Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Best Thing I Ever Ate

Food Network has a series entitled “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” in which various chefs and food critics talk about their favorite foods and their favorite restaurants. Basically, the show is half an hour of food experts talking about fabulous food and where to get it. Well, after this weekend, I can’t help but get in on the act and spend this blog entry talking about the best thing I ever ate.

Last Sunday night, as part of our romantic anniversary weekend getaway in Newport, Herb and I had dinner at the Castle Hill Inn and Resort. The dining room is right on the water, facing west (oh, the magic of New England’s tumultuous coastline!), so with our 6:30 dinner reservation we had a perfect view of the sunset.

As we usually do when we go out for a nice dinner, we were both dressed to the nines, Herb in an impeccably crisp tuxedo and I in his favorite black velvet and lace gown. Despite the dress code of business casual with a note that “many gentlemen will feel best in a jacket,” the other patrons were dressed in a mix of extremely casual (the “I just stepped off my yacht” uniform of sweater or polo shirt and khakis) to a few jackets and ties. We got a few approving glances and smiles from nearby patrons, particularly when our waiter welcomed us with glasses of pink champagne and a warm, “Happy anniversary!”

We knew we were in for a special treat just seeing the elegant table settings, the fine crystal and silver, the warm glowing candleholders, and the gorgeous food on the other tables, but that knowledge was immediately cemented by the spectacular service. Our waiter was personable without being overly casual, extremely knowledgeable of the menu and the wine list, and solicitous without hovering. Our empty champagne flutes magically vanished from the table, our wine and water glasses were refilled before we noticed they needed it, and on the rare occasion some member of the waitstaff or other couldn’t read our mind to anticipate our next need, one glance and someone was immediately there to take care of us. Excellent food is necessary for an excellent restaurant, but excellent service is almost more important, and Castle Hill has the best service I have ever encountered.

But on to the food! We opted for the three-course prix fixe menu. The meal began, as is often the case in such an elegant restaurant, with an amuse bouche, a tiny flavorful mouthful designed to tantalize the palate even before the appetizer. The chef’s creation for this evening was a spoonful of marinated pineapple. My less than sophisticated palate didn’t recognize the flavors other than the sweet tanginess of the pineapple, but that tiny bite was yet another foretaste of the marvelous culinary experience in store. My bouche was indeed amused.

For my first course, I chose the spring onion soup. It was presented in a pristine white soup plate with a wide rim. The soup itself was cream-colored, with a swirl of spring green basil oil around the garnish of a lovely heap of diced potatoes and lobster with a few sprigs of herbs artistically standing at attention in the center. Even before I took my first bite, the aroma wafting up from the bowl was fresh and delicious. I started with a sip of the broth, a smooth puree of onions and potatoes with just a hint of herbs that tasted the way a spring breeze smells. Moving on to the central garnish, I savored the al dente diced potatoes and the tender sweet lobster meat. The flavors were each distinct, yet perfectly blended, and the mouth feel added yet another dimension of sensuality to the dish. It was an appetizer in the truest sense of the term: it stimulated my appetite rather than filling me up or clogging my taste buds. I felt like I had just gotten a pep talk from the coach and I was ready to take my place at the blocks and wait for the starter’s pistol!

For our entrees, I had ordered the Hereford Beef served two ways and Herb had “Elysian Farms Lamb”. When they arrived at the table, we had to take a moment to admire the beautiful presentation of both dishes before we could even think about tasting them. The lamb was two rib chops served with the long bones arching outwards, creating a lovely “lollipop” effect. The beef was served as two small filets on a medallion of Swiss chard and drizzled with Bearnaise, and as a terrine over roasted and caramelized potatoes and sweet spring onions. The meat was very lightly seasoned and cooked perfectly, allowing the natural sweetness and juiciness of the beef to be the featured flavor. The portions were exactly the right size, encouraging the diner to eat slowly and savor each bite so as to have room to finish the dish yet not feel uncomfortably full – and most importantly, to have room for dessert.

But before we get to dessert, I need to mention the wonderful wine accompaniment. Despite our comments to each other that our waiter hardly looked old enough to drink wine, he was extremely well-versed in the extensive wine list and made an excellent recommendation of a Rosemount GSM blend.

Over the time I’ve known Herb, I’ve grown very fond of red wines, and even a bit knowledgeable about them. So when the waiter described the wine as full-bodied, with heavy fruit flavors tinged with tobacco, I knew I would enjoy it. As soon as the waiter began pouring a small taste for Herb’s approval, the rich burgundy color struck me, and as I swirled my own glass moments later, the full bouquet made it hardly even necessary to taste the wine in order to enjoy it. The flavor was strong but not overpowering, rich and fruity but not too sweet, and complex and layered without being too busy. Even the mouth feel was smooth and crisp and clean, not chewy or gummy as is often the case with full-bodied red wines. It was the perfect complement to both entrees, and I was glad I had some left in my glass for the dessert course, since it served as a lovely complement to that as well.

Ah yes, the dessert course. I love desserts, so the decision of a dessert is often the most difficult of the entire meal. However, in this case I knew it was a win-win decision. I finally went with the cheesecake. Of course, at any restaurant with a dedicated pastry chef, cheesecake is never served in a standard wedge. Oh, no. Our desserts both arrived on plates decorated with the words “Happy Anniversary!” in elegant dark chocolate script around the rims, but that was only the beginning of the glorious presentation.

The base of my cheesecake was a wafer of buttery hazelnut crust drizzled with a rich raspberry coulis, with a perfect little circle of creamy cheesecake perched on top and garnished with an elegant cookie wafer and a single perfect hazelnut. The cheesecake was impossibly smooth and rich without being heavy or overly sweet. It was the perfect completion to a perfect meal.

We stopped at a glass blowing shop on the way home and brought home one of the specially commissioned lovely amber Castle Hill votives so we’ll always have a special memento of that special night and that special meal.
I don't really need a memento to recall this wonderful meal, though. I’m sure that my perception of the perfection of the meal was somewhat colored by the joyousness of our anniversary celebration and the delight of being out on the town with my wonderful sweetheart, but even so, this meal was, indeed, the best thing I ever ate.

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