Luxe WAG country dining, revisited

Three of the region’s top chefs return to the stoves in earnest.

It’s been 15 years since I first visited the Homestead Inn, the small luxury hotel in Greenwhich with Thomas Henkelmann’s eponymous restaurant attached. At the time I was a spy — sorry, “mystery guest” — for the prestigious hotel and restaurant group, Relais & Châteaux, of which the inn was, and still is, a member. Here, in sunny Connecticut, I was thrilled to find a superb French restaurant, complete with the smoothest French maître d’ (“Monsieur, I am giving you ze very best seat, with ze best view, in ze ‘ouse.” Me: “Really?” Maitre d’: “Mais oui — right opposite Madame”) and a wine list that could have made adults, or at least wine-loving ones, weep. A bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne  – one of Champagne’s finest, made entirely from the Chardonnay grape – cost nearly $300 with tax, I recall, a small fortune as far as my pocketbook was concerned. But perfectly served at just the right temperature, poured with a gentle flourish by an expert sommelier into wafer-thin, long-stemmed crystal glasses, the golden tincture was worth every cent.

I’ve returned to Restaurant Thomas Henkelmann a few of times over the years, on my own dime, and Henkelmann has never let me down. Eating there means always to be transported to another world. Because gracious and refined as the restaurant is, it is never, ever stuffy. And blessed with a charming terrace, the restaurant, which reopened for dinner only in mid-August, has been able to adapt well to Covid-19-age dining.

Henkelmann’s cuisine, meanwhile, is rich and sophisticated, with luxury produce carefully sourced and infinite care taken over even the simplest white sauce. Duck, lamb and game birds, which will come into their own again in the fall, find a natural home on his menus — and if you see sweetbreads, or any dish with Périgord truffles on the menu, my advice (with apologies for any uncharacteristic use of the vernacular,) is to go for it.

At The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges, the following is so loyal that within days of reopening in July, the restaurant was sold out for both lunch and dinner services for a full three weeks ahead. (It is marginally easier now to find a reservation than it was at first, but only marginally.) And it’s easy to see why. The inn has a glorious garden, just made for social distancing, and it’s at its oxslip and eglantine best at dusk on a summer’s evening. But if I was looking forward to a midsummer night’s al fresco feast on a recent visit, I was to be disappointed. Arriving ahead of my guest, I was greeted by a fairly strict host, who immediately ushered (I forbear to say shoved) me to a table in the restaurant’s otherwise deserted dark underbelly, about as cheerful as a not top-tier cell in the Bastille. I raised an eyebrow. “Seating is indoors unless you request outside when booking,” came the fairly stern reply. (I hadn’t seen an option to request “outside” when booking online and, revisiting the site now, I still don’t.) 

A compromise was, however, reached. We settled for an oversized round table by the open French doors, and tucked in, after what seemed like an interminable wait, to blindingly fresh tuna tartare, fried calamari with a big-kick citrus-chili emulsion, and slightly down-in-the-mouth, grilled Maine lobster. Not a bad lobster, exactly but not a juicy or especially fleshy one either. On the other hand, a pizza with black truffle, shared as an “intercourse” extra dish, was monstrously rich, a heaven-made marriage of woodsy truffle and melting fontina. 

One thing to note is that most of the food currently being served at the Inn comes in disposable containers (although the pizza was served on a regular plate), and we drank from real glasses, despite what the website says — namely, that the glassware, too, is disposable. Who knows? Maybe they just the chuck the lead crystal out with empties in Pound Ridge.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which I’ve always thought deserves as much praise for its tongue-twisting name (perversely, I always want to call it Stone Blue at Hill Farms, or some other Spoonerish play on the original), a virtue has been made of necessity. Dinner is currently being offered in two sittings and comprises preordered picnic baskets that serve between two and eight guests, the smart wicker baskets and the stylish containers and dinnerware they contain enough to give the word “disposable” a good name. In keeping with Blue Hills’ “no menu” approach, diners can opt for a fish, meat or vegetarian themed supper, but after that it’s down to chance and what’s been brought in from the farm and fields that day.

I say “chance,” but it’s hardly much of a risk. Dan Barber, to my mind, is the most exciting and “authentic” chef working in the Northeast right now. But even so, for diners with specific dietary needs or allergies, or plain picky eaters, this may not be the way to go. On the other hand, if you share Barber’s love of the land, his celebration of the humblest fruit or vegetable grown with care, his passionate sense of the importance of sound animal husbandry — and all of this coupled with his innate skill as a restaurateur, the $195 per person tag (excluding wine) you pay for a picnic dinner, on the patio or in the grounds of Blue Hill, will be money well spent. 

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