Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week 2009: A Shift

Somewhere along the line, an attitude-shift has occurred in many of the restaurants participating in Hudson Valley Restaurant Week. What used to be considered one of the best deals in town, a diner’s golden opportunity to enjoy three-course exquisite cuisine for the fixed price of $28.09 ($20.09 for lunch), seems more and more like a time for restaurants to treat diners like second-class citizens, tacking on “Restaurant Week-only” gratuity charges and parking fees. Some restaurants now serve only one “choice?”/ “option?” for appetizers and dessert during this “special” time, and entrees are usually no more adventurous than chicken, pork or fish. [And speaking of fish, what’s with all the skate? I went from hearing about this fish maybe once or twice before in my life, to seeing it on every menu across the Hudson Valley. Did a skate boat pull up to our docks and toss the motherlode of skate off its side?]

I don’t recall Restaurant Week being this way in the past. I thought restaurants viewed this week (two weeks, actually, with talk of it being extended) as an opportunity—not necessarily to make a buck, but to entice diners: chefs brought out the big guns, serving mouth-watering, inventive cooking, hoping to garner repeat customers and become that “Let’s go out, someplace nice!” destination. Did it matter if a restaurant broke even at the end of the week, or even lost money for lowering its prices if it stood to gain amazing word-of-mouth?

Maybe it does. Granted, I only visited two restaurants (Equus and 42) this year, due to unfavorable reports from friends and family (who were underwhelmed by normally reliable restaurants like Harvest on Hudson and Crabtree’s Kittle House); but Equus and 42 not only disappointed, none of the six diners who accompanied me to these restaurants said they would return. The reason? They didn’t think they got their money’s worth.

Take Equus, in Tarrytown, for instance. The food there was actually good. There were three choices for each course, and the selection—albeit a tad unadventurous—was decent.

First up was a Crispy Four Brother’s Farm Feta Cheese with olive, tomato and fennel salad:
A very good start. The cheese was warm and slightly melted on the inside, lightly crisped on the outside. The sharp taste combined with a melting texture was comforting. Fennel was a little dry, and sliced too thick for my taste, but that was a minor issue.

Next was the ever-popular Atlantic Skate with Sauteed Spinach and Spicy Mussel Sauce:
Skate can be cooked at high temperatures, which allows for a nice crispiness—that is exactly what was achieved on my plate. The inside was tender, moist and flaky, and the outside retained its crispiness even floating in the mussel sauce (also very good and garlicky).

Finally, there was the Rain beau Ridge Chevre with Honey poached cranberries on walnut shortbread.
Not really my thing, but I appreciate how well the cranberries paired with the goat cheese. My friend’s mango crème brulee, on the other hand, was one of the finest I’ve tasted—rich, creamy, the tiniest pieces of mango adding little spots of sweetness.

You’re probably thinking, “Well, what’s the problem? That looks like an absolutely lovely meal for $28.09!”

Here’s my problem: Equus institutes a $5 parking fee per car (only during Restaurant Week!), plus a gratuity charge. When I pulled up to the Castle, an attendant promptly handed me a ticket and declared “Five dollars.” Confused, I asked if I paid now or later. “Either one,” he shrugged. I paid then.

When our party of four received the bill, my eyes bulged. Not only had each of our cars been charged on the bill (for a total of $20), it had been taxed. A 21 percent gratuity had also been added, the parking fee factored into that 21 percent.

When I called over a server to explain the fee, he took my $5 parking off right away, but put up a little fight over the gratuity charge. “It’s mandatory during restaurant week,” he explained.

“I thought it was only for parties six or more,” I said. “It’s what was printed online!”

He shook his head and went to rustle up a menu as “proof.” In the meantime, my friend Tia searched her purse for a copy of the online menu, which she had been carrying with her all day (I’m still not sure why). When our server returned triumphantly with a menu that indeed said all parties would be charged 21 percent, we showed him what had been printed online. He frowned and began to offer up an explanation, then thought better of it, and finally agreed to honor our printed menu. (Equus has since updated their Restaurant Week online menu to reflect the 21 percent gratuity for any-size part.

Coffee and tea were ordered but never delivered, and the parking tickets, which were inexplicably collected by our server during dinner, never returned.

“This castle is confusing,” me friend mumbled, as she followed a parking attendant down the driveway to identify her keychain, the only way to lay claim to her car.

Bottom line? Even if the food is good (it was!), when diners get the sense that a restaurant is trying to raise its prices merely because volume is heavier, people are going to get pissed off.

“It’s different up here,” is the promise of 42, Chef Anthony Goncalves’ shining new restaurant on the top floor of the Ritz Carlton in White Plains.

A glaring difference was 42’s decision to offer only one appetizer and dessert for Restaurant Week. “Bummer,” I thought.

For appetizers on Friday, we had four identical bowls of Potato Leek Soup:
This was nice. I especially liked the finish of extra virgin olive oil.

For entrees, none of us wanted chicken or pork, so guess what all four of us had? More Skate with brown butter and capers!
I didn’t get this dish, especially the olive-sized capers, which were a salty, vinegary, briny disaster if eaten whole. My friend told me to cut them into little pieces, but why didn’t we just have the regular, high quality, small capers? Was serving large capers purely for presentation? The fish had a nice crisp like Equus, but unlike Equus, it didn’t immediately fall apart—I needed a knife to cut pieces that had gotten a bit rubbery. The flavor? There was certainly a saltiness from the capers, but not much else.

No one enjoyed dessert, a Chocolate Orange Coupe: Chocolate Mousse, Burnt Orange Reduction, Orange Curd, Blood Orange Pâté de Fruits:
Essentially, this was chocolate pudding, with orange (tasted like orange marmalade, which, in all fairness, is one of my least favorite things), not a welcome combination for anyone at the table. “Why am I eating this?” my friend asked. After three bites, she put her spoon down for good.

“Let’s get Carvel!”

We did.

Some high points: efficient service, stunning view (on a clear day, you can see Manhattan), comfortable dining area, and our table was not rushed at all. We arrived at 6:00 p.m. and lingered well after 9:00 p.m. —I believe we even had to ask for our check. Also, we did receive a mussel ceviche amuse bouche, the first amuse bouche I’ve ever received during Restaurant Week in Westchester.
A 20 percent gratuity was added to our bill, but we didn’t mind this addition nearly as much as Equus, as only the food and beverages were factored into the gratuity, and it’s what we would’ve paid anyway.

Bottom line? I’ve had glorious meals at Chef Goncalves’ old restaurant, Trotters (now the also enjoyable Peniche), where I witnessed a chef so passionate about his cooking, that the top of the Ritz Carlton seemed a natural evolution. Maybe it still is, because that Restaurant Week Menu certainly didn’t reflect Goncalves’ true ability as a chef. But will I be back to see what he’s really doing up there?

First, I have to get rid of the bad taste that Restaurant Week has left in my mouth.

For further coverage on Restaurant Week, check out Liz Johnson’s Lower Hudson Valley blog Small Bites.

Also check out the discussion on Chowhound.

Equus, Castle on the Hudson
400 Benedict Avenue
Tarrytown, NY 10591
914 631-3646

1 Renaissance Square
White Plains, NY 10601
(914) 761-4242

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week

1 comment:

  1. Went to 42 Friday night and we might as well have been in the basement. The fog was so thick, we couldn't see what would have been an amazing view. I felt like I was in a plane. The fog looked liked illuminated frosted glass – actually a nice effect.

    What did I think of our dinner? They added a salad choice to the 1st course but we both ordered the soup, which we both really enjoyed. My friend ordered the skate and I got the pork loin. They were fine but nothing extraordinary. We watched them cook for a little while after dinner. There’s a glass window and you can view what’s going on in the kitchen. So after dinner, we watched them cook for a little while. The two entrees we ordered from the restaurant week menu were very simply prepared - just quickly pan fried. The sauces and toppings are actually what made the dish different. So something useful to remember when you’re cooking at home – you can impress your family and friends and not break the bank. A simple and inexpensive cut of fish or meat, can be transformed into something really special by adding a wonderful sauce or topping,

    The staff was very friendly, and I can’t say the same for a few other restaurants I’ve been to during restaurant week. No complaints, we had an enjoyable dinner at 42 for a very reasonable price.