Classic + modern = X20 Xaviars on the Hudson

Though he has long championed classic French cookery, Peter X. Kelly, chef and owner of X20 Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers, has never been shy about embracing new techniques and influences.

If anyone is going to be writing the obituary notice of “fine dining,” it is not going to be Peter Kelly (Page 60). Thoroughly genial, exceptionally hard-working, altruistic and ever thoughtful, the self-taught, Yonkers-born, chef is a stickler for the art of gracious living and doing things the right way.

In cooking terms, that means taking his inspiration from French cuisine and France, and more broadly Europe, where he journeyed in his early 20s to educate his palate — dining at 3-Michelin star temples of gastronomy and observing great chefs, who were pretty much household names in France, at work. But though he has long championed classic French cookery, he has never been shy about embracing new techniques and influences. 

Those techniques are not only alive and well, they are very much in evidence at X20 Xaviars on the Hudson, the striking, waterfront restaurant Kelly launched in Yonkers in 2017, and where I was recently treated to an extraordinary sampling of the restaurant’s tasting menu, thanks to its chef/patron’s kindness and generosity. This was a kaleidoscopic, 10-act performance of dazzling gastronomic virtuosity, set against the backdrop of the wood and glass-frame restaurant, which sits dramatically on the only turn-of-the-20th century pier still in use on the Hudson River, with views all the way to the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and down to Manhattan.

These days, of course, most restaurant critics worth their trendy pink Himalayan salt despise the term “fine dining,” the skill, sophistication, perceived profligacy with “food miles” — and even the occasionally culinary legerdemain — that fine dining implies offending against the new sanctity of spontaneity and sustainability. And yet, fine and gracious dining needn’t fight with authenticity:  There’s plenty of space in the field or kitchen garden for them to coexist peaceably.

At X20, our tasting menu got underway with a stunning amuse-bouche, small bites of sushi, sashimi and nigiri, including hamachi with chilled ponzu, king salmon with mango and wondrously crunchy shrimp tempura, all lined up in almost military formation on a long white rectangular dish. This was a revelation of tang and freshness, pinging of the sea. (Chef Kelly joked the sushi came from the Hudson, which sadly we knew not to be true.) After these little jewels, a shot of butternut squash bisque, supercharged with Slovenian pumpkin seed oil, cleared and then primed the palate for roasted, golden beets with soft goat cheese curd.

If Chef Kelly is unashamedly at home with luxury ingredients — lobster, truffles, caviar, prime beef, say — then he is equally at ease with humbler root vegetables and greens. And he has a fascination with Asian produce and ingredients, too. Later in our dinner, Hakurei turnips with black miso and togarashi (a subtly hot Japanese spice mix) lifted a dish of gloriously pink, Hudson Valley duck breast to the heights, while a light-as-a-feather shellfish crêpe was loaned an umami lick with its star-anise glaze.

In a dish of grilled Portuguese octopus, and cutting the smokiness of the char-grilling, both green and ripe papaya (yes, both; God, after all, is in the detail,) along with cucumber, red onion and cilantro, added a touch of Mexican, or possibly Thai, headiness. In another chef’s hands, this could have ended up a farrago, but at X20, imaginatively paired with a citrusy Hoegaarden Belgian wheat-beer served in an ice-cold glass, the multilayered mélange was absolutely spot-on.

And in the dish that followed, a beautiful tranche of glossy Asian halibut came to the table in thin sheets of zucchini, the baby squash acting like an almost translucent shroud.

With so many dishes to place and remove, approaches by staff members could have become overwhelming, but they never did. Service was smooth without ever being starchy and plates were placed and removed almost silently, while the many wines we were lucky enough to sample were poured with great elegance by the restaurant manager.

Ah, those wines. This is a cellar to be reckoned with. Beginning modestly, though not too modestly, with a yeasty Café de Paris brut Rosé from Bordeaux, we moved through a grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand with the shellfish crêpe to an oaky, Bedford Chardonnay from Russian River, California, brimming over with pear and citrus, with the meaty halibut. A Riesling came next, from the Whitecliff Vineyard in Gardiner, New York — you’d expect nothing less with your steamed Asian dumplings — before a Californian Josh Phelps Cab and then a spectacular 2017 Stag Leap “Artemis”, enjoyed with the duck and a roast loin of lamb respectively, eclipsed all that had gone before them.

Of course, you don’t need to eat and drink at this exalted level, and X20’s assorted lunch, brunch dinner and bar menus allow for enjoyment on any plane. 

But coming down to earth from the euphoric delights of the “Artemis,” I caught myself reveling in other elements of fine dining — tables dressed with good linen, beautiful stemware, a decorative bowl of red roses on the table, finding them all oddly reassuring. It was like seeing old friends who had been too long absent from my life. 

Cascading light fixtures, meanwhile, seemingly suspended in space like Alexander Calder mobiles, helped break up and soften the large dining room, so that at night it took on an intimate air, with Ella Fitzgerald, a favorite daughter of Yonkers, exhorting us to “Begin the Beguine” and Leon Bridges smooching “Beyond,” adding to the atmosphere.

So, three cheers for fine dining and X20, which by the way is a no-brainer if you’re looking for somewhere special to celebrate a birthday, say, or an anniversary. Then again, one of the best reasons to come to this magical spot on the Hudson is for no reason at all. Because, these days, just being able to throw on some glad-rags and head out somewhere wonderful for lunch or dinner is the only excuse you need for doing so.  

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