A Brilliant, Creative Debut
Since its opening last summer,
During dinner at the sterling inn, I couldn’t help thinking of a book I’d recently read, Wife of the Chef, by Courtney Febbroriello. In it, Febbroriello writes of her front-of-the-house management duties in the restaurant she owns with her husband: “Being on the floor is like wearing a mask. People think that I am the gracious hostess of the year, but I’m not. I’m just a person like everyone else, working my ass off to make a living.” At our table, being graciously welcomed by Rachel Smith, restaurant co-owner and wife of Chef Sterling Smith, I wonder whether her feelings are similar. Is she smiling because she has to? Well, Rachel, smile because you should. Your restaurant is terrific.
Considering Chef Smith’s pedigree—Culinary Institute of America, Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington, Manhattan’s Aureole and Lespinasse—that’s not surprising. Now, with his own place, he says he is “ready to introduce my work to the Westchester community.” And boy, are we ready to receive it. He views the restaurant as a “creative palette” for his abilities and, in dish after dish, that creativity proves masterful.
The first inkling of his creativity comes with the amuse-bouche, a wine-steamed mussel atop piquant herbed black-eyed peas. Inkling becomes certainty with an appetizer of grilled scallops, its ham-inflected cushion of grits an artful ode to the chef’s Southern roots. And certainty becomes revelation with unctuous pork-belly cubes sparked by a miso glaze and caramelized shallots that will make you swoon. This is a chef in command of his talents, sure of his vision, so my disappointment with two other appetizers was pronounced. Chalk it up to new-kitchen foibles: an asparagus-sunchoke risotto exuding vanilla, and a truffled macaroni-and-cheese overly truffle-oiled and devoid of cheddar.
But we’re back on masterful ground with the questionably titled but certifiably delectable modern lobster borscht. Presented, as all these dishes are, in gleaming white oversized plates, this entrÃ©e approaches the conceptual. The coral sheen of lobster meat emerges from a pool of scarlet beet broth, and poised on the bowl’s rim, a white ceramic spoon cradles lucid pearls of GewÃ¼rztraminer gelÃ©e mounded like albino caviar. The gelÃ©e, we are instructed, is to be stirred into the liquid; the pearls bob for a moment, then vanish, absorbed. I don’t taste the wine, but the broth’s vegetal depth enhances the lobster’s sweetness. Smith has conceived a sensory triumph befitting its $32 cost.
Similarily expensive is the rack of lamb, rosy and abundant, with its pillowy batons of curry fries. The gravy-like sauce is nondescript, but its cabbage timbale harboring lamb shoulder confit—nonpareil! A perfectly pan-roasted black bass fillet is overpowered by a coriander crust, but its spaghetti-squash ragoÃ»t sings with grace notes of ginger and smoked tomato. This is complex, inspired cooking; innovation without gimmick, creativity honed by technique. Even Smith’s roasted chicken transforms the simple to the sublime: a succulent, meaty bird as far from Purdue as New Rochelle is from the Loire, the place I experienced a revelatory barnyard bird to which this one was comparable.
Complexity and inspiration extend to dessert, too. Those beets make an encore appearance in a mousse atop a buttery shortbread pastry, the sweetness tempered by citrus custard. Cappuccino infuses a fine crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, but I would have reduced the apple quartet offering to a trio—its Normandy cider gelÃ©e is more water than cider—though its apple-butter ice cream is delirious with flavor. Smith bows to convention with a molten chocolate cake, but his riff soars with wine-poached berries and a cadenza of piÃ±a colada sorbet.
So go enjoy Sterling Inn’s well-spaced tables, exposed brick, and fancy chandeliers. Sip wine from the reasonably priced, eclectic list. Appreciate the efficient service. Try brunch, which I intend to do soon, especially with items like smoked-cod-and-ratatouille omelets on the menu. And when the wife of the chef comes over, tell her she’s right to be smiling.
THE STERLING INN
1279 North Ave., New Rochelle
Tue. to Sun. from 5 pm
Brunch, Sun.11 am-5 pm