Restaurant Review: Equus at Castle on the Hudson in Tarrytown

Equus at the Castle on the Hudson sets new local price heights. Will Westchester bite?

The magic (and profit margins) of restaurants lies in the fuzzy logic of “perceived value.” That means that a diner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns—one of Westchester’s priciest restaurants—generally walks away delirious, though, technically, he’s eaten only a bunch of root veg, some fish, and a few scraps of pork. The trick is to exceed the diner’s expectations through pure restaurant craftsmanship; to brew such an overwhelming potion of flavor, décor, and service that the delirium lasts beyond the sting of the check.  

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Equus, the restaurant at the plush Castle on the Hudson hotel, starts with more than just “perceived” value. This crenellated former estate holds essential value in its historic architecture and hilltop site. Many of the rooms and terraces of the grand old house, formerly known as Carrollcliffe, offer expansive views of the Hudson and Palisades, which makes it—not surprisingly—a favorite site for marriage proposals and weddings. This past winter, the property was purchased by a Japanese hotel company that’s been busy updating tired rooms. Still, the great house remains. There is the Oak Room’s historic wood paneling and the subtle boar’s head carved into the granite hearth, two of many architectural elements that Carrollcliffe’s builders salvaged from historic European structures.

Even with inherent charm, Equus often gets in its own way. Unlike Westchester’s hottest table, Blue Hill at Stone Barns (which merely calls to confirm your table), the reservation policy at Equus is prohibitive. To book on OpenTable, one must provide a credit card under the threat that, if you cancel “within the 48 hour window, a $25 fee per person will be applied and, on holidays, $50 will be charged.” First impressions were further dinged when we were shown to Equus’s lovely stone terrace for cocktails. The grand estate’s spectacular view and setting were marred by thin tablecloths over wobbly metal tables, paired with floral outdoor furniture that would have been at home in a Boca Raton condo. The cocktail menu was forgotten (as it was again in a later meal—though one actually exists) until after we’d ordered a Negroni, which arrived bizarrely served in a Pilsner glass over a mountain of ice cubes.

Once we were seated for dinner in the sparsely populated Oak Room—we didn’t bother reserving for a subsequent visit—at least our old friend, the boar, was still in residence. Four amuse bouches arrived, which included a stellar shot of corn mousse with sweet corn kernels and a scattering of salty, dehydrated olive. It was delicious, but not quite enough to soothe the sting of the right side of the menu: Equus is a very expensive restaurant, offering Westchester’s most expensive à la carte menu. Appetizer prices range from $18 for a mesclun-and-crudité salad to $33 for a terrine de foie gras. Mains are steeper and span (at the cheapest end) $41 dishes of sea bass and red snapper, respectively, and top out at a $60 lamb loin and a $65 8-ounce Washu beef sirloin. The chicken dish costs $50.

As a critic, I am more price-insensitive than most diners—this magazine pays for my meals. But Equus’s high prices and daunting reservation policy do raise lofty expectations. And there is much to love about Equus’s food—including sunset-hued salmon trout, whose silkiness was contrasted with marinated red endive and the briny funk of olives. Or an aristocratic foie gras terrine haunted by port wine and contrasted with peach chutney; and a show-stopping, creamy wild scallop with citrus-anise flavor under a bubbling plume of clam froth.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

The elegant dining room opens out onto a stone terrace.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

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An 8-ounce Washu beef sirloin costs $65.

Yet, given Equus’s prices, every service slip screams. White-gloved servers (a Mad Men touch) are sweetly  nostalgic—except when one white thumb is stained with sauce, or the gloves are left unsnapped at the wrist, or only three of four servers bother to don them. And Equus’s silver finger bowls—a special, old-fashioned ritual—would be more effective if all diners at a table received them, especially when one poor guest ate a bony quail leg with her fingers, then pined across the table at her companion’s bowl.

At Equus, servings can also err toward slight. An otherwise delicious main of Canadian lobster soup elegantly tinged with pepper and lemongrass yielded two miniature claws and one Lilliputian tail (good thing there was bread). The beef sirloin with a clean bordelaise sauce arrived with the same mélange of turned vegetables that appeared on many other plates; at this price, it’s reasonable to expect different components to appear with each entrée. And, with the beef, some sort of starch would have been welcome—these were not filling meals. The good news is that Equus’s wine list offers some fairly un-extortionate deals, like a $70 bottle of Giant Steps Pinot Noir from Sexton Vineyard in Australia.
With most restaurants serving at this price point, desserts are an opportunity to leave a lasting sweet impression. Equus grasps this opportunity with very modern desserts organized around a theme ingredient. Mango crémeux arrives with perfumed lemongrass sorbet and the welcome crunch of sweet popcorn, while a spectacular poem to the banana gathers support from vanilla beans, dark chocolate, and nearly bitter caramel components. All desserts arrive with an assortment of mignardises (pretty candies and petits fours), which all but disguise the check’s sting.

Does Equus’s perceived value transcend the impact of its check? That’s hard to say. The Castle is still a fairy-tale castle perched on an aristocratic hilltop—which goes a long way in creating pleasant memories. Its views are still stunning, and—who knows?—Equus’s current pricing scheme may not find traction with diners. I’m left looking up at those hilltop flags, wondering what will happen next.

 Equus at Castle on the Hudson 2.5 ★s
400 Benedict Ave, Tarrytown
(914) 631-3646;
Hours: breakfast, daily 8 am-10 am; lunch, daily noon-2 pm; dinner, daily 6 pm-9:30 pm
Appetizers: $18-$33; entrées: $41-$64; desserts: $11
   ★★★★—Outstanding      ★★★—Very Good  
   ★★—Good                       ★—Fair

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