As Good As It Gets
Classic French in a classic chÃ¢teau
Le ChÃ¢teau in South Salem is a timeless classic. When every other menu seems to be a melange of broccoli rabe (which isn’t even broccoli), sun dried tomatoes, Hudson Valley goat cheeses and 57 different varieties of crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e with Asian dishes cheek by jowl with pasta, Le ChÃ¢teau is classically French. Each dish is identified by its French appellation, surely no different from the listings at Henri Soule’s classic Le Pavillon 50 years past—and every bit as good.
It’s not hard to imagine that back in the kitchen—part of the mansion built by J.P. Morgan in 1907—the chefs still wear those tall white hats called “toque blanche,” or that the food is simmered on gleaming copper skillets and the sauces reduced for days.
Starched white linens cover the tables in the wood-paneled dining rooms with exquisite views of Westchester hills. There are little touches like fish knives and forks for finny dishes, and escargot swimming in special terrines the likes of which I haven’t seen in years.
From a restaurant of this elite class, a diner expects some enhancements in addition to exquisite food. One is tableside service with the maÃ®tre d’ adding the final touches from a rolling cart called a guÃ©ridon, expertly fileting the fish and holding up the bones as a trophy, for example, or tossing the Caesar salad while asking if the diner wants anchovies. And there should be a wine list as thick as a telephone directory.
The devil, they say, is in the details, and this is where Le ChÃ¢teau’s wonderful cuisine is not fully matched by the service. The food is served by waiters who bring it beneath the kind of metal covers seen on hotel room service carts, and who offer it up with no flair or presentation.
The wine list extends only a few short pages. On the French pages, it offers a 1993 ChÃ¢teau Margaux for $320 and a 1988 Le Montrachet, Prosper Maufoux for $300 for those nights you feel like splurging. There are some Prosper Mafaux reds and whites in the $30 to $50, range but the wine list is sadly anemic in the mid-ranges for those occasions when you want a special wine without dipping into the kids’ college tuition fund. There is a similar selection of very good California vintages, and an Italian speciality, my favorite, an Amarone.
Theater and wine list aside, with minor cavils, what is delivered from the Le ChÃ¢teau kitchen is as good as one can get almost anywhere on this continent. Perhaps the most dramatic dish on the menu is an appetizer, a fresh crabmeat Napoleon with a vinaigrette sweetened by a touch of pear brandy. It is so beautifully presented, it is almost a shame to stick a spoon in it. On two occasions, my friends savored the rack of lamb with garlic and fresh herbs. Ditto the thick steak with rose peppercorn sauce, done to perfection.
As for desserts, order one of the dessert soufflÃ©s (Grand Marnier, chocolate or raspberry) at the start of the meal, so it is ready when you are. Outstanding.
Maybe in today’s environment, you can’t find captains who know how to filet a Dover sole at tableside, and stocking the expansive wine list I’d like to see in a restaurant of this caliber would cost more than a fleet of Rolls-Royces. But they are the little touches that would elevate Le ChÃ¢teau from the merely excellent to the truly sublime.
Routes 35 and 123, South Salem
Tue. to Thurs. 5:30-9 pm,
Fri. and Sat. 6 and 9 pm seatings,
Sun. 2-9 pm
Brunch, January through April 11:30 am-2 pm