Saturday, February 21, 2009

Escoffier: For Shame!

Are culinary students less interested in studying French food nowadays? Or maybe it’s just that Escoffier, once considered the shining beacon of The Culinary Institute of America (arguably the most distinguished culinary school in the world), has lost its luster; and the students have lost their pride.

I made reservations at Escoffier as a late Valentine’s Day present to Otto, hoping he would experience the same wonder and thrill I had on past trips to the restaurants on campus. I remember my first visit to The American Bounty as a thirteen-year-old: a student spotted me peeping shyly into a kitchen window and gestured to his favorite entrée, giving it a thumbs-up and flashing me a proud, confident smile. I ordered his dish that same night, enjoying it immensely, thinking no dish could’ve possibly compared to what he had recommended. Years later, I solemnly walked through a kitchen toward Ristorante Caterina De Medici (the Italian restaurant has since moved to a beautiful new building on campus), and observed students who worked quietly and purposely. Astute instructors lurked in the corners and graded all aspects of dinner service, but the students remained focused and driven. In short, excellence was in the air.

Escoffier, three-star New York Times recipient, and a celebrated French restaurant/hands-on-environment for CIA students since 1973, always seemed slightly out of reach to me when I was younger. The prices were a bit higher than other CIA restaurants, so I made do hearing stories relayed by my parents of sensational dishes and service. So it was a happy occasion when only a few weeks ago, I discovered the special $29.95 prix-fixe dinners from January 12-March 31, 2009, Monday through Thursday, and realized Otto and I could experience Escoffier firsthand.

We didn’t mind rushing out of work at 5:00 p.m. in order to make our 8:00 p.m. Thursday reservation, nor did we mind the nearly two-hour drive up north to Hyde Park, or even the snow showers during our drive.

What we did mind was the indifference in the air when we arrived, palpable almost immediately. There was the server who led Otto and me to our table but then stopped (leading me to ask, “This table here?” and him to mumble, “Yes, any seat you like”); cranberry juice that never made it to our table despite two requests (I mean, I know it’s cranberry juice, but it’s not like I ordered a Dr. Pepper or anything), silverware that was not replaced between courses; and noticeably bored servers who loitered by our table.

I was shocked and deeply saddened at the obvious shift in attitude. The bored servers could’ve easily been replaced with T.G.I. Fridays staff. Where was the excellence? Actually, where were the instructors? I didn’t see any of the imposing figures I remembered vividly from years ago.

“A gift from the chef,” a server pronounced, interrupting my thoughts.
Otto and I cheered considerably when we received our amuse bouche, a liver pâté with dried cherries, pistachio crust, and veal reduction sauce served over challah toast. Service problems are always a bummer, but when the food’s good, so are our spirits. This was a delightful amuse bouche.

Appetizers fared extraordinary as well. Otto started with an incredibly light crab cake with carrot and ginger sauce. This was a highlight.
I ordered duck liver terrine with ox tail on toasted brioche, with frisée and dried cherries. While this was also outstanding—the terrine tasted like butter—the elements were very similar to those presented in the amuse bouche which made my plate seem a little less special.
Our entrees appeared. Here’s mine:
That’s Pot-Au Feu de Fruits de Mer, a medley of seafood over pasta with Muscalet wine sauce. There were some real treasures on top of the saffron-infused homemade pasta: one whole shrimp; a shimmering piece of red snapper; tender and flavorful flounder; plump, mild monkfish; some yellow American caviar, a glistening pink mussel; and what’s that front and center? That’s a big old clam with a huge-ass broken shell.
Cooking 101 says to discard shellfish with broken shells, not just for aesthetics, but for health reasons. At Escoffier, not only was this clam served, it was put forth boldly, the only representation in my medley, as if to say, ‘This cracked clam is what a clam should be.’

Maybe I’m making too big a deal of it, but the Culinary Institute prides itself on shaping the minds of the next culinary geniuses of the world… and the price doesn’t come cheap! Seeing that broken clam set so visibly on my plate was a collective shrug from the school, chef, and servers, as if to say, “Who cares? It’s Thursday night, 8:00 p.m. service, who’s watching?” Can you imagine Le Bernardin serving that?

Nevertheless, the seafood was cooked well, the pasta was actually excellent, and the sauce was rich and creamy.

Otto received a rather tough, room temperature duck breast in Armagnac and blood orange sauce. He thought the accompanying rice and carrots were cooked very well and he enjoyed the sauce, but there were portions of the duck that were inedible.
Finally, we had already been informed that the kitchen was out of two of the three desserts offered on the prix-fixe menu. The only option left to us was ice cream. (Ice cream!?!) I was disappointed, especially given how we were informed: our server let us order the Flourless Chocolate Cake and then told us there was none; next we tried to order the Upside-Down Apple Tart only to find out again they had run out; finally, we asked what they did have. I brightened when I was told there was pistachio ice cream (my favorite), but alas, when it was time for our desserts to appear, the server materialized instead, saying they were now out of pistachio. Would we like honey lavender ice cream?
Doesn’t it look dull? It didn’t taste much better. It had a smooth, refreshing homemade texture, but the flavor reminded me of eating fancy, aromatherapy soap.

Even as a prix-fixe dinner, the bill came to over $90.00 when a glass of wine, coffee, tax, tip, and the 15% percent service charge to students of the school were added. While Otto and I experienced a few good dishes, and met a few friendly servers, I was almost crestfallen at what I had witnessed.

I hope what we experienced on Thursday was an “off-night” and isn’t indicative of the type of service now put forth in all of the CIA restaurants. That would truly be a shame.

Anyone else have recent Culinary Institute experiences?

The Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive
Hyde Park, NY 12538
(845) 452-9600


  1. Sharon, Thanks for creating this blog! Since Jason and I don't go out to eat often it's nice to hear about good places in the area so we don't waste our money on some unworthy place. We did end up at the CIA in early April, I believe for our anniversary. We had a gift certificate and chose to make our reservations for the American Bounty restaurant. We must have gone on a Saturday or Sunday evening. The service was very good, the only complaint was I had to keep asking for water, they never noticed when the glasses were empty. The food was wonderful. We had soup to start, we each had a different kind but I can't remember the exact flavors. Both of them were extremely salty, almost to the point of not being able to finish the small bowl. Then we had a caesar salad, which was perfect. I can't remember our main courses... I think Jason had some type of lamb, and I might of had a pork chop??? Whatever it was, it was delicious. We ended the evening with the ice cream filled profiteroles which we both really liked too. All in all, a wonderful evening, and we can't wait to go back again. Sorry to hear your experience wasn't as good!

  2. Hi Nancy - thanks for your comments, and for relaying your experience at the American Bounty Restaurant! It gives me hope - my last visit to the American Bounty was very memorable, but it was also over two years ago.
    I'm not trying to write the CIA off completely--there's too much history there, and I still haven't tried the new Caterini De Medici restaurant. Everyone is entitled to an off night, and I don't even mind if a course is off from time to time; I just really have a problem with sloppy service, or when it's apparent that no one's heart is in it - for exactly the reason you mentioned: MOST people don't go out to eat that often, so staff should try as hard as possible to get it right and make people happy!
    If Escoffier had run out of two of the three prix-fixe desserts on the menu, why not offer up something off of the regular menu? Or why not run across the hall to the American Bounty and steal a dessert from there?
    I suppose I'm getting all riled up again. :-)
    I'm glad to hear you had a wonderful experience - that's the CIA I want to remember.

  3. Ms. Sharon!

    We visited Escoffier a couple of years ago to cash out Nancy's CIA gift certificate. I can't say we had a spectacular experience, but it certainly wasn't the letdown that you described. That's too bad :-(. When we went, I found that the servers, if anything, seemed a little nervous. There was an instructor present who seemed to keep a keen eye on everyone. Perhaps that was the difference?
    Unfortunately, I can't remember what I had that night (evidence of the lackluster nature of the evening), so I can't really weigh in on that.
    The broken clam shell made me laugh. You are so right about the broken shells on shellfish. It's embarassing that they put that on the table! I was thinking that it's sort of close to the beginning of the second semester. Maybe some of the servers/cooks are "new" and not quite up to speed? Just a thought.
    As always, a great entry. Keep it up ;-)

  4. Well Sharon I finally got around to reading this addition to your blog (my bad) and wanted to let you know that I will be going to the Ristorante Caterina De Medici next month and will let you know how I fare. Sorry you had such a bad experience at what has always been such a fine institution. I hope I fare better, but with Ciara along, I'm sure there will be no repeat of your experience...