Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bona Terra, Pittsburgh PA

Our final meal in Pittsburgh – literally, we drove back to Columbus after dinner – would actually be in Sharpsburg. A BYOB located in a rather blue collar part of town the restaurant may seem an odd choice to the unfamiliar – everything about its location, size, and layout seems to say “locals only.” What those paying attention would realize, however, is that Chef Douglas Dick has twice been a Beard Award Semi-Finalist, thrice been named Pittsburgh Magazine’s Chef of the Year, and has been embracing the “Farm to Table” movement since before most had American’s even heard of it. Locally sourced foods prepared by an internationally educated chef and a menu that changes daily (because Dick goes to the market daily for his products) everything about Bona Terra sounded fantastic.

Contacting the restaurant in advance to make certain photos were allowed I was assured that they were, provided no flash was used – I was also given helpful information on parking, the alcohol policy, and asked if anyone in our group had allergies or intolerances. With reservations made for 6:00pm, the restaurant’s opening time we arrived just moments early and found free parking without difficulty. Making our way into the restaurant we would soon be greeted by the Maitre D’, a young man named Adam, who informed us that the daily menu was being printed at that time but he’d be glad to get our drink orders – an iced tea for mom and water for my sister and I.


The first table to arrive we were quickly joined by three other tables and the restaurant would later fill to capacity – not a difficult accomplishment considering there are less than 20 tables in the entirety of the space. Browsing the simple décor – yellow walls, fresh flowers in glass vases, and paintings of “mourning” flowers along the walls…tasteful and fitting the feel generated by the excellent soundtrack of Band of Horses, Motown Classics, and Classical played softly overhead. Greeted next by our server carrying the nights fresh menus I will note that the service at Bona Terra was refined yet whimsical, pleasant and punctual, present but not hovering – it was excellent.

After a short perusal of the menu our orders were placed – our server commenting that we’d ordered “very well.” Sitting back and enjoying the setting, music, and each other’s company it would only be a moment before our first taste of Douglas’ culinary skills would arrive. Described as Soy Glazed Heritage Farms Chicken over Coconut Rice the single skewer arrived and smelled heavenly. Clearly Asian in influence the tender and juicy breast meat was clearly marinated in soy and grilled until caramelized. Served over a smooth and nutty rice with a fatty texture that led me to believe it was boiled in coconut milk the whole dish worked nicely, albeit somewhat large for an amuse.

Given our large lunch and long drive ahead it was decided that we would share a couple of small appetizer plates prior to our mains – and given the fact that neither appetizer required cooking they would arrive quite quickly after our amuse. Starting first with a cheese plate, Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper with poached Bartlett Pears, Mixed Berry Infused Honey. Brought forth by the same company who makes my favorite cheese of all time, Humboldt Fog, the Lamb Chopper was described as a sheep’s milk Gouda imported from Holland. Smooth as butter and fragrant without being as pungent as many sheep’s milk cheeses the fromage was accompanied by impossibly sweet pears, water crackers, local strawberries, and a clover honey blended with what tasted largely of blackberry. A very well composed plate and a great cheese.

Having heard of Chef Dick’s daily shopping treks we decided a taste of his hand selected produce was in order – our second appetizer being a light salad of Penn's Corner Romaine Lettuce with Vermont Chevre, Poached Pears, Cucumber, Local Strawberries, Toasted Almonds, and Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette. Crisp and fresh, a beautiful balance of sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth – simple, but excellent.

Following our appetizers would be a short delay – but a delay with the most unexpected treasure of the night…a bread and butter combo that still leaves me weak in the knees. Served singly (thank goodness or I’d have invariably eaten ten,) and piping hot from a wooden basket were “Brioche Rolls and Salted Peach Butter.” Warm and buttery on their own the rollswould have been suitable without any topping – they would have been every bit as delectable as the rolls at CityZen or Craftsteak or The French Laundry – but paired with a peachy sweet mélange of butter and cream cheese, they were heavenly. All told I ate four…in retrospect I still wish I would have eaten ten.

Arriving minutes before our main courses the table would next receive a palate cleanser in the form of a ball of Pineapple Sorbet made the previous evening. Light, creamy, and the very essence of pineapple.

For our main courses there were three fishes and four meats offered that evening and aside from the beef every single one of them sounded excellent; I imagine those who are lucky enough to enjoy a tasting menu at Bona Terra leave quite impressed. Starting with my mother’s selection, not wanting anything heavy she opted for the Marinated and Grilled Tiger Prawns over Greens and Tomato-Cucumber Gazpacho, Marinated Avocado and Balsamic Reduction. An ample dish for a mere $14 the four shrimp were large and clean, snappy with a sweet taste. Served over boiled greens and surrounded by a chilled tomato broth with ample notes of balsamic the shrimp were then topped with creamy avocado forming a “shrimp tartare” sort of flavor. Nicely plated – and indeed not at all heavy.

For my sister’s main course the choice was Oven Roasted North Atlantic Cod over Israeli Cous Cous and Sauteed Green Beans, Tarragon Infused Butter-Wine Pan Sauce with Grilled Black Mission Figs. Having never seen fig meets fish on a single plate I was intrigued by this dish from the start and only moreso when it arrived. A substantial slice of mild and buttery cod over a toothsome cous-cous and pan-crispy green beans, the fish was topped with a halved plump and juicy Fig clearly soaked in wine and butter while a sweet/savory reduction of butter, wine, and chopped figs circulated the plate. While the plating, in my opinion, could have been dressed up I’m rather certain the flavoring and quality couldn’t have been improved.

While my companions’ dishes were good mine was unreal – and only improved from the menu listing when Chef Dick informed us that he’d just gotten in a lobe of foie gras and if it “met his approval” he’d like to add it to the dish. Arriving with the smells of cinnamon, cherry, allspice, and thyme the “chef suggests medium rare” Seared Maple Leaf farms Duck breast and Hudson Valley Foie Gras over long grain Basmati rice, Sauteed Zucchini, Local Sour Cherry Compote, Sweet and Spicy Tropical Jamaican Jerk Reduction was fantastic. Smooth and supple with a clean layer of fat ribboned beneath the crispy skin the duck was potentially the best quality duck meat I’ve ever had. Topped with a velvet and ample slice of foie gras a presented over a benign rice and vegetal zucchini mélange the dish was brought to a peak by the addition of poached black cherries and a reduction that added heat and spice without overwhelming the multiple nuances of the dish – on par with the duck dishes in New Orleans, potentially better.

After a meal so stunning dessert was a must – a short list, made in house and unprinted - our waiter recited them all off in great detail. Discussing a moment amongst ourselves while he went to the kitchen to prepare my second La Prima Coffee of the day we came to consensus – as usual, all different orders with lots of sharing. Arriving after approximately 10 minutes, along with a coffee refill, was Mom’s option – the Meyer Lemon Tart with Whipped Cream and Blackberries. Sweet and sour the creamy custard met the buttery crisp crust nicely – not a fan of lemon desserts in general I thought it was good while mom felt it was the second best Lemon Tart she’d ever had.

For my sister’s selection she targeted the “newest item on the menu” – the Bavarian Chocolate and Hazelnut Tart with Local Strawberries. Served in a buttery crust similar to my mothers, Erika’s tart would consist of a creamy whipped dark chocolate mousse loaded with what I can only describe as “Chunky Hazelnut Butter.” Something like a “dark” Nutella pie the simplisticy of the tart was matched only by its decadence.

For my dessert the decision was between cheesecake and the dish our server described as the “house special.” With everything exceptionally special so far I went with the obvious – a simple and decidedly indulgent Rich Chocolate Cake with Peach Ice Cream. Served almost like Keller’s Bouchon dessert the thick, rich, and warm cake was topped with a large scoop of ice-cream that tasted like a melting peach without the fuzz. Focusing on the cake – the texture was almost that of a steamed pudding – a little wet, but “set” and hefty. Complimenting the dish with fresh berries, chocolate sauce, house made whipped cream, and sliced candied almonds rounded out a fantastic presentation and closed a wonderful meal.

With a long drive ahead of us our server brought us the bill – I was actually sad the meal (and trip) was over…if only we’d have had more time for a tasting. Settling the tab the Maitre D’ stopped by and asked how everything had been – we told him fantastic and he said he would pass the information on to the chef…whether he did or did not I can’t be sure. What I can be sure of, however, is that our meal at Bona Terra was one of those experiences that makes you realize just how good largely unmanipulated fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins can be when placed in the hands of a skilled chef. Great food, wonderful service, and a nice location without all the hype and frills – a “hidden gem” if there ever was one.

Casbah and Prantl's, Pittsburgh PA

For our last lunch in Pittsburgh we decided to return to the Big Burrito Group; Eleven was quite good and both Gayot and Pittsburgh Magazine compared the experience at Casbah favorably to that of Big Burrito’s crown jewel. Citing a mix of Mediterranean and Northern African influences with a bargain Piccola Gusto Menu for lunch and the option for indoor or al fresco dining it seemed as if Casbah was a can’t miss option…well, sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect – almost everything that transpired from the moment we arrived until the moment we left was a failure.

Taking a step back and trying to be objective - arriving around noon it was evident from the start that Casbah was a “happening” sort of place – power lunches in suits, couples dressed as if they were out for an evening, ladies gossiping and exchanging gifts – the outdoor patio (reminiscent of Spago) was full and the inside just short of packed. With that noted, we had reservations and there were open tables – we were seated promptly by the hostess…and then we waited upward of 7-8 minutes for menus or a staff member to arrive.


When our server, a young woman named Amanda L who would prove quite inept and inefficient from start to finish, finally did arrive our menus were delivered with a brief hello before she wandered away – another server later stopped by to fill our water and drinks were never even offered. When Amanda finally did return she was capable of answering a couple questions about portion size and our orders were placed. With my mom and sister opting for the two-course Gusto lunch and myself choosing two courses a la carte we sat and sipped our water.

Waiting approximately 10 minutes another ancillary server arrived with bread and butter – a light and airy white bread with a hefty crust paired with a sweet and salted cow’s milk butter – decent, but nothing to write home about compared to the myriad bread options at Eleven. After this point we would not see another staff member for 30 minutes…well, we would see them, they just wouldn’t be walking anywhere near our table – instead bussing tables and running around while the hostess flirted with a man at the bar…I’ll note that my water glass remained empty for greater than 15 minutes.

When our first courses did arrive they were not delivered by Amanda but instead by the man who had brought our bread. Left without a description but with a full glass of water we dug in, finally freed from the culinary prison of bread and water. Starting with the soup du jour, ordered by both my mother and sister, Mushroom Soup, ramp pesto, walnuts – earthy and aromatic, some contrast from the walnuts, but actually quite bland and served lukewarm…mom actually considered asking for salt but deferred – I’m not sure if that was because I commented about her blood pressure or because she assumed it would take an hour.

My first selection would prove much better than the soup, but certainly not as nuanced as I’d expected for a dish with so many ingredients. Titled Potato Gnocchi, asparagus, sun-dried tomato, rosemary, greens, braised chicken, Landaff cheese I will first note the dumplings themselves were very nicely done – toothsome but dissolving on the tongue. Tangy and nicely melted the Landaff was a great addition to the plate and served to nicely compliment the gnocchi. Where the dish faltered, unfortunately, was the exact opposite of the soup – the combination of braised chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheese simply overwhelmed the more mild flavors of the other vegetal constituents and spices. A competent dish with great texture and giving me the impetus to look into Landaff the next time I decide to make Macaroni and cheese; it was just too salty.

Finished with our first courses approximately 10 minutes would pass – long enough for me to actively collect each and every plate and stack them at the empty seat of our four-top – before Amanda would finally return to collect the dirty plates…we’d not see her again until 15 minutes later when she filled our water glasses and told us our main courses would be “right out.” While I guess she didn’t define “right out,” what this actually meant was “in 25 minutes.” Starting first with my mother’s combo - Jumbo Lump Crab, pepper bacon, avocado, radish sprouts, on a paesano bun and Orecchiette Pasta with grilled chicken, dried cranberries, Riverview Farms goat cheese, sage cream – all I can note from my single bite of the sandwich was that the bacon was excellent (mom notably liked the sandwich a lot.) While the sandwich may not be memorable, the pasta was actually quite impressive. Using a less salty cheese and mild cream to flavor the al dente little ears of pasta worked wonders while the sweet/savory mélange of craisins and grilled chicken were a nice match.

Vastly less well done than my mother’s plate would be my sister’s option – the Grilled Vegetables, portobello, zucchini, eggplant, arugula, chickpea hummus, on baguette and Maccheretto pasta with wild mushrooms, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, rapini pesto, fontina, walnuts. Beginning with the sandwich, the bite I had was good in taste but rather mushy in consistency – too many similar vegetable textures and the hummus spread too thickly. Moving on to the pasta – first Erika tasted it. Then I tasted it. Then my mother tasted it. Honestly, to this point I’m still not sure what we were supposed to be tasting – it tasted like watery cheese…no spice, no salt, and certainly nothing resembling pesto or tomatoes. For the first time in the meal Amanda actually opted to check on us approximately 10 minutes into our main courses and when told of the watery pasta she did apologize and offered to replace it with something else – another order of the Orcchiette would prove as good as the first.

For my main course I received a simple side salad – fresh greens, crispy onion strings, and a pleasant vinaigrette. The salad, of course, was served alongside Elysian Fields Lamb “Mac and Cheese”, tubetti pasta, mascarpone, cheddar, Pecorino-Romano, and bread crumbs. Piping hot and browned with crispy bread crumbs the dish was a decent Macaroni and Cheese, but honestly the lamb was so scarce and thinly cut that it added little. Additionally confusing – these “tubetti” pasta…like a macaroni noodle cut in half…personally, I’d have opted for something with more size and body.

Completing our mains approximately 110 minutes after entering Casbah we again waited nearly ten minutes before anyone would stop by to collect dirty plates – a different ancillary server this time. With my mother and sister already deciding enough was enough they stood up to use the restroom before leaving – by the time Amanda would stop by to ask if anyone would care for dessert our two course meal had lasted 2:05 and I skipped on a menu entailing bread pudding, carrot cake, and panna cotta with “just the bill.”


As a man who wears his emotions quite prominently I’ve no doubt I looked pissed at this point – no apology was offered, however. Settling the bill via credit card no tip was left because no tip was deserved – in reality Amanda may have actually be the worst server I've encountered at a fine dining establishment in the last 2 years. I will note that when I wrote to Big Burrito (something I rarely do) I was met by a (seemingly) sincere apology without excuses – the Manager stated things don’t’ normally happen like that and he’d be sure the issue was addressed. He closed with “I hope you will join us again in the future.” I will not.

Driving away from Casbah we set the GPS to the Warhol museum…dessert could be cupcakes at Dozen in the Warhol Café, we figured. Driving though the streets of Pittsburgh up to Walnut Street the GPS alerted us that a programmed destination was close and our plans changed – Prantl’s would be dessert, instead. Ever intrigued by restaurants, shops, bakeries, and cafes that become infamous for a single item (see Haydel’s in NOLA or Patisserie Claude in NYC) I felt it necessary to see if the Burnt Almond Torte lived up to the hype.

Parking at a Premium at this time of day I hopped out while the others circled the block. Entering the small shop and finding no less than 7 people waiting in line I grabbed a number and browsed the selections – 5 full cases ranging from whole cakes to single iced cookies and everything in between. With 5 servers behind the counter the line moved quickly and it would be a matter of minutes before I had to make a decision – opting for three items that spanned a wide range I paid the modest $6 tab and made my way outside.

Opening the string-tied box the smell of cinnamon quickly filled the air announcing to everyone my first selection – a still-slightly-warm Cinnamon roll. Ample, yeasty, and loaded with butter and Cinnamon I quite liked that the pastry was not overly-iced, instead focusing on the more nuanced flavors and natural yeasty flavor of the roll. While my sister contested it would have been better hot (I can’t say I disagree) it was an excellent pasty none the less.

The second selection was ordered more out of tradition than out of necessity – a chocolate cupcake with colorful sugary frosting. Having not yet indulged on a cupcake in our Pittsburgh trip I can’t say this option looked particularly interesting, but tradition is tradition and surprisingly it was actually quite good. Simple white on black cake, moist and sweet – nothing new, but certainly an adequate cupcake for $0.99.

The final choice was obviously the Burnt Almond Torte – a single “Bar” for $3.25. Large and heavy I was expecting to have my mind blown given the reviews all I can say is that the rumors are true. Somewhat Twinkie, somewhat Pound Cake, smooth and complex custard plus whipping cream, and sugar laden almonds cooked to just short of scorched. Crispy, creamy, crispy, creamy - layer upon layer of home style decadence. Sharing the bar around the car (and making a mess) everyone agreed that this was one of the best baked goods we’d ever experienced - and an absolute bargain at that. Really, much like King Cake in NOLA and Pizza in Chicago I can’t imagine going back to Pittsburgh and not getting a slice of Burnt Almond Torte from Prantl’s.

Coca Cafe, Pittsburgh PA

After an incredible experience at Falling Water and Lautrec the night before it was back to The Burgh for more art, flowers, shopping, and food – waking up later than usual I decided to forgo the gym and after a quick shower the three of us made our way down to hipster/bohemian Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh for a breakfast I was told “can’t be beat.” Arriving at Coca Café just after 8am and finding free parking along the street we made our way in to the small shop to find only four tables full and only one server working. Greeted pleasantly we were invited to sit wherever we like.

Speaking of tables and seats, they are probably the first thing anyone visiting Coca Café will notice. Somewhere between yard-sale and antique store the restaurant features no less than 20 different styles of chair and everything from a small two top to a table that looks like something you’d find in your grandmother’s kitchen. Lining the wall with works of local artists, many of which were for sale, and filled with natural light the main room is fun and whimsical – so much that you can almost overlook the coffee, juice, and tea bar that dominates the right half of the space.

Greeted quickly by our server, an attractive and smiling young woman named Sharyn we were presented with menus and drink orders were placed – 2 coffees, one Almond Coca Moca and a subsequent hot tea for my sister, plus water. I will note now that if Sharyn is not an owner or co-owner of Coca Café she deserves a BIG raise – making lattes, taking orders, bussing tables, running food from the kitchen, rolling napkins and silverware…I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was cooking, as well – and even with all that our cups never reached empty. Inside those cups – bold and balanced La Prima Coffee with free refills for $1.95 and Stash Tea for $1.25…a resounding bargain.

Orders placed we sat for less than fifteen minutes before our shared starter would arrive steaming hot from the kitchen. Listed as “Zucchini Bread - made with chocolate chips and coconut, served with fresh fruit” this was unlike any Zucchini Bread I’ve ever had in that the bread was certainly made of well chopped zucchini – fibrous, moist, and full of nutmeg and cinnamon – but it was also loaded with shredded coconut and small chips of bitter dark chocolate giving it a “Mounds Bar” taste and texture. Topped with a creamy butter this was a nice taste – it made me want to try the Banana Bread, as well.

When it came to main courses we ordered in predictable fashion – each ordering something different and sharing around. Selecting first my mother, a fan of all things lemon, opted for the Almond French Toast - with fresh berries and lemon cream sauce. While the dish certainly would not have been my first choice it actually turned out to be superb with thick and hearty rustic French bread cut at an angle, dipped in cream, vanilla, and cinnamon plus chopped almonds and pan fried crispy. Topped with an ethereal cream sauce that tasted far too sweet to be called “lemon” (perhaps Meyer Lemon?) the whole dish felt light, summery, and fun.

For my sister’s selection, the dish I’d originally targeted - Challah French Toast with brie, fig jam, and fresh berries. Luscious and buttery the Challah on its own would have been delectable, but dipped in batter and griddled to crisp the bread was lovely. Topping the bread first with heavy slices of creamy brie and then adding a smear of sweet fig compote plus a handful of strawberries and blueberries the dish was already wonderful, but a drizzle of maple syrup really brought out some of the mellow notes in the cheese.

For my main course, potentially the most interesting item on the menu – the Herbed Goat Cheese French Toast with country white bread stuffed with herbed goat cheese and topped with fresh berries. Featuring three huge pieces of thick and airy bread, the slices were then cut diagonally and stuffed with rich and pungent chevre laden with basil, chive, salt, pepper. With a hearty crust supporting the bread and earthy aromatics sandwiched within the bread was then dipped and pan seared to golden brown. Topped simply with berries the whole concoction begged for a generous helping of pure maple syrup and when completed resembled the sort of sweet/savory interplay that one would expect from an Italian or Greek dessert course.

Full but not stuffed we settled the modest bill and left a well deserved tip for our outstanding “do-it-all-and-do-it-well” staff of one. Making our way to the street and subsequently to Phipps Conservatory the meal at Coca Café was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in some time and everything from the quirky decorations to unique selections to outstanding service were absolutely worth the trip.

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 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.