Country Club Comfort
Tavern in Garrison proves that just because an eatery is in a swanky setting doesn’t mean it’s snooty
When I phoned to reserve a table at Tavern at the Highlands Country Club in Garrison, Putnam County, the woman taking my call informed me there would be a wedding party that evening in the adjacent ballroom. My impulse was to hang up and try another time. I had visions of waiting an hour for entrÃ©es as the chef slaved over 60 plates bound for the nuptial feast.
And for a moment that night — when our waitress told us there might be a pause between our appetizers and entrÃ©es — I thought my fears had been realized. As it happened, a mere eight minutes elapsed between courses. Yet what was most remarkable about this was not the expeditious pace of the kitchen, but that the staff bothered to inform us at all about a) the wedding, and b) the possibility of slowed service. I’ve become so accustomed to dealing with young, beautiful but oblivious servers without a shred of concern for their customers that I was completely disarmed by the show of thoughtfulness. (The attention continued with apologies for the bad wedding DJ and — when the staff gathered later to chat with us — funny confidences about “Bridezilla and Groomzilla.”)
The place had all the earmarks of a friendly neighborhood restaurant, and after that delightful night, it quickly became mine. Set amid views of a lush green golf course and hills that roll lazily down toward the Hudson River, this cozy 24-seat space, with its farm tables and centerpieces of rose-filled copper pots, is the perfect neighborhood hangout. (When it gets crowded, diners can sit in the adjacent ballroom, or in warm weather, go for one of the two terraces.) Devoid of all country club pretensions and dress codes and serving reasonably priced food (from kid-friendly mac-and-cheese to filet mignon), there isn’t a chance you’ll ever feel uncomfortable or unattended here.
We started with a Swiss classic, raclette, a creamy cheese broiled under a heating element until melted, then scraped into a warm dish and served with pickled cippolini, cornichons and boiled potatoes for dipping ($12 for two). It’s a staple item on a regularly changing menu, and there’s a reason it’s a specialty here: the combination of pungent molten cheese and vinegary accompaniments delivers pure comfort-food satisfaction.
The dish is a holdover from the previous management, but 33-year-old chef Peter Kielec decided to keep it because it reminded him of the two years he spent in Switzerland during high school. (He went on to attend Johnson & Wales University, worked in restaurants for a time, then returned to school at the Culinary Institute of America. He honed his skills at the Towne Crier in Pawling and Miss Lucy’s Kitchen in Saugerties, finally landing here about a year ago.)
To follow the raclette, I ordered smoked salmon blintzes with crÃ¨me fraiche, American caviar and micro greens dressed with a green peppercorn vinaigrette ($11). The peppercorns were whole, which lent the traditional dish a surprise explosion and texture as well as a distinctively perfumed spice. The vinaigrette also contained tarragon, whose sweetness balanced the pleasant saltiness of the fish. My companion’s Prince Edward Island mussels, simmered in coconut curry sauce and scented with cilantro ($7), sounded spicy. But Kielec’s base seasoning of fiery Thai curry and shallots is mollified with two cans of coconut milk. The whole thing is boiled down to half of its volume, resulting in a divine elixir of concentrated nut, sweet, and hot flavors that stop well short of burning your tongue.
Our waitress suggested we try a new wine on the list and offered a taste as enticement. At $25 it was at the low end of the price spectrum, indicating once again that the staff was more interested in their customers than the big sale. (The very reasonable selection stays mostly within the $35-$45 range, with only a couple of extravagances above $90.) And the wine, a Salice Salentino Rosso 2001, was terrific — like a Chianti but spicier.
Our entrÃ©es were delicious. The natural sweetness of my pan-seared sea scallops ($22) got an intense boost from the judicious drops of a balsamic vinegar reduction encircling the plate. The scallops — which came with a creamy asparagus risotto and a drizzle of heady truffle oil — were gorgeous and immense, though there was one too many for my appetite (I’m not complaining, and neither is my cat).
Pan-seared filet mignon ($24) was an unusual choice for us, since often this meat comes out of the kitchen mealy or tasteless. Tavern’s was neither, and it arrived perfectly black-and-blue as ordered. And what could be more salutary for this super-lean meat than a simple truffle demiglace to replace the richness normally derived from fat in other cuts? Kielec knows there’s no reason to tart things up when they’re this good.
We finished with ricotta cheese fritters served with apple-cranberry compote and a coconut rice pudding scented with cardamom (both $6). The former were fluffy as cotton, the compote not overly sweet. I’m not usually a rice pudding fan, but this version was made interesting by the aromatic cardamom, as well as chopped pistachios and whipped cream.
I was so happy and relaxed by meal’s end that I forgot to ask for a menu on the way out (my custom), much as I’d forget to ask friends for my Tupperware or pie plate back after an enchanting dinner at their place. As with those friends, though, I didn’t worry; I knew I’d be back.