato soup—a flavor quite a few notches above that of a can of Campbell’s. The meal concluded with a rendition of a chocolate bonbon and a warning to eat the item whole, lest its liquid contents land on your shirt. In between were dishes featuring foams and fruits, creative treatments of fowl and game, and morsels of sashimi from the adjacent Uni sushi bar. If requested, the sommelier will select a generous half glass of wine for each course. Thus, even if you do harbor cuisine-related inhibitions, they could be nullified by the time any really scary surprises arrive on your plate. - Michelle Seaton


    Out of the Shell
    Sherwood’s Landing at the Inn at Perry Cabin, St. Michaels, Maryland


    A display of antique oyster plates in the Sherwood’s Landing dining room reminds patrons that they are heirs to a grand tradition. But even the staunchest traditionalist cannot quarrel when Mark Salter poaches local oysters in Bellefon Champagne, dabs them with prosciutto and spinach, and tops them with fried julienned vegetables. Salter is as faithful to land as to the sea, glazing shanks of lamb with tarragon and honey. - Patricia Harris


    Island Topping
    Topper’s at the Wauwinet, Nantucket, Massachusetts
    A dinner at Topper’s can begin long before you are seated at the restaurant; it can start with an aperitif aboard Wauwinet Lady, the open launch docked at the end of Straight Wharf, near the center of town. A one-hour cruise “up-harbor,” as the locals say, to the far eastern tip of the island, concludes at the gray-shingled Wauwinet inn, which houses the restaurant (and which will be closed until early May). The menu offers nods to the farm and ranch, including a Kobe sirloin au poivre with Cognac sauce, but, as executive chef David Daniels says, “We’re surrounded by water. Almost 80 percent of the food we serve is seafood.” Lobster is by far the most popular dish. Daniels, who was the executive chef at the Federalist at XV Beacon in Boston for four years before coming to Topper’s a year ago, prepares the crustacean by steaming it in seaweed, shelling it, and then poaching it in butter. The lobster is best enjoyed with a Sauvignon Blanc from the restaurant’s 1,450-bottle cellar. - Mike Nolan


    A Pleasant Surprise
    L’Espalier, Boston

    L’Espalier. (Click image to enlarge)

    Chef-owner Frank McClelland serves 70 diners in three rooms in this 127-year-old, three-story townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. From its wrought-iron entrance to its bathroom wallpaper, which reproduces an antique map of Paris, L’Espalier cultivates a refined atmosphere that is balanced by the warm, thoughtful service. The daily menu of juices, which can include pear with tamarind and lemonade with cilantro, was invented two years ago for a woman who wanted to enjoy the tasting menu but would not order the suggested wine pairings because she was pregnant. The staff’s solution quickly became a menu fixture. Other clever touches appear in an entrée of smoked organic chicken with truffled macaroni and cheese, apple chutney, and pressed jus: The chicken’s crispy skin and juicy flesh include the flavor of smoked pork, an effect McClelland achieves by placing the meat in the same smoker that he uses for bacon. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley


    Getting a Reaction
    The Ryland Inn, Whitehouse, New Jersey
    Chef Craig Shelton has his own garden of Eden. Just outside his kitchen at the Ryland Inn is a three-acre organic garden planted with hundreds of varieties of herbs and produce that drive his menu. Shelton holds dual French-American citizenship, as well as degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale. This unique background helps him to create wine and food pairings that produce strong chemical reactions, ones that usually lead to repeat visits. - Kim Fredericks


    Master at Play
    Michel Richard Citronelle, Washington, D.C.
    Michel Richard’s witty trompe l’oeil creations—a platter of surf-and-turf carpaccio that looks like a pane of Tiffany glass, as well as a room service tray covered with desserts that resemble eggs, bacon, buttered toast, hash browns, and cappuccino—taste as good as they look. Though playful, Richard’s cooking has the depth and heft you would expect from a chef who trained in his native France and later came to America. A shatteringly crisp-skinned duck breast, carved thick and sauced with a cinnamon-scented port wine reduction, is a version of a familiar, sometimes mundane dish that reminds you why it is always best to stick with a master. - Todd Kliman


    Cosmopolitan Comfort Food
    Daniel, New York


    At Daniel, French restaurateur Daniel Boulud’s elegant, Venetian Renaissance–inspired boîte in Midtown Manhattan, the cuisine ranges from such classics as Poulet Rôti en Croûte du Cel to the more rustic braised pork belly or pig’s trotters. The latter two dishes, evoking the Boulud family’s farm in Lyons, are interpreted for the cosmopolitan palate. While the food is sublime, Daniel is distinguished most by the manner in which these dishes and others are paired with wines from a cellar of 1,600 offerings. In addition to a vertical selection of Château Latour from 1945 to 1990, Daniel stocks numerous other wines that, while less renowned, can be marvelously successful with food. Boulud cites vin jaune—known as the “yellow wine” from the Jura region of France—as an example. “It is a misunderstood wine and can be somewhat strange to drink, somewhat flat,” he says. “But when paired with a poularde in a cream sauce the wine comes alive.” As befits such a gustatory experience, jackets are not only required at Daniel, they are warranted. - Jack Smith 


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