Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lautrec, Farmington PA

To this point I still have no idea what I did to warrant this gesture, but when it was all said and done I had just completed an absolutely stunning meal and was sipping my coffee when my waiter appeared tableside and stated “the check has been taken care of by Nemacolin.” With that noted, for the first time in my life I must start a review with a disclaimer - while some may not believe it possible to be objective under such circumstances all I can say is that even prior to those 9 words my meal at Lautrec was amongst the ten best dining experiences of my life.

Starting from the top; approximately one month prior to our visit to Falling Water I’d heard about Lautrec – it was recommended by the Maitre D’ at The Inn At Little Washington. Seemingly unrelated to the outsider it turns out that the suggestion was prompted by two facts – first, the Maitre D’ had recently had a great meal there and secondly because Chef Kristin A. Butterworth had recently graduated from her job at The Inn to the position of Chef de Cuisine at Lautrec, a AAA and Forbes 5-Star dining destination. Having not heard of the restaurant prior I scoured for information and although reviews of the restaurant were few and far between, the location at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort was highly regarded (to say the least.) Contacting the restaurant for reservations I was graciously assisted by general manager Anthony Arcurio who set me up for a table for one at 6:30 on June 29th and I was assured pictures would be okay provided no flash was used – he also offered me a tour of the kitchen during my visit, a nice gesture I’ve had the privilege to enjoy at multiple great restaurants.

Arriving at Nemacolin nearly an hour before my designated dining time I wandered the grounds – to say they feature something for everyone would be an understatment. From putt-putt to golf, a shooting academy to shopping, wooded walkways to off road adventures......and that isn't even to mention the rock climbing, archery, ziplines, croquet, tennis (grass courts,) swimming pools, wildlife collection (lions, tigers, bears....and buffalo,) shopping, and fine dining. Really, they have their own airport. Duly impressed I made my way back to the main building where I met a friendly valet who took the car while another led me to the doors of Lautrec...along the way we met no less than 5 smiling employees.

Making my way to the hostess stand outside the restaurant I announced my name and was briefly confused as the young man could not find my reservation. Noting that the restaurant “isn’t very busy today, I’m sure we can fit you in” he fumbled for a moment before locating the reservation (filed under V instead of U) and apologized profusely before leading me quickly to a fantastically plus two-top near the window with a full view of both the gardens and the entirety of the restaurant. Left for merely a moment before being greeted by one of my two servers I browsed the decadent room, full of plush upholstery, high thread counts, Christofle and Crystal, and deep reds and blues harkening to the restaurant’s namesake artist – even the chargers were themed to artist (not to mention the 6 Lautrec originals found throughout the dining area.)

After a brief introduction from my waiter the first thing to arrive at my table was the champagne carte – Cristal, Krug, Dom, and others all well represented. Declining the champagne (and 10 types of Caviar offered on the same menu) but taking the cocktail list I opted for the Passenger 54 Martini – Grey Goose, Kahlua, Bailey’s, Espresso, and Chocolate Shavings…it was excellent but quite potent, though I admit a fairly low tolerance.

Greeted next by Mr.Arcurio (and another unnecessary apology for the reservation mistake) I was presented with the nightly menu, both prix fixe and tasting. Opting for the tasting menu but requesting a substitution for the beef it was suggested I simply take any item from the prix fixe and substitute it in – a great resolution given the available options. Orders placed I was asked to sit back and enjoy the experience while a mix of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Chopin, and Mozart played softly overhead. With the restaurant less than half full I will say right now that although there were only two servers present that evening there was never a moment of want, whether for the house purified water, bread, silverware, butter, or anything else – they even brought me reading material (3 magazines, a portfolio on the restaurant’s layout and design, and a book about the Hardy Art Collection) to browse between courses.

Starting things off was a gift from the kitchen – the daily amuse bouche featuring House Cured Salmon Belly, Crème Fraiche, Candied Lemon, Micro Chive and Parsley, plus house blend hybrid caviar. Locally blended the caviar was apparently osetra plus beluga plus American sturgeon and the flavor was mild – almost a bit sweet. Small but well paired I particularly liked the manner in which the caviar was complimented by the melting salmon and sweet/sour interplay of the crème fraiche and lemon.

Following the amuse my server arrived with the house-baked bread selections and two butters, a goat butter from England paired with Maldon Sea Salt and a cow’s butter from Vermont paired with Atlantic Tangerine Salt. Selecting amongst the five breads – Sourdough, Olive Sourdough, Sweet Pumpernickel, Nine Grain, and Baguette…well, I selected one of each and had quite a few refills during the meal. Particularly impressive I truly enjoyed the Olive Sourdough and the Pumpernickel. In terms of the butter – the cow’s milk was mild and tasty, but the goat’s milk…I went through two plates of the grassy and nearly cheese-like spread.

Moving on to the tasting menu my first dish was actually presented by Chef Butterworth herself. Peeky Toe with local Compressed Melon, Crème Fraiche, Chive, Mint Jus was delightful. Featuring sweet crab wrapped in cantaloupe and cryo-vac compressed honeydew the dish was finished with a combination of chive, dehydrated crème fraiche, vanilla oil, and mint. While not entirely molecular gastronomy there were clearly modern elements at play in this dish, but all of them were quite functional and all worked quite nicely to form an attractive and light opening plate.

Dish two would be (somewhat predictably) a soup course, in this case Spring Onion Soup with Caramel, Pickled Ramp, Garlic, Chive, and Onion Tuille. Arriving as a pile of vegetables to one side and a white powder to the other the veloute was added tableside and the powder quickly dissolved releasing the smell of both onion and caramel simultaneously. “Dehydrated Caramel” said my waiter – “bon appetite.” Mixing the mélange adequately and allowing it to cool slightly my first bite was a revelation – everything just worked wonderfully together. Earthy and pungent yet sweet and smooth with variable textures galore – on par with the soup at Per Se for best ever.

A short wait between courses two and three led to more conversation with Anthony – we talked about my dining experiences, the places he had worked prior, and his home town of Parma, OH – a city about an hour east from where I grew up. It was here that he told me the menu would be changing on July 6th and that my next course was going to be going away for the season – after tasting it I must say that is a shame. Titled Butter Poached Halibut Cheeks, Black Quinoa, Pioppini, Grilled Ramp Vinaigrette the dish was fantastic and I’d later find out that it actually wasn’t Chef Butterworth who was responsible, but rather another young female chef working the fish station. Pairing the flawless and mild fish with toothsome and nutty quinoa the dish was finished with a dusting of pepper, crispy mushrooms, and a pungent yet tamed ramp puree – the presentation was clean, simple, and elegant.

Plate four would be Chilean Sea Bass with Lobster Sausage, Potato, Caviar Butter Sauce. Again prepped by the fish half of the kitchen this dish would prove to be equally delicious as its predecessor, albeit much heavier in flavor and portion. Pan seared and lightly salted the Bass itself was finished in the oven and flaky to fork – perfect execution. Pairing the mild bass with a fatty sausage exuding the very essence of lobster and shellfish the fish was then rested upon a pomme puree not dissimilar from that of Joel Robuchon and the dish was finished tableside with a reduction of shallot, wine, lemon, butter, and paddlefish roe. Salty but nuanced the entire focus of this dish was clearly on the quality of the Sea Bass and while I understand many take issue with this fish due to overfishing, I must say that when done right it is a true delight.

Dish five would be Lautrec’s signature dish, but for all the hype I found it to be the least interesting course of the evening – not bad, but just not the same level of wow as the others. Entitled “Truffle – 60 minute Egg, Capellini, Reggiano” the plating consisted of a small tightly wound pile of house made Cappelini tossed in butter sauce with the golden yolk of an egg rested atop. Added tableside, slices of Umbrian truffles and shaved Parmesiano Reggiano. Flawlessly executed, perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by similar (better) versions at Charile Trotters and Per Se.

Following the Truffled Egg would be the course I selected to replace the beef – an obvious choice to anyone who knows me, the Foie Gras Trio – Hazelnut Pain Perdu, Local Blueberries, Lemon, Aged Balsamic. Arriving in three forms – seared hot, bruleed warm, and chilled puree, each was better than the next when progressing from left to right. Leftmost on the plate, a seared section simply seasoned and perched atop hazelnut bread with ample notes of rum, honey, and paired with a blueberry balsamic reduction. Central a baked custard of foie gras, egg, cream, and maple syrup – nicely caramelized and matched with a lemon infused greek yogurt. Finally, and most impressive of all, a lolli-pop of foie gras, port, and gelatin paired elegantly with a white peach puree, honey comb and honey granules.

Impressed by the overall sizes of each course I was surprised when dish seven arrived – I had expected it to be my main course – but in retrospect, it turned out to be the best dish of an otherwise incredible meal. Entitled Quail – Bacon, Asparagus, Morels, Fried Egg the dish featured Quail in four forms – all from Palmetto Pigeon Plant in Sumter South Carolina. Beginning first by brining the legs in myriad spices including cherry wood, rosemary, and bay leaf and subsequently rendering a confit utilizing duck fat. Drained, the confit was then packed into the breast of the bird and subsequently wrapped in quail bacon prior to pan searing – on its own this elaborate presentation would have been heavenly. Adding another layer of depth, however, were aromatic butter roasted Morels and snappy asparagus which added a vegetal component to the heavy proteins. Completing the dish – a deep fried quail egg, runny and creamy – a beautiful dish and an absolute must order from the Spring menu.

Getting somewhat full at this point it was now time for the final savory of the evening – Elysian Field Lamb, Spring Pea Risotto, Morel Mushrooms, Sherry. Prepared rare, sliced, and shingled with a round left to be sliced the lamb rested above a pillow of sweet peas and creamy rice – simply paired, excellent quality. To the right of the protein, a puree of sweet peas and mild was subsequently topped with a layer of Sherry cream sauce while crispy morels flanked the proteins adding their characteristic earthy flavor. Simple, well prepared – not as good as the lamb the night before at Eleven, but very good.

Arriving next, oddly considering their $75,000 Christofle Cheese Cart, was an pre-arranged cheese plate. Featuring three options selected by the chef to best represent the cart and paired with two types of local honey, almonds, peanuts, pain perdu with blueberry syrup, and a quince moutarde I have to say I liked what was chosen. From left to right, first Tomme de Chévre from France – sweet yet nutty, salty yet with pronounced tang, the most complex of the three. Second, aged English Farmhouse Cheddar – sharp and grassy, potent and an excellent pairing with the pain perdu. Finally, a 15 month Aged Cashel Blue from Ireland – extremely pungent and a bit spicy, too rich for my general tastes but balanced by its creamy texture. (a note to anyone eating at Lautrec, the cheese course is included on both the tasting and the prix fixe.)

Following cheeses I chatted with Anthony some more while the pastry chef prepared a sweet ending. Having already suggested a tour of the kitchen I was asked if I’d also like to see the $1.75 million dollars worth of wine in Nemacolin’s vault and have a tour of the 6 Lautrec’s (some contained in private dining rooms.) Suggesting that this would be fantastic my palate cleanser next arrived- a house made sparkling strawberry soda with a dollop of basil sorbet resting atop. Sipped slowly with a straw I was reminded of dessert at Eleven Madison Park 2 years ago – the first time I’d ever had savory spices mixed into a dessert course.

At this point in the meal two carts were brought tableside simultaneously – first a full cart of dessert wines, ports, and liquors, and second an antique tea set with 30+ loose leaf teas for perusal and infusion. Declining both (but adequately impressed) I opted for coffee – a bold and balanced blend from the houses that brew Illy; it was allowed to steep tableside before being poured from a silver French Press. Clearly Lautrec pulls out all the stops when it comes to service wear, tableside presentations, and “wow factor.”

Dessert proper would follow coffee – along with a second and third press later. Dubbed “Chocolate – Virginia Peanuts in Many Forms, Bruleed Banana” this dish, like the Foie Gras, actually featured three separate dishes united by a common ingredient. Starting left, a Banana Macaron with traditional almond Macaron cookies filled with banana custard and sitting atop Peanut butter powder formed with maltodextrin with bruleed bananas along side. Central, a simple peanut butter ice cream, melting and smooth atop crumbled candied peanuts. To the right, the highlight of the dish, a flexible dark chocolate ganache – light and airy – topped with crispy chocolate mousse and crumbled raw Hubb’s Northern Virginia Peanuts. Chocolate, peanut butter, bananas – really, this dish had no chance at failing and the varying flavors and textures spread linearly kept it from being monotonous.

Along with my last cup of coffee I was brought a tray of Mignardises – four options total, but multiples of each on the tray. Selecting one of each I was plated a blackberry pate de fruit, a lavender marshmallow, a cocoa truffle, and a passion fruit opera cake. Each quite tasty I rather wonder, considering all the other carts and gestures, why Lautrec would not go for the gusto a la Savoy or Robuchon and add a carte de mignardises (or bread, for that matter.) Not a critique, but perhaps more a suggestion – everything else was fantastically well done, why not add a few more flourishes?

Expecting my check to arrive next, Anthony stopped by to let me know they were preparing a copy of the menu and that he’d like to take me on a tour of the facilities if I had time. Certainly in no rush after such a wonderful experience I followed him through the wine vault, the private dining areas where one of our servers (a member of the Lautrec team for 15 years) joined us to describe the art, and finally the kitchen where I thanked the Chefs for the wonderful experience. Making my way back to the table I would find a small box containing two buttery lemon accented Madelines (alas, not warm like Ducasse, Stratta, or Boulud - but tasty none the less) and a copy of the menu rolled up waiting for me. Sitting back and finishing my coffee it was then that my server arrived to inform me the bill was taken care of.

Taken aback and uncertain how to respond to the gesture (I wanted to leave a tip but I don’t carry cash and I couldn’t exactly give them a credit card without a bill to sign) I thanked my server and made my way to the door where I was bid farewell by what seemed to be the entire front of the house. Making my way out into the lobby I stopped by the cigar shop to browse the souvenirs and picked up a signature “Fat Bird” statue from the resort – again, the clerk was nothing but smiles and manners. Driving away from Nemacolin (past the “Moose Crossing” sign) all I could think about was the meal that had just happened – pure magic from start to finish, not a single dish ranking below very good and service that was so effusive it bordered on perfection. Located in the middle of the woods – over an hour from any major or minor city – Lautrec is not the place you just happen upon, it is like Yountville or Washington Virginia – a destination well worth the effort.

While I cannot say every experience will end like mine, judging from service delivered and smiles received from the other diners lucky enough to be there that evening the only difference will likely be the bill – modest compared to similar experiences. It is only a matter of time before I end up back at Nemacolin...next time I’d like to stay for a bit and explore the grounds, Aqueous, Autumn, and get back to Lautrec...I hear Falling Water is beautiful in the Fall.


Sanders said...

wow--and I've never heard of it. Any idea why they took care of the bill for you?

So what is in your top 10 along with Lautrec (of course Alinea is 1)

uhockey said...

Hard to guess on why they covered it, honestly. I pontificated on Chowhound: "my only guess is that they figured me a critic or something along those lines - perhaps they're not used to gourmands with cameras since their standard clientelle seemed to be older folks celebrating anniversaries and staying at the resort.

Regardless - the food and experience was better than Daniel, Robuchon, Savoy, or Jean-Georges even before they covered the tab."

uhockey said...

My top 10 varies from day to day - but the "current" list would be:
Alinea (first time > second)
The French Laundry (Lee, Winter extended tasting)
Vidalia24 (prior to RJ Cooper leaving)
Per Se (Benno, Early Winter extended tasting)
L20 (Summer Menu + Foie Gras)
Providence (Late Summer, old pasty chef)
Komi (May)
Joel Robuchon
Michel Richard Citronelle

At Any time Guy Savoy, Charlie Trotters, The Inn at Little Washington, or La Folie could slip in there.

Anonymous said...

If you want to give them the tip they earned (and a little extra by way of apology), call the restaurant and explain that you want to give a tip, but need to know who to make out the check or checks to. Then write said checks and put them in the mail.

Anonymous said...

Restaurants can add a small amount to your charge card(one dollar or even less than that)which will allow you add a tip....just a hint in case that happens to you again.

olsonolson said...

i second " anonymous' " comment about the tip. you simply could have ordered a soda from your waiter and then tipped he/she appropriately for their service during your amazing meal. i can guarantee that your waiter was happy you enjoyed everything, but not too happy about not being tipped on top of their pennsylvania 2.83$ an hour service industry wage.

Jacquie Kubin said...

Yes, you need to go back and make sure that the waiter is taken care of. In similar circumstances, I have taken the servers name and sent them the tip, often through the Chef so that I was sure that the received. Have left the table and found an ATM machine (one is right around the corner from Lautrec) and gotten cash or as the other suggested, have asked the room captain to please charge my card for an item, delivered or not, desert possibly, so that I can "take care" of the staff. The room captain will be able to handle that with grace and if the demure, a simple, I insist, is all that is needed. I always carry cash; last experience the final bill was $400, more than I anticipated and I had only brought $60 in cash, so I asked my "guest" to please help with an additional $20. I do not, as a reviewer, feel it is inappropriate for the restaurant to "share" the expense of our work as we no longer have media budgets to work with, however that share is not for the server. That said, any of my writers/reviewers who do not tip, and tip at least 20% do not write for me again. (and yes I have been known to call and ask)

uhockey said...

Jacquie - I am unfamiliar with your work - who do you work for (site?) I agree that I should have left a tip, but it was the first time I ever got "comped" and I was quite taken aback by the situation. I am generally a very good tipper if the service warrants it.