Ask The Restaurant Expert
A Q&A with this county-based cuisine connoisseur serves up answers to local dining-out dilemmas.
Ask L: The Restaurant Maven
Where to eat with kids, picky in-laws, food phobes, or even your one-and-only? We’ve got the names that should be on every Westchesterite’s lips.
By Judith Hausman
Like a boy scout, a Westchesterite diner must be prepared. At any moment, you might be called on to recommend a restaurant for an anniversary or for a visiting relation who has renounced gluten. You might be forced to feed a gaggle of teens who crave Thai or a vegetarian with a fondness for vin. What to do when a restaurant emergency strikes? Break out the Zagat Survey and hope there’s a category called “Restaurants Uncle Pete Won’t Hate?” Drive around aimlessly, using the car like the gizmo on a Ouija board? No, of course not! You need a tool, like this one from professional restaurant reviewer Judith Hausman. With roughly 12 years of professional reviewing and a keen ear to the ground, she’s uniquely qualified to create this veritable Swiss Army Knife of a guide to edible Westchester (an apt metaphor, considering one comes with a corkscrew and the other comes with occasions to employ it). Use it well, my friends, and you too may earn a merit badge in gastronomy.
Q: Where do you like to dine, again and again, north county, south county, east county, west county?
A: I head for Blue Dolphin up north. Can you imagine actually enjoying
the sidewalk wait for a tiny table in a former diner? Trust me: the
friendly hubbub is part of the appeal, as is great pasta and a Mediterranean way with veggies, like grilled radicchio or eggplant. On the riverside, Harvest on Hudson in Hastings can do no wrong in my book. A good Pinot Noir, a slice of crackly pizza, and that view do it every time, outside in the gardens or inside by the stone fireplace when it’s frigid. It’s the best place to show off the county to out-of-towners, too. Down county, Cafe Mezé in Hartsdale is unassuming and still wonderful after all this time. Fusion with integrity means seasonal dishes like roasted loin of lamb with a pignoli crust, fava beans, and sweet onion gratinate, and herb-crusted salmon in rice paper with blood oranges, arugula, and citrus olive-oil sauce. Also, an olive-oil lemon cake with honeyed raspberries and a crème fraîche parfait for dessert. I love the intelligent wine program and the comfortably gracious atmosphere. Always combining regional and international, Plates, on the east side in Larchmont, is going strong. I love the house-made sourdough bread and pasta, bluefish in season, local cheeses and greens, house-made ice creams, and other clever desserts, such as “donuts and coffee” or “Ring Dings.”
Q: We have guests with special diets coming into town. Which restaurants make it easy (somewhat) for special requests?
A: If celiac disease is the problem you have to work around, Legal Sea Foods in White Plains now has starred menu items that are gluten-free. The cornmeal-crusted calamari and pan-seared trout are so freshly delicious, no one could feel deprived. Restaurant Luna in Mount Kisco, too, has plenty of interesting salads and wood-fired grilled meats and fish for those who must avoid wheat. If your guests won’t eat anything that has walked, flown, and/or swam before, take them to the casual Ray’s Café in Rye Brook. The Chinese menu is a good bet for vegetarians and vegans, too, with many vegetable-based dishes. For another vegetarian Asian experience, look to Thai Garden in Sleepy Hollow. Thai cuisine transforms tofu brilliantly with coconut milk, curry leaf, and lemon grass in a massaman (red or green) curry. Khi mao, wide noodles topped with plenty of vegetables, is satisfying and complexly flavored with herbs. For dessert, try sticky black rice with coconut milk. If your vegetarian friends want an elegant dining experience, Stoneleigh Creek Restaurant in Croton Falls will suggest wines to match their vegetarian dishes. Perhaps a Don Miguel Gascon Viognier 2004 with your grape leaf-wrapped feta, or Famiglia Bianchi Malbec 2003 with the mushroom ravioli in porcini mushroom broth? End with a fresh berry Napoleon. If your dietary parameters insist on organic but not vegetarian, Comfort in Hastings can fill tacos with organic beef or beans, prepare gluten free chicken fingers, or offer you a combo plate from its long list of yummy Southern style sides, such as potato salad, cornbread, and mac ‘n’ cheese. It has a few small tables and meals to go.
Q: What are some hot new trends in cuisine that we should try?
A: The local trend is more and better ethnic cuisines. Three new Greek restaurants, Greek Corner, Lefteris Gyro II, and Niko’s Greek Taverna, span from Yonkers to Mount Kisco to White Plains, respectively, to bring the Aegean north. I never get tired of creamy tzatziki, garlicky skordalia, and smoky eggplant slathered on pita triangles or even layered under marinated lamb or chicken. Pumped-up Indian expands beyond the lunch buffet with subtle spicing and quality ingredients at Passage to India in Mount Kisco, Patang in Yonkers, and the newly-owned Malabar Hill in Elmsford. Chicken mahkani, chana masala, and lamb korma are among my favorites. We’ll also see more pan-Asian, with sushi everywhere, even in grocery stores and in Chinese restaurants. Myong Private Label Gourmet in Mount Kisco makes spanking-fresh Asian-influenced salads and healthy take-home meals; down county (Bronxville) and up (Cross River), Haiku serves high-quality sushi, as well as Thai or Vietnamese noodle salads. Koo in Rye (and Ridgefield, Connecticut), Ace Asian French Cuisine in Thornwood, and Watermoon in Rye all make sleek Asian-fusion cuisine; I love it all. Mexican is expanding and gaining legitimacy. At Sunset Grille in White Plains, try fish tacos San Diego-style, salad with
oranges and avocados, and house-made masa in the tamales. New Rochelle‘s La Herradura features delicate aquas frescas (fruit drinks) and original pizzas with Mexican ingredients, such as refried beans and chipotles. The Little Mexican Café, also in New Rochelle, has specialties that include the freshest guacamole, pico de gallo, and luscious, secret-recipe mole. Juicy Mexican ice pops called “paletas” have made a splash too. Try avocado, mango with chile, or tamarind at La Flor de Michoacan Ice Creamâ€‘in New Rochelle or Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester.
Q: Where do the ladies (and the gentlemen) who lunch go?
A: Chiboust in Tarrytown, right across from the Music Hall, is so wonderfully French, and it has an understated menu and fabulous pastries that could make me a regular. Your friends will adore the soothing back dining room, the passion-fruit chiboust, and the high crusted quiche. Abatino’s in North White Plains is hopping at lunchtime. Catch up over a casual lunch of gorgonzola salad, great pizza, or penne à la vodka, or make time for a more substantial and leisurely chicken marsala. They’ll cater lunch for your office, too. Global Gatherings in Hartsdale lets you schmooze and shop at the same time; what could be better? Contemplate that pretty painted trunk from India and discover some New World music while you share lobster dumplings, barbecued ribs, or house-made cheesecake. In Scarsdale, Metro Deli, an extension of the Metro Diner, is perfect for a thick pastrami sandwich on rye, a smoked-fish platter on Sundays, or a ladylike Niçoise or cobb salad with your buddies.
Q: We’ve got a special anniversary coming up. Where should we go to throw a delicious private party?
A: Charming private rooms can make entertaining easy. A glassed-in, garden-like room with delicate chandeliers, lace tablecloths, and Provençal ceramics make La Panetière in Rye a wonderful choice for an intimate birthday celebration or a holiday get-together of up to 50 old friends. The food is extraordinary and, if your pocketbook can afford it, do have everyone sample the foie gras terrine with figs, the country duck terrine with truffles and pistachios, and a praline milk-chocolate mousse dome for dessert. At MacMenamin’s Grill & ChefWorks in New Rochelle, you can arrange a hands-on cooking party or a demo, where the chef prepares your meal as you watch, in two sparkly, specially designed rooms on the first floor. The “retail kitchen” can hold 16 for hands-on or 35 for the seated demo. The “interactive kitchen” holds 40 or 60 to 70, depending on format. Upstairs, the Shea Roo seats 20 to 70 for a conventional sit-down or buffet meal. In Port Chester, The Willett House’s Hunt Room is a clubby space that can hold 50 or can be divided into two rooms of 35 and 20 each. It exudes masculine appeal with its brick walls, riding-to-the-hounds paintings, and dark wood. If your guests don’t shy from great hunks of beef with all the steakhouse accoutrements (tomato and onions, creamed spinach, and baked potatoes), this is the place. The party space at the wildly popular, Franco-modern Vox is also underneath the main dining room—but this one has a charming private patio. Up to 30 guests will look out on the verdant horsey hills of North Salem, while swooning over a grilled artichoke salad, a mahogony-brown duck two ways, and tangerine-and-pistachio cannoli with a raspberry coulis. For a less formal event, Trinity Grill & Bar in Harrison has a cavernous backroom that holds 30 to 175 guests and a something-for-everyone menu: penne à la vodka, rack of lamb, and sesame crusted tuna. The Granite Springs Inn in Granite Springs can accommodate 14 friends in the Reservoir Room, decorated with antique skates and fly-fishing gear, or 22 in the Cove Room with a flirty wood-carved pig on the wall. What did you have in mind? Great pizza or oysters and steak for the gang?
Q: Know of inexpensive meals that are unbelievably good (no paper napkins, either)?
A: We all know Mexican restaurants’ rep for filling you up affordably. At The Mexican Corner in New Rochelle,â€‘the rice, beans, guacamole, and salad will certainly do it, if the packed burritos or rich carnitas don’t. Save money by bringing your own beer. Jack and Dyl’s in Tarrytown follows in the fine tradition of affordable home cooking with style. A terrific burger with homemade chips and chipotle ketchup to splash on it or pecan-crusted chicken with mashed sweet potatoes with maple syrup are among my favorites there. There are reports that supply and demand has created lots of bargain sushi meals, especially at lunch. Ichi Riki in Elmsford and Sushi Mike’s and Sushi Niji, both in Dobbs Ferry, all have miso soup, salad, various sushi and sashimi items, with even a piece or two of tempura, as bento-box lunch combinations. They fill you up without that over stuffed feeling. As for an old-fashioned bargain meal, the Bedford Diner & Restaurant in Bedford Hills, which recently cleaned up and had the deck repaired, can’t be beat. Steaks, broiled fish, Greek and Italian specialties come with the works: soup, salad, vegetables, potato, wine or coffee, and dessert. Enough for lunch the next day in the office, too.
Q: What’s changing in our local restaurant scene?
A: By now, you’ve probably discovered that Willy Nick’s in Katonah has gone upscale with a sleek new bar and later hours. The wide sidewalk patio is the ideal spot in town to lunch with friends or wait for your commuter or weekend guests to arrive at the train station across the street. Under umbrellas and twinkly lights out on the patio, enjoy frozen cocktails while the weather is still warm. Did you know Finch Tavern has reverted to its Italian roots as Primavera in Croton Falls I like the drop-in tavern and dinner on the side porch best. Whole-roasted branzini, homemade ravioli, and lobster linguini are good bets here. With a freshened, modern bistro decor, Scarsdale‘s Cigno has morphed into Meritage. The menu is New American and more flexible and more seasonally sensitive. Try grass-fed veal, grilled asparagus, baked king salmon, and locally grown mixed greens. Luc Dimnet, most recently the chef at Brasserie in Manhattan, has taken over the well-loved Buffet de la Gare in Hastings. He’s kept his promise not to over-modernize so that the menu remains true to its bistro heritage with hearty cassoulet, rack of lamb, and crème brûlée, but also now offers roasted maple-leaf duck with fresh fruit sauce and
Dimnet’s own Alsatian matelote (fish chowder). Dimnet experiments with a flexible approach that would encourage Champagne and oysters at the bar. A favorite Briarcliff Manor luncheonette, The Patio Restaurant has added a dinner dimension. It now shares the Spanish cuisine of longtime owner Carlos Ladino. Look for Riojas and Albarinos, pungent Spanish olive oil, and traditional tapas: juicy grilled squid, slices of chorizo in wine, cold mussels vinaigrette, garlic shrimp. There’s a light flan for dessert.
Q: The Next Big Thing seems to be upscale neighborhood spots. What do you think?
A: I like it. I like it. An updated farmhouse on the outside but modern and warm inside, North Star Restaurant is situated in Scotts Corners, the antique-filled retail hamlet of Pound Ridge. You can dine on the front porch and choose crunchy-skinned roast chicken, juicy Chilean sea bass, or a barbecue pork cutlet. There’s a bar menu, too, with a hefty burger, Buffalo wings, or indulgently creamy three-cheese macaroni and cheese with truffle oil. The offerings at Four Doors Down in Buchanan range from a classic iceberg wedge with gorgonzola to the Four Doors Down Trio, a combination of filet mignon, breast of chicken, and sausage, served with sautéed spinach, roast-garlic mash, and fried onions with a port wine-truffle glaze. The Beehive in Armonk fills the bill, too, for a no fuss, gooey Ruben sandwich or a huge Greek salad. It’s convenient and comfortable but with style. Deer Park Tavern in Katonah also works this formula well. With high red ceilings and an especially roomy bar, the menu is appealing: gazpacho in the summer, chowder when it’s chilly, fresh salads and steamed mussels all year round.
Q: We’re celebrating. Where do we go to make a special celebration memorable?
A: Pricey and classic, the menu at the best new south-county restaurant to open in the past year, The Sterling Inn in New Rochelle, includes pan-seared wild striped bass with spring vegetables, signature slow-poached lobster scented with Indian spices, duo of diver scallops seared tartare, panko-crusted fried oysters with mango salsa, and upside down apricot cheesecake (entrées $22 to $34). A Blue Hill at Stone Barns reservation for a special night still takes some planning. (One nifty way to try to snare one is by going online and using www. opentable.com.) Executive Chef Dan Barber oversees a kitchen that is increasingly supplied with fresh ingredients grown at and livestock raised on the Stone Barns farm. The re-shuffled team of Snir Eng-Sela, formerly sous chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan, now chef de cuisine, and Adam Kaye, formerly Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ sous chef and now chef kitchen director, continues to excite and delight diners with the likes of lovely cold asparagus soup in a glass, farm egg dishes, subtle seafood, and grass fed meats. It isn’t new, but I’d still pick Xaviars in Piermont for a special night, a deux or with the whole family. Service, elegance, and unerringly delicious food guarantee memories. Choose sea-fresh scallops, hand harvested in Maine in a lemon grass nage or delicate breast of local squab “en crepinette.”Save room for the dreamy chocolate timbale with chocolate custard, coconut macaroon, and chocolate sauce.â€‘In the summer, the river view at Valley Restaurant at the Garrison would sweep anyone away. Such a pretty setting and a menu that features the herbs, berries, and vegetables grown on-site make Valley a great special-occasion adventure. Even the drive there is a treat.
Q: Any new tips for places that are forgiving with children?
A: Ossining Pizza is a favorite. It’s a welcoming, warm, family-friendly place with an outer no-frills area next to the pizza ovens, and two inner dining rooms with black enamel tables for a slightly more civilized dining experience. Indulgent waitstaff bring on the baked ziti, which is just as comforting and yummy as the great big pizzas. There’s gelati for dessert, too. Roomy and casual, Q Restaurant and Bar in Port Chester pleases kids with those pick-’em-up ribs and crumbly cornbread. Sandwich-size portions of brisket or pulled pork will be fine for the youngest. Ossining‘s Wobble Café is practically as comfortable as a living room. There are sofas, a toddler-size table, and bright colors everywhere. Try toad-in-a-hole for breakfast, make-your-own sandwich combo for lunch, and enjoy vegetable strudel for dinner. BYOB, too.
Q: Who are the up-and-coming chefs you’re watching these days?
A: At Grappolo Locanda in Chappaqua, Carmelo d’Aprile emphasizes comfortable but stylish Sicilian dishes. I like the chunky brodetto di mare, a vegetable fritto misto (much like tempura), and a lovely melt-in-your-mouth limoncello panna cotta, served with blueberries. At Sushi Nanase in White Plains, Yoshimichi Takeda is giving us the serene and meticulous sushi experience of Old Tokyo. Exquisite garnishes, such as gold leaf, shiso flowers, or a dab of black caviar, add subtle dimensions to superb fish. Jean-Marc Cabirol at La Panetière is working with slow-cooked sous vide, or vacuum cooking. He continues in the French tradition with duck pâté with truffles and pistachio, seafood in saffron broth, and sorbet made à la minute (upon request). Chef Jeff Raider continues to change daily the local, garden-based menu at Valley Restaurant at the Garrison. Taste, for example, his chilled pea soup with smoked bacon, heirloom tomato tartare, and butter braised Arctic Char. At RK in Rye, I can count on Chef Reza Khorshidi for something interesting to try: grilled monkfish with sausage and broccoli, Arizona lamb shank, a raw veggie slaw, morel soup with a cute grilled cheese sandwich.
Q: Which restaurants over the border are really worth the drive?
A: Luc’s Café Restaurant in Ridgefield is a blast in good weather. Sip an “apero” on the patio while you tap your foot to gypsy jazz (on Monday and Wednesday in the summer) and enjoy the best mussels and salads with aromatic house vinaigrette. Bastille Day is sponsored by Ricard here and there’s even a boules tournament. Match in SoNo has a very cool bar scene; go for original small plates, such as salt-poached asparagus, scallops rolled in “bacon dust,” and crab “donuts.” Across the river in Congers, Restaurant X and Bully Boy Bar, another of Peter Kelly’s landmark restaurants, is well worth the drive. As you look out on a private pond, choose from an array of oysters, sweetbreads with morels, rack of lamb, soft-shell crabs, and finely tended cheeses. The decor at Vertigo in Nyack, a fanciful art nouveau bar-restaurant with live, late-night entertainment, is worth seeing. The curving balcony wends up three stories and is packed. Brave the Tappan Zee for a wild pineapple martini from the impressive drink list. For dinner, a casual burger or more ambitious fish, hake or monkfish, will please you. Wasabi, also in Nyack, is spring green and stylish. Set out on an elaborate wooden boat of sashimi and novel sushi pieces, (inside-out, spicy, seaweed-wrapped and tempura-stuffed) and enjoy wonderful cooked fish as well, such as black cod with miso and sake, Chilean sea bass with black-bean sauce, and striped bass with ginger sauce. Wrap up an Asian meal with a thoroughly Western indulgence, such as a chocolate-truffle cake.
Q: The buzz—what should we be looking forward to in the next year or so?
A: Eventually, X20: Xaviars on the Hudson will open on the waterfrontin Yonkers; huge crowds to match huge expectation? That view! That cool building! That Kelly! Kevin Bertrand and Anibal Romero have just been appointed co-executive chefs at Crabtree’s Kittle House, still one of the loveliest traditional restaurants around, with a legendary wine collection. We’ll have to see how the duo’s collaborative efforts shape the menu. Once Nino’s and, more recently (but not very), Hoppfield’s in Bedford, this rambling white elephant of a country restaurant has finally been acquired. Rumor has it Richard Gere is part of the ownership team. Wonder what they’ll do with the place?
Freelance writer and frequent contributor Judith Hausman lives in South Salem.
Where the Restaurants Are
670 N. Broadway
North White Plains
677 Commerce St
Bedford Diner & Restaurant
710 N. Bedford Rd.