When Roy Benich was 18 years old, he enjoyed the finest meal of his young life at a French restaurant on 53rd Street in New York. The name of that restaurant? Le Chambord. So moved was Benich by his sublime dining experience, he resolved to one day open an elegant French restaurant of his own. “I thought, ‘If I ever open a place,’ ” he recalls, “ ‘I’m going to call it Le Chambord.’ ”
His dream came true a quarter-century ago, when Benich — who cut his culinary teeth working as a host at New York’s famed Tavern on the Green — purchased a Civil War-era estate in Hopewell Junction and opened a European-style inn with a French restaurant attached. The Valley’s Le Chambord was born.
The restaurant occupies one of several structures on the 10-acre expanse of verdant lawns and shady trees. The house was once the home of a doctor named Fowler, whose previous residence across the street had burned to the ground. Resolving never to relive that horrific experience, Fowler decided, like the fabled third pig, to build his new house out of stone. Construction materials were transported to the site by horse and buggy from the port in what is now Beacon, and masons set about work on a Georgian Colonial mansion that a modern engineer hailed as “the Rock of Gibraltar.” Fire will never claim this house.
The mansion building of Le Chambord, which houses the restaurant and a nine-room inn
In addition to the mansion (where, after dinner, you can also spend the night in one of nine sumptuously furnished rooms), the property also includes Tara Hall, a 16-room hotel; Butler Hall, a conference room; a former art gallery now used as a photography studio for wedding parties; a gorgeous stone patio; and an outdoor pavilion, covered on top but open on the sides, that calls to mind lavish parties of yesteryear — “a Great Gatsby setting,” as Benich puts it. Indeed, the antique sideboard in the main hall of the restaurant was once used on the Long Island estate of the Astor family.
With its lovely and historic mansion, its comfortable and elegant rooms, and a grand ballroom that can accommodate 300 guests — not to mention one of the best pastry chefs around in Annette Jayson, who works with brides-to-be to design perfect cakes — Le Chambord could well be one of the most magical places in the Valley to have a wedding.
I brought my wife to Le Chambord on a Wednesday evening, right after they opened for dinner. The dining room — or rather one of the dining rooms; the house is spacious, with enough tables in the various rooms to accommodate a large number of guests, if need be — looks like the East Wing of the White House. Fine oil paintings, a collection curated from artists the world over, hang proudly beneath brass lights, and objets d’arts are tastefully tucked into every corner.
A popular appetizer, the blackened Atlantic salmon served with field greens, toasted pine nuts, and mango chutney
At this odd hour, the dining room is presided over by a single waiter, Antonio, who comports himself with appropriate gravitas. Although Le Chambord recently updated its menu, broadening its scope from French to American Continental cuisine, Antonio’s unhurried manner and quiet charm remind me of out-of-the-way restaurants we frequented in Provence on our honeymoon.
He seats us at a round table beside a tall window that looks out at the terrace, and leaves us to get settled. The only other patrons in the dining room at this early hour, two couples in their late 60s, are talking animatedly.
“Dorian Gray,” one of the women says, and then gasps in disbelief when she is greeted with blank stares. She then asks all three of her companions, “Do you know Dorian Gray?” None of them do. Seeing me looking at her, she says, “That guy knows who Dorian Gray is.”
I do, but I let her continue. “Dorian Gray is a man who appeared not to age,” she says. “He looked the same at 80 as he did at 20. Then one morning, he woke up, and he looked really old.”
“They must have shut off the air conditioning,” her husband says, and everyone laughs, including me.
She’s missing several crucial details from the Oscar Wilde Gothic novel, including the pact with the devil and the portrait, but the reference is apt. There’s an ageless quality to Le Chambord. It’s at once anachronistic and brand-new, a house built when Lincoln was in the White House, and yet seamlessly equipped with wireless Internet service.
“Would you like something to drink?” Antonio asks. I request a wine list. He returns with a heavy, leather-bound tome resembling something a lector would hold in the pulpit.
I flip through the extensive list, which features wine from France, California, South America, and Benich’s native Croatia. There are vineyards I recognize — I’m no wine connoisseur, but some of these vintages are top of the line — but none, alas, are within my limited budget. “Do you have wines by the glass?” I ask.
Tasteful and charming: The banquet room at Le Chambord is a favorite spot for weddings
They do — several different options. I go for the Merlot; my wife, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Rather than bring us wine in glasses, Antonio returns a few minutes later with two bottles of wine, which he pours into the respective glasses already on the table. A subtle, casual touch, again reminiscent of what they do in the Old Country. The wine is delicious.
A recent addition, the new tapas menu offers a variety of fare, from basic sliders and bruschetta to more ambitious offerings like spanikopita and crabmeat in phyllo dough. After giving us ample time to peruse the menu — a prix-fixé special at $29.95, including appetizer, entrée, and dessert, has my name written all over it — Antonio takes our order, and returns bearing a warm basket of bread and a plate of sundried tomato tapenade. “The chef’s special,” he explains.
Offering small dishes as an appetite-whetting surprise is something that few restaurants do — New York’s famed One If By Land, to name one — and I love when places do this. The implication is that they want to make the night something special, and they won’t spend the evening nickel-and-diming you. That both the bread (baked fresh on the premises by the aforementioned pastry chef) and the tapenade are superb only adds to my favorable impression.
Said impression dips just a tad when the next course is brought out. While the tomatoes and greens are fresh, the mozzarella in my caprese salad was on the dry side, and my wife is unenthused by her cold cucumber soup. But the kitchen’s stock rebounds with the arrival of the main course. The generous helping of duck — procured from Stone Church Farm in Esopus, not far from my house — is cooked to perfection, and served with a scrumptious citrus lingonberry sauce, along with fresh asparagus and a tower of wild rice. My wife’s steak, a New York strip over mushrooms and onions, slathered in bordelaise sauce, is simply delicious, and makes me wish that Chateaubriand, for which Le Chambord has been lauded in the pages of this magazine, was on the menu tonight.
Sweet success: The dessert menu includes this Dutch raspberry soufflé
Benich, incidentally, recommends the Colorado rack of lamb which is lightly coated in a pistachio crust and rosemary lamb sauce; “the best lamb in the world comes from Colorado,” he says matter-of-factly. There’s also a kid’s menu offering the usual favorites — mac and cheese, pizza, chicken tenders — and although the place is fancy, I think my children would like it here.
The revelation is the dessert. We split a baked phyllo cheese cup with sautéed bananas and Chantilly cream, which isn’t something I’d usually order, but I’m glad my wife insisted; I wish I ordered one of my own. It was a delight of contrasts: crisp, flaky dough and soft, creamy bananas; savory cheese and sweet Chantilly cream; dry phyllo with wet filling. The author of this pastry, I imagine, could whip up quite a wedding cake. We leave Le Chambord happy and satisfied, glad we had taken the drive from across the Hudson.
On the way out, we pass the gorgeous black walnut and mahogany sideboard, the antique said to originate on the Astor estate on Long Island. The restaurant uses it in the way it was originally intended. The sideboard is venerable and expensive, and while it shows its age, it exudes a character that newer pieces cannot replicate — not unlike Le Chambord itself. You can’t fake charm.
Le Chambord Restaurant & Inn
Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner every day, Sunday brunch. Appetizers range from $8-$14; entrées from $14-$39.
2737 Rte. 52, Hopewell Junction