Classic Food, Casual Setting
Mostly fabulous food in the heart of horse country
I was taken—dragged really—to 121 Restaurant and Bar by a friend who toils as a chef. When not at her oven, my friend dines at the priciest restaurants, demanding the highest possible standards. I have seen her withering rejection intimidate waiters at some of the haughtiest eateries around, so I was intrigued when she announced she’d found the “perfect” restaurant in North Salem.
Until it was converted by its present management three years ago, the building at Route 121 and the corner of Dingle Ridge Road was, she explained, “the kind of roadhouse you didn’t go into unless you had a tattoo and brass knuckles.”
A lot has changed, although from the outside, 121 looks pretty much as it must have in its roadhouse days, albeit spiffied up with fresh paint. The interior decor is to me like a Calvin Klein dress—clean lines, neutral colors, attractive, but nothing to distract you from your dining partner or the superb food. And since 121 doesn’t take reservations (except for large parties), the bar is usually lined three deep with diners waiting for a table. There’s good reason to wait.
Our tour guide gushed like the restaurant’s public relations rep after each dish she tasted. The calamari was, she declared, “fabulous.” The duck was “fabulous.” Finally, “Am I using the word fabulous too much?” Well, maybe, but the fare was consistently good.
I decided to test the chef’s skills with two of the most simple dishes on the menu: a plain broiled shell steak and the tiramisu. It’s easy to disguise food with fancy sauces, but the true test of a kitchen’s work can be found in the most basic offering.
I like my steaks seared and crusty on the outside, with a strip of pink through the middle. My $22 shell steak, served on a bed of caramelized onions, was, well, fabulous. Likewise the tiramisu. Tiramisu is the dessert of the moment, perhaps supplanting last year’s crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e. Tiramisu is like chili or a Bloody Mary—everybody has a different recipe. A true tiramisu is made from cold espresso, Italian biscotti, mascarpone (an Italian cream so rich some people call it a cheese), an egg yolk, layered with shaved bitter chocolate on top. At 121, that’s exactly what you get, served in an oversized martini glass, as faithful to the true Italian recipe as any I’ve ever had.
Since our table was sharing a variety of dishes—steaks, fish, duck and octopus—we had a bottle of a Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc, which for $24 was one of the best values on a wine list made up mainly of California and Italian vintages.
But was it all fabulous? Well, let’s see: I did have to ask twice to get a pepper mill for my black bean soup. And the horseradish mashed potatoes that accompanied my steak were so delicately flavored that you could barely taste the horseradish. The berry Napoleon lacked any crÃ¨me anglaise filling, and while the strawberries and blueberries were definitely fresh, the raspberries looked suspiciously as if they had come from the frozen foods section. And there was a TV broadcasting a ball game. That doesn’t go with serious food. But I’m quibbling here.
On the way out, I noticed over the fireplace a vintage photograph I have seen before of iron workers on a 1930s Manhattan skyscraper, lunching from their boxes on a steel beam suspended over space. Beneath it was a tiny sculpture of the same scene in inch-high figurines. I wondered about the symbolism: food at high altitudes perhaps, without fear of falling.
121 RESTAURANT AND BAR
Route 121 at Dingle Ridge Rd., North Salem
Sun. and Mon. 5-9 pm
Tue. to Thurs. 5:30-10 pm
Fri. and Sat. 5:30-11 pm
Brunch, Sun. 11:30 am-2 pm