My wife and I spent last Saturday and Sunday at what in retrospect seems like the most unlikely place in the world: a meticulously presented fin de siecle mansion nested in the heart of an old American factory town.
The place seems unlikely not only because it is a very grand house in a sea of contemporaneously built modest-to-humble commercial and residential structures (I cannot imagine why H.D. Sheppard, the man who commissioned the house in 1911, would chose to put such a grand house here.) or because the house is furnished with very posh looking stuff bought and beloved by it's original inhabitants, but also because it is all of that and it is home to rare culinary talent.
Now I don't mean to suggest that this talent is rare within the town of Hanover, Pa. where the Sheppard Mansion hangs like a cherished family portrait in a quaint home that needs a good dusting. (I'd never been to Hanover before Saturday. How would I know anything about how people cook there?) And I'm not going to say that it is rare relative to any geographic area because if I did, I know I'd end up insulting some feverish and talented chef whose only "fault" is that he or she works in some place that I have never visited. That'd be wrong and dumb.
When I write that Chef Andrew Little and his crew have rare talent, I'm using my professional experiences as a basis of comparison. I'm comparing their work to my own work and to the work of every student and professional cook that I have come into contact with -and I've known thousands. I'm also comparing Chef Little's work to what I know from the literature of the tradition within which he is working: that quantum of cooking techniques, service schema, naming conventions, ideology and aspirations that I think of as the haute cuisine, La Grande Cuisine or Classical French Cuisine.
Of course, I cannot quantify how often I have come across someone who shows the kind of serious of purpose and commitment to craft and aspiration to art that Chef Little showed me. But I suppose I could guess that out of the more than six-thousand students who came through my classrooms and kitchens at The Culinary Institute of America and the various restaurants where I have worked and eaten, maybe one percent of the cooks appeared to have this kind of aptitude and ambition?
I will not do a line-item review of the food I ate to attempt to prove to you that this kitchen is worth paying attention to. But I will say that the ten course tasting menu we had was beautifully executed (No small feat for a kitchen with only four cooks, chef included!). Every dish except one, showed solid command of technique. No portion was too big or too small and the sequence of the dishes made perfect sense. A sequence of two dishes representing the fish and meat course in the classical dining form could have been a little deeper, but what they lacked in depth they recouped in composition and demonstration of classical cooking technique. I was really impressed by how chef tries not to waste any part of any ingredient (thrift is sine qua non in classical cooking). A superb sweet custard made from scraps (corn cob) proved to me that he really does get it.
In sum: The menu was absolutely true to the form of a classically composed meal and very much like a mildly challenging piece of classical music. The overture was quite and slow and established the theme. The tempo got a little quicker through the second movement until things started to get pretty serious. There should have been an intermezzo to break the tension, but I'm not complaining. The third movement, the finale, resolved all conflict and made everything okay.
The front of the house, the domain of Karen Van Guilder and Timothy Bobb, was inspiring. The service was polite and crisp and every one seemed imbued with the spirit of hospitality. It was the kind of service I'd expect in a Manhattan New York Times 2-3 star property or at a Ritz Carlton almost anywhere. It's never easy to get Americans to be comfortable serving people. So many of us seem to think that there is something deeply wrong with a job that requires that we defer to the needs of others. In places where the labor pool is broad and deep and the competition for jobs in prestigious restaurants is tough, it's relatively easy to find people who are willing to put their egos on a back burner and be nice to needy, sometimes demanding guests, but Hanover is not Paris or London. Whatever Karen and Timothy are doing, they are doing it better than I thought possible outside of the big cities.
Finally, I need to apologize and offer a sop to those of you who may have found my "review" of the food hard to relate to because it is so full of chef-speak. So let me leave you with this.
The standard that I use to decide if a meal is worth remembering, says that at least one dish has to move me to tears. That does not happen very often. Last weekend my eyes welled up with tears twice.
Man, you can't beat this stuff with a whisk!
Here is the menu and the names of the staff.
July 26, 2008
Red Thumb Baked Potato
Housemade Bacon, Black Truffle Crème Fraiche, Garden Chive
Schramsburg “Mirabelle” Brut Rosé (Napa) NV
Smoked Ham Hock ‘Tartine’
Rillette Of Ham Hock, Sliced Radish, Frisee Lettuce
Scott Robinson’s Berkshire Pork Sausage Pizza
Grilled Ratatouille, Three Sisters ‘Serena’
A Salad Of Kathy Glahn’s Heirloom Beets
Creekside Farms Micro Lettuces, Black Truffle Vinaigrette
Gainey Vineyard Riesling (Santa Ynez Valley) 2006
Whole Roasted Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Balsamic Glazed Shiro Plums, Toasted ‘Palladin’
Crispy Skinned Chesapeake Rockfish
A Salad Of Heirloom Tomato, Corn, Black Beans And Grilled Corn,
Famiglia Bianchi Chardonnay (Argentina) 2005
Roasted Rettland Farms Milk Fed Poularde
Peaches, Frisee Lettuce, Sweet Corn Jus
Cherry Glen Farms ‘Monocacy Crottin’
Sweet And Spicy Pecans, Honeycomb
Late Harvest Chardonnay, Bouchaine “Bouche D’Or” (Napa), 2006
Sweet Corn Custard
Blackberries, Garden Mint
Boyers Orchard Peach Tart
Honey Ice Cream