The food at a legendary Westchester inn takes a
thoroughly modern spin
By Jorge S. Arango
The history of Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, Westchester County, is long and venerable. Built in 1790 as a nursery and fruit farm, it has done stints since then as an inn, a cattle-breeding farm, a roadhouse, a speakeasy, a girls’ boarding school, and a fine restaurant. Since 1981 it has been owned by the Crabtree family who, in some way, have managed to pay subtle tribute to all parts of that history, while simultaneously ushering the place into the 21st century.
The inn and the girls’ school live on in the sense that the elegant, whitewashed Colonial building — which you enter through a grand columned portico — still lodges rotating crowds of guests in its 12 traditionally appointed rooms. The roadhouse and speakeasy eras manifest themselves in a dark, richly oiled mahogany bar (supposedly a gift from Fanny Brice to the gangster Dutch Schultz, it was added sometime in the 1970s) and in the restaurant’s devotion to exquisite wines and spirits, best evidenced by a weighty wine list cataloguing over 6,000 available choices. And its farming past is echoed in the cuisine of Jeremy Smollar, who prides himself on using high-quality, locally produced ingredients whenever possible.
The main dining room has the proportions of a small banquet hall, but its size is made cozier by country French ladderback chairs, a low ceiling, and lots of 19th-century academic art — landscapes and romantically pastoral scenes in the style of the French painter Bouguereau. Against this fairly conservative backdrop, Smollar is able to experiment just enough to attract a younger clientele looking for creativity in their cuisine, while hewing to tradition enough to retain the older monied set that, I suspect, is its bread and butter.
You can’t get much more traditional, for example, than an appetizer like grilled Hudson Valley foie gras with a quail egg in brioche, shiitake mushrooms, and truffles ($17.50). But Smollar laces it with the mellow sweetness of maple syrup instead of the usual berry or apple accompaniments, making something new out of something tried and true. It is one of the best foie gras dishes I have ever tasted, the liver perfectly browned and crisped outside and smooth as velvet underneath.
We also sampled a carpaccio of yellowtail Hamachi tuna served with preserved lemon, cured sable, golden trout roe, and rye croutons ($14.50). It’s hard to imagine the delicate flavor of this raw fish being better served than with the riot of sensations these other ingredients produce: tangy pucker, subtle smoke, briny pop, and aromatic crunch. Less nuanced was the Maine blue lump crab and smoked trout cake with avocado purÃ©e and cracked mustard sabayon ($14.50). Smollar likes his smoke, which is lovely when it works as well as it does in the carpaccio. But here the crab’s fragile taste became little more than texture against the humidor wallop of the trout.
Between bites of these first-course dishes, we sipped a Solaris 2003 North Coast Chardonnay ($8 a glass) picked from a radically abbreviated list of wines that fits neatly on one page. When we asked to see the full wine list, however, we were presented with a tome that weighed easily 10 pounds. Warning: unless you know that you crave a particular varietal from the northern slope of a specific valley in a certain region, you could be there for hours. You can spend $30 or well over $1,000. True oenophiles will no doubt relish this encyclopedic selection, but my suggestion to the Crabtrees is to offer something between the minimalist one-pager and the Random House version (say, six pages?). We might then have arrived at our choice of the delicious 1999 Russian River Capiaux Pinot Noir ($65) without 20 minutes of bewildered deliberation.
Our reward for this minor ordeal was a memorable trio of entrÃ©es. The top score went to the magret of Pekin duck ($24.50), cooked flawlessly pink and served with a perky ginger duck sauce; a fascinating mÃ©lange of rhubarb, soybeans, and fennel; and a wonderfully green-tasting legume spaetzle. Wild Alaskan king salmon ($26.50) came glazed with citrus in a smoked bacon-carrot-thyme jus with coconut jasmine rice and brussels sprout leaves. This was our third dish out of six featuring smoky flavor, but the citrus sliced through it neatly. The loin of free-range lamb ($29.50) was served with old American chophouse favorites — spinach purÃ©e and potatoes — but the potatoes were updated to international status with a touch of coriander. Candied kumquats (actually more like a preserve than whole candied fruit) twisted the mint jelly concept in a contemporary way, and the whole thing came together with a tart and luscious goat cheese emulsion.
After all that, the three of us could handle only two desserts among us (both $8.50). A pear tart tatin was nicely caramelized with a sweet, glassy sheen (hard to achieve with fruit as juicy as pear, so we appreciated the pastry chef’s deft hand). This was paired with a buttery praline ice cream and a sharply spiked pineapple rum sauce. But the warm Valrhona chocolate “gift” with crÃ¨me anglaise — a precious package wrapped in phyllo pastry — was the sort of classic seduction that stirs even the most stoically nouvelle of passions. Proving, of course, that being bound by the kind of history and tradition exemplified by this establishment is a good, mouthwatering thing.