The Lack Of Consistency in Westchester Dining

The dynamics of dining out in Westchester have changed a bit for me over the past 5 years. While dating, my wife and I enjoyed dining at various restaurants throughout the region. Granted, I’m a bit cheap so we were more likely hit a local comfortable spot then a top rated restaurant. But we certainly enjoyed a handful of meals at some of the swankier, fancier joints as well. Nowadays, it is much tougher to get to those ‘elite’ restaurants as not only do the meals cost a fortune, but the babysitter rates are crushing on the back end. But we do still indulge from time to time, both with and without the kids, and I came to a realization, almost an epiphany, since my last couple of meals out.  I don’t need to be wowed or tantalized by a meal anymore, I just want a restaurant to be consistent with their dishes each and every time.

Maybe it’s me, as my wife tells me  that I can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but is it so hard to just cook the same meal night in and night out? I mean, it’s not like these places haven’t been doing it for years, right? I get it… sometimes the food distributors don’t have as good a cut of meat one week, or a couple of staff members call out sick stressing out the kitchen. So I can stomach a little inconsistency from one night to the next. But to have a supremely enjoyable meal on one visit and then a ridiculously awful meal the next just seems crazy to me… especially when you are paying the same price for it!

I hate to throw restaurants under the bus, so I will leave this Italian restaurant in Westchester nameless. But this place is known for classic Italian food as well as high quality steaks. I was skeptical on the steak aspect, but had heard really favorable reviews from neighbors. So since it was under $30 for the NY strip, I decided to give it a shot. I am not exaggerating when I say it was barely even a small step down from big time steak house quality at half the price. Thick cut, super juicy and cooked to perfection… I was shocked and extremely impressed! Others had lobster that night with the same positive reaction. The kids were thrilled too as they had pasta, chicken fingers and fries… an absolute must if we plan to bring the kids. So this seemed like a home run all around, almost too good to be true as the food and service were both fantastic, the kids were happy and the bill was extremely reasonable. Oh, and they only charged $15 a bottle for corkage fee… another score!

About a week later some colleagues were looking for a reasonable place to go to dinner. I wanted to make sure my senses hadn’t failed me, so I suggested  this newly found gem just to confirm my original take… and BOOM! It was even better this time with the raw oysters and clams tasting super fresh and the homemade lasagna was melt in your mouth good. Not to mention the friendly and personal service only added to the overall dining experience. So that was it, I was sold. This was our new go to place, which was a relief as I can throw a rock and hit it from my house.

But then… it happened. We went back with family on a Friday night and you could tell the place was slammed as it took a long while for our favorite waiter to come and take a drink order… usually a bad sign. I asked if the cuts of steak were going to be as good as usual, which of course he confirmed. So after waiting… and waiting… and waiting, the food finally arrived. What came out was not even close to the same quality steak as my first two visits, it was more like a thin slice of slightly over cooked london broil… not very appetizing. Everyone had sort of the same opinion about their dishes as well. The lobster was pretty tough and the lasagna looked like it was slopped on to the plate by a school cafeteria lady. Disappointment… starts…now.

The problem is that this happens all over with so many restaurants throughout Westhester. I have had wonderful dinners at the top rated steakhouses in the area,  but also ones where I couldn’t believe what they put on the table for a $60 steak. Too many local sushi restaurants suffer from this same dynamic. One week the sushi is fresh and savory but the next it is chewy and fishy… and nothing is more off putting than possibly bad sushi. I know I am not alone here either as I have heard from colleagues and friends that even some of the most highly regarded restaurants in the county, which I have not been able to attend in some time unfortunately, have this same dynamic. Ultimately this inconsistency is what can lead to a restaurant’s demise, as word of mouth goes a long way in Westchester… and once you get a bad rep it is tough to come back from.

Of course I will go back to the aforementioned local Italian steakhouse to give it another shot, because as Meatloaf says …2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But I probably won’t be as excited or enthusiastic to go out of my way to get there as I may have been had that last meal been consistent with the first two. So these days, I find my most enjoyable meals come from your standard bars, grills and Italian/pizza places. Quaker Hill Tavern isn’t the finest restaurant in town, but for my money it is certainly the most consistent in terms of their food and it comes with a lively atmosphere for adults and kids. The same goes for Candlelight Inn, The WBC Restauarants, Gerardo’s, The Tap House in Tuckahoe and Anthony’s in White Plains. So I guess what I am saying is that I no longer care to be dazzled with great food and a fine dining experience. I am much happier with a restaurant meeting my expectations by consistently providing a solid meal to be enjoyed alongside family and friends… each and every visit.

12/23/15 Update: So I went back to said Italian steakhouse for a work event and it reverted back to its original quality. Steak was killer, Italian dishes all went over fantastically and even for a party of 28 the service was excellent. Glad to see that it seems like that one off night was a rare occurrence, but I’m sure there are others that may not give a place another shot after a poor dining experience. Which is why these restaurants need to be consistently on point every dinner service.

How To Do A Steakhouse On A Budget

There are few culinary delights that can surpass that of a top tier steakhouse dining experience. From the seductive aromas of grilled beef and butter that are taken in at first entry to the last sip of port enjoyed with that decadent chocolate lava cake, they offer something  utterly satisfying that few other restaurants are able to do. But all of this hedonistic enjoyment can cost a pretty penny. The better steakhouses will charge $45+ for a cut of beef, and that normally does not come with any sides…just a piece of meat on a plate. Once you factor in all the starters, the trimmings to accompany the steak, not to mention that big Napa Cab, a few desserts, espressos and after dinner drinks, the bill can end up totaling the same as your monthly mortgage.

But does a steakhouse meal have to be that exorbitant? In a word…Nope!There are some very simple ways to cut a few corners in order to still enjoy all that a quality steakhouse has to offer while keeping the expenditures down. It’s all about efficiency.

The first pitfall for many is the allure of the seafood tower…as it clearly rocks. However they really are over the top when you consider all the crustaceans they load them up with.  You may be better off just ordering your favorite shellfish for yourself. Whether it is a half dozen oysters or a shrimp cocktail platter, the amount it will cost for the individual appetizer will be significantly less than the per person cost of an overindulgent seafood platter tower. The ever popular bacon appetizer can also suck you in as they are fantastically delicious, but super pricey for what is usually a single strip serving. And let’s be honest, you are about to dive into a giant, juicy piece of meat… do you really need more meat as an app?

The biggest unnecessary expense in most steakhouses is that of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons on the wine list. Why you may ask? Because they are effing delicious and make for a perfect pairing with grilled meat…plus they are sort of a status symbol to some, particularly those trying to impress clients or first dates. These establishments are well aware of this and will mark up those wines more than others. I find that CA Merlot and Zin, as well as the Cotes du Rhone and Spanish selections offer the greatest pairing value without skimping on quality, depending on the producer and year of course. But without question they almost always carry significantly lower markups. A good rule of thumb is to go with the second least expensive wine in any given section of the wine list, although even if you get the cheapest bottle they are typically not pouring swill at any of these fancy joints.

One place you don’t want to skimp out is on the steak. The main reason you are probably dining at a highly rated and expensive steakhouse is to enjoy that perfectly cooked piece of dry aged beef… so go for it! However there is no need to add that lobster tail for the surf and turf effect, or even those few grilled shrimp on the side. Remember, shellfish ain’t cheap. If you choose to order side dishes, you want to stick with two sides for every four people. So an order of creamed/grilled spinach and hash browns is more than enough for a table of four. Again, the steak is the star of the show so let that bad boy shine!

If you have ever actually looked at what jacks up the bill at the end of the night, more often than not it ends up being beverages of all kind. Of course the wine and booze are the biggest culprits, but the fancy coffees and all the accoutrements are no slouch. I love a double espresso with Sambuca as much as anyone, but in a steakhouse that one little luxury can run up to $20. Stick with the regular coffee and split a dessert or two instead of going overboard with the port, cognac and oversized dessert platter. Or skip the dessert and coffee altogether and enjoy the last course in the luxury of your own home.

Bonus Wine Tip: Ask the server if they have any by the bottle wine specials. Many times these steakhouses have an older bottle they may need to move out in order to make room for a new vintage. If they have a few loose bottles that are no longer on the menu and don’t have a listed price, you may get lucky and score one of those older Napa Cabs or Bordeauxs at a bargain price.

So get out there and enjoy some of those fantastic steakhouses that Westchester has to offer, as there are certainly many to choose from.

Salute!

 

5 Simple Rules of BYO

With more and more consumers reluctant to pay the high markups that are inherent to many wine lists, BYO has become more prevalent than ever. Restaurants tend to mark up wines anywhere from 2-4 times the retail price that you will find at your local wine shop, not to mention the mark up from their cost. While the convenience and selection is well worth the price to some, others prefer to select from their own collection then the restaurant’s wine cellar. Below are 5 simple rules to help determine the appropriate scenario to bring your own bottle and some guidelines for restaurant etiquette if you choose to do so.

  • Free is for me! – If there is no corkage fee, than there is no reason NOT to bring your own bottle. Even if restaurants charge a nominal (under $10) corkage fee it still makes all the sense in the world. You could choose to bring a moderately priced bottle and it will still be a lot less at your local wine shop then at the restaurant.
  • Big names = Big Corkage Fees – If you are going to a top tier steakhouse or a popular French bistro, you are probably looking at a corkage fee of $35-75. For these eateries you’re probably better off sticking with their wine list.
  • Make it worthwhile – You certainly could bring an inexpensive bottle, but that would defeat the purpose. Mark ups are typically higher on the reserve selection wines, especially from older vintages, so the better bottle you bring the more you are saving.
  • Tip on the service – The server should provide the same service on the bottle of wine whether it is purchased from the restaurant or not, so be sure to include something in the tip for that bottle. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the retail cost of the wine times 2 or 3 and add that to the total bill before calculating the tip.
  • Buy an additional bottle from the wine list – If you’re dining with a large group, doing this shows you appreciate their hospitality and would like to thank them for it…that is of course if you are enjoying the meal and the experience!

 

Cheers!

Some Serious Spirits at The Catskill Distilling Company

About 100 miles north of Westchester is where you can find the original grounds of the infamous Woodstock festival in Bethel. For those of us that were too young to attend, there hasn’t been much reason to head up that way in years past. But as of late there has been a bit of a renaissance in the area.

Neighboring Monticello has transformed its Raceway into a Casino while boutique art galleries and small shops are popping up left and right. The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a great place to see a show or check out the history of Woodstock itself. But most intriguing (for me anyway) is the new kick ass distillery and saloon that opened right across the street from Bethel Woods.

I stopped in the Catskill Distilling Company recently and met with owner and Distiller/Veternarian Monte Sachs. He graciously showed me around the joint and explained the inner workings of his personal grown up playground. The set up is quite impressive including his mashing/milling room, the expedited barrel aging shed and of course his custom made copper still.

My visit was randomly well timed as he was distilling his Most Righteous Bourbon that day, and most righteous it is! It was being collected at the white dog stage…pretty cool to be able to sample it before the barrel aging process (at around 65-70% alcohol!). Following his in depth tour we sampled the finished product next to some other well known premium bourbons that basically dominate the market. While everyone’s palate varies, the Most Righteous clearly out shined the competition with more intense aromas, flavors and amazing balance…not what I expected!

To be honest, all the spirits being produced there really impressed. His Defiant Rye is spicy and oily packed with lemon citrus goodness. The Wicked White Whiskey is their version of moonshine, and while it has a definite bite to it, the six grain spirit is expressive while not overpowering on the alcohol. But my favorite booze in the Catskill Spirit portfolio has to be the Curious Gin. Made with 14 different  botanicals and local juniper berries, it is as lovely, fruity and floral as it is clean, herbal and balanced. It has become my house gin for Martinis and Negronis, and at $20 a bottle it’s very affordable to keep stocked.

You can check out their website to see all their homemade spirits, distillery history and some fun cocktail recipes as well. And if you are ever up seeing a show or checking out the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods, this place is not to be missed. Bring the family as the Dancing Cat Saloon (also owned by Monte) is right next door with some good eats and a  solid selection of brews.

Salute!

 

 

 

 

 

A Joseph Drouhin Wine Dinner Hosted by GlenArbor GC

Wine pairing dinners are popping up all over the culinary world these days. No longer are they limited to high end restaurants or wineries. You can find these carefully curated menus matched alongside their perfect wine counterparts at such venues as local pubs, car dealerships, real estate openings, corporate functions and most recently country club dining rooms.

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I attended such a dinner at the scenic GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills which featured the wines of Joseph Drouhin. With club members expressing an interest in overall wine exposure and education, ownership brought a Certified Sommelier on board to help quench that thirst. Fernando Silva, a Master Somm in training, has overhauled the club’s entire wine list and worked diligently to put together this event showcasing the 2011 vintage of selected Drouhin wines as well as the culinary creations of GlenArbor’s kitchen.

In keeping with a Burgundy themed evening, the Chef prepared a menu highlighting a few traditional French dishes including a celeriac risotto with marrow accent, a local striped bass dish and crepinettes of guinea hen alongside a guinea hen roulade. While there was some confusion regarding which wines were to be paired with which dishes for the first couple of courses, it did not seem to bother the members who appeared more than content with the wines in their glasses as well as the quality of dishes being served.

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The white wine selections for the evening were the Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and the very impressive Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru all from the 2011 vintage. The Batard was quite a treat, as there is not much wine to come out of this small Grand Cru vineyard. Layered and complex with notes of honey, lemon, and tropical fruits playing beautifully off the buttered toast, smoky oak and nutty backbone. It possesses amazing structure and length as well. While tasting through these whites, Laurent Drouhin (a Westchester resident) expressed his passion for not only his wines but for the region in general. His motto was “If you can’t come to Burgundy, Burgundy comes to you” when tasting his Drouhin wines.

The reds were up next and they were all served alongside the duo of guinea hen main course. Choosing to serve three wines with basically one dish was a little unorthodox, but in this relaxed environment where everyone knows and seems to enjoy one another’s company, it was not an issue. The Gevrey-Chambertin was showing nicely already with forward cherry and fresh strawberry fruit laced with hints of peppery spice and vanilla. The famed Clos des Mouches wine started a bit musty and gamey. However with some time the dark berry fruit, classic minerality and licorice nuances came about giving it a good amount of charm while displaying that classic Burgundy terroir.

But the wine of the night was easily the 2011 Echezaux. It took about 2 hours to finally show its true colors, but when it did it was truly stunning. Offering aromas of dried red cherry and berry, plum and raspberry with intensely fragrant notes of rose petals and sage. It maintained elegance and balance that only a well made Echezaux can, and is clearly a wine for the cellar as it will age over the next decade or more.

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On top of the quality wines being served, what the members seemed to enjoy most was the explanations and descriptions of the wines given by Laurent. He provided insight into the vineyards, the winemaking process and his family history giving those in attendance a glimpse into the Drouhin way of life. Since Laurent is not only a Westchesterite, but a golfer as of a few years ago (and apparently he has been bitten by the bug pretty seriously), everyone seemed to relate to one another on some level and enjoyed the vibe of the evening.

Golf and wine are a perfect pairing of passions for many, so why not indulge in both all in the same day?! However it’s not as easy as it may seem to pull off.  The club needs a kitchen staff that has the skill to execute a serious dinner service and put together an appropriate menu. Some high quality juice needs to be served, preferably with a host that can entertain and educate the members throughout the course of the evening. But the most important factor is the desire of the members to act on their passion and create an environment where wine becomes a priority within the workings of the club. If that all adds up, you have a pretty special scenario that can lead to some wonderful culinary experiences.

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The Best Kid Friendly Dining Option in Westchester

Having two children under 5, I have found that my list of restaurant options in Westchester has significantly dwindled. To go out to a nice restaurant with the whole family is just not worth it as it tends to frustrate just about all involved…from the kids, to my wife and I, to other diners and possibly even the staff. I guess that’s why places like Applebee’s and Chili’s are so popular. But if you are not into the whole chain restaurant scene but still want to enjoy a quality meal out with the family in a judgement free zone, then I have found the place for you… The Quaker Hill Tavern.

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Located in Chappaqua, but close to Mount Kisco, this family owned, traditional style tavern really has it all. Plenty of craft and standard beers on tap, with rotating seasonal brews and the freedom to taste a few before deciding on your pint of choice. A simple menu that offers a plethora of options for adults, kids, meat lovers, vegans, hedonistic food mongers or those looking to keep it healthy. The wine list is small, but this is not a place to go for a great glass or bottle of wine. However they have enough completely decent by the glass options in red and white to keep everyone happy.

Upon our first venture to QHT I knew it was going to be great for the kids right from the get go. Just as we were being seated the waitress bought over a booster seat for my son. And I don’t mean one of those wood high chairs or the brown plastic generic booster seats. I’m talking about the same kind of booster seat he had at home that strapped on to the chair! With him feeling comfortable, the rest of the experience that night was a pleasure. Obviously I am not the only one who feels this way as on any given night you will find kids running around this loud and boisterous pub stopping by table to table to say hi, allowing the adults to maybe indulge in an extra pint ;)

The food is really solid across the board and I have yet to have anything I didn’t like. The burgers rank up there with the best in the county, and the wings are dynamite as well. My wife swears by the turkey burger and my buddy can’t go 2 weeks without his QHT buffalo chicken sandwich fix. Lastly, the service is everything you would hope for when bringing the family out to dine. Erin, the manager, and the entire staff are super accommodating and completely understand that the adults are looking to enjoy a meal out where the kids can be a little loud and loose. And after a few drinks, the adults start getting the same way. So if you desire a nice quiet meal at a local bar, don’t come here as it gets a little hairy. But if you are looking for some tasty eats, delicious beer on tap and an ultra family friendly environment then you definitely want to check Quaker Hill Tavern out….I’ll probably see you there!

Cheers,

Look What’s Just Around The Corner!

The Westchester Culinary Experience to benefit the White Plains YMCA is really a win, win event on all levels. Not only is it a way to support a wonderful program that helps kids out in that area, but it is a fun night with some of Westchester’s best restaurants serving up some innovative and tasty dishes. Zachy’s in Scarsdale then finds appropriate wines to pair up with each particular dish, a pretty cool concept for a walk around format food and wine tasting event.

The link below includes the restaurants that are participating and how to buy tickets. There are some nice prizes that will be raffled off as well so who knows, you may come home with more than just a full belly and a decent buzz!

The Westchester Culinary Experience

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Peter Kelly of X2O who will be featured again this year!