Finding comfort in fine dining at Restaurant North

When Stephen Mancini and his close friend chef Eric Gabrynowicz searched for a location to open the restaurant of their dreams, they didn’t have to look far.

They only had to look North.

After carrying out tenures in New York City under acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer, the duo opened Restaurant North in Armonk in 2010 with the goal of filling a void in the Westchester dining scene.

“There were super high-end restaurants, like La Panetière and La Crémaillère and also the opposite, like your local red sauce Italian restaurants and pizza places, or your Asian fusion and sushi places,” says Mancini, who grew up in Westchester County. “There was nothing in between.”

To Mancini and Gabrynowicz, Armonk presented a unique opportunity for the kind of restaurant they envisioned, one that offered diners high-quality, thoughtful dishes “without having to put a dress jacket on,” Mancini says.

That is apparent from the moment we step into Restaurant North at 387 Main St. Despite a torrential downpour outside, the mood is bright within the sleek eatery on a recent Saturday evening. Though the interior’s white tablecloths and soft lighting evoke the cool look of an upscale eatery, we’re met with warm smiles, handshakes and jovial conversation from everyone we encounter, from the manager to busboys.

Mancini even makes stops at various tables throughout the evening, chatting up diners like they’re old friends. He stops at our table and immediately greets us, discussing everything from gardening to his winemaking endeavors.

That’s familiar ground for Mancini, who at the ripe age of 24 became the youngest beverage director of any No. 1 Zagat-rated restaurant in the country. It shows in the restaurant’s extensive wine list.

Shortly after our drinks are selected, a Cabernet for me and glasses of Pinot Noir for my guests, we’re served a plate of house-made focaccia bread. As I take my first bite, I realize that if the bread alone, with its buttermilk-braised garlic scapes and side of lemon butter, is this delicious, we’re in for a great evening.

Restaurant North places a strong focus on sourcing from local farms and purveyors, something evidenced by a quick glance at the menu. Many of the dishes are branded as “Mimi’s,” sourced from Mimi Edelman of  I & Me Farm in Bedford.

“These human relationships that we have with farmers really inspire our team both in the kitchen and in the front of house,” Mancini says. “Mimi is our spirit animal. She has been farming for us for almost six years.”

We start with “Mimi’s” Cincinnati radish, which is drizzled in lemon butter and sprinkled with sea salt. In another small plate, a spare rib caramelle is smothered in a delectable barbeque demi-glaze and topped with crispy fried onions. Spaghetti alla chittara is a revelation, topped with peas and a dollop of ricotta cheese.

Our entrees are each singular, with a strong attention to detail apparent in each dish. A thick fillet of pollock is served alongside heirloom vegetables and sits on a bed of crunchy quinoa. A grilled slice of tuna is paired with carrots, radishes and beets and is drizzled in beurre blanc. The Long Island duck is cooked to perfection, served with creamy polenta and topped with sweet, grilled peaches and a pine cone syrup. A generous serving of leg of lamb is topped with tzatziki sauce and asparagus and sits on a bed of couscous.

Mancini and Restaurant North have been on the receiving end of a number of changes in recent years, including an updated interior, a new menu design and the opening of Market North, a second restaurant concept across the street.

But arguably the largest development Restaurant North has seen was the departure of Gabrynowicz last year.

“This was a big change,” Mancini says. “Eric was and still is a close friend. He left on the best terms. He made a quality-of-life decision for his family and was very influential in finding his replacement.”

Mancini didn’t have to look far for that replacement, selecting Gabrynowicz’s former understudy, Matt Casino.

“Not only was Matt more passionate than the majority of the James Beard-nominated chefs that we interviewed, he was also more creative,” Mancini says. “Matt had the greatest potential.”

Casino’s promotion to executive chef has also led to a bit of a revamping of the restaurant’s menu, one that now includes shareable plates.

Among those offerings include the fried chicken, served in a cast iron pot with flaky biscuits and cornbread. That order pairs seamlessly with a whole broccoli tempura with braised greens and a chili caramel sauce. The fried chicken alone is nothing short of perfect — perfectly flaky and perfectly juicy.

To end our evening, we chose a cheese made from Sprout Creek Margie cow’s milk, creamy and reminiscent of Brie, and a delightfully sweet bacon jam. A brown butter sponge cake is served with strawberries, rhubarb, meringue and blue basil.

As we finish our desserts, the restaurant’s sommelier, Danny Roosevelt, chats with us about a unique honey mead he and Mancini concocted during their off hours — a  favorite pastime of the two wine connoisseurs.

To me, that really sums up what Restaurant North is about. It’s fun, it’s inventive and it’s pushing the envelope. It’s sophisticated, yet relatable, a balance that can sometimes be hard to come by in the world of fine dining.

“It’s tricky and not easy to get across,” Mancini says, “but when we show our true colors, this educated approachability is exactly what we are trying to achieve.”

For more, visit restaurantnorth.com.

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