Over the Top

Sometimes life is just over-the-top good. In this month of thanks, I have so much for which to be thankful: my cousin Karen just gave birth to perfectly healthy, gorgeous Mikhayla, my job is glorious and fulfilling, working with Miss TI 2012 Allison Carlos is proving to be a dream, I’ve eaten pork belly three times in less than two months (not including regular bacon), my custom hearing aid will be here in less than two weeks, and my sister is about to welcome my nephew to the world. Thank Heavens for all these blessings! Add to this bounty the weekend just completed, and I’m about as happy as a pig in you-know-what.

Shawn and I were fortunate to be invited to travel to the Culinary Institute of America last Thursday for his cousin Michael’s graduation ceremony and associated meals. I cannot stress enough the glee this entire visit inspired in me. I skipped around that campus like a four-year-old with pigtails and a lollipop, who was just given a pony – a pink pony, ridden by Barbie and pooping out ice cream cones along the way.

Naturally, I planned the trip to maximize our eating opportunities while we were in Hyde Park. We arrived just before lunchtime, and availed ourselves of a decadent noontime repast at the Apple Pie Bakery Café. This place was cute as pie (get it?) and I was delighted even waiting in line, as the wait area was lined with fancy sea salts, teas and baked goods for purchase. Shawn played it safe, ordering a chicken sandwich and salad, and of course I went for the gusto, excitedly requesting the crisp pork belly with grits and a fried egg on top, and a slice of the gorgeous apple butter cake for us to split for dessert.

Sweet case at Apple Pie

I’ll start you off with Shawn’s choice, which is a nice, normal sandwich to ease us into this day-long mouthgasm of decadence and splendor. His chicken sandwich was juicy without being greasy, built on thinly-sliced and toasted homemade whole-grain bread, with bacon and a very light herb aioli (a true aioli, not jarred mayonnaise gussied up with jarred garlic and dried herbs). The salad on the side was lightly dressed with a shallot-based vinaigrette and garnished with sea salt. He had never had a salt-garnished salad before, and even though he usually shies away from my aggressive salting, he liked this addition.

Shawn’s sammie

My crispy pork belly was served in a giant, deep bowl, sitting on Anson Mill white grits, topped with a perfectly fried “dippy” egg, garnished with scallions and adorned with a circle of fiery hot sauce to foil all of that fat and lusciousness. This is the sort of dish that sits right in my comfort zone. The pork brought the fat, the scallions gave a pop of brightness, the smooth, creamy grits provided a filling, blank canvas, the chili sauce was incendiary on its own but perfect in balance with the pork fat, and the egg just gilded that lily to the max. This was delicious, soul-soothing, and made me giddy.

Get in mah belly!

The apple butter cake was a masterfully-designed art piece created of layers: Hudson Valley apple butter, cinnamon genoise cake, cinnamon mascarpone cheese and caramel glaze, topped with a thin chocolate sculptured swoop and a tiny dot of 24 karat gold leaf. It was a delight on the tongue – light, airy, yet complex with spice, apple, and all the trappings of fall. The different textures intermingled to form a pleasing smoothness, crowned by the rich, but sparingly deployed caramel. Delicious.

Tell me that is not delicious art!

After lunch and a brief stop in the gleaming, Heaven-like bookstore, from which I scored an awesome CIA t-shirt and to-go coffee mug, as well as some Christmas gifts for foodie relatives, we scooted over to the Holiday Inn Express in Poughkeepsie to change for the graduation. The hotel was fine, but I think on a return visit I would head over to the Courtyard Marriott, as the cleanliness level of the Holiday Inn wasn’t quite where I like it.

Fancy some CIA utensils?

While waiting for the graduation to start, we snuck in the back and witnessed the underclassmen prepare for the post-ceremony reception. Seeing the enormity of the preparation and massive trays of hors d’oeuvres made me giddy all over again – this was large-scale, high-end catering, working in hushed, calm tones. So exciting!

While the graduation was a little disappointing (Anthony Bourdain was NOT the keynote, although seeing Michael graduate was thrilling), that reception was killer. Unlimited wine, tons of stations set with shrimp and slaw, manchego cheese with quince paste and marcona almonds, Mediterranean seafood terrine, curried lobster, smoked duck and pineapple, fruited couscous and scallop tartar. Then, butlered goodies started flowing, including rabbit and pistachio terrine, duck liver pate on toasts topped with fruit jam, truffled goat cheese on sesame crisps, and handmade chocolate truffles. There were no stuffed mushrooms, spanakopita triangles that shatter all over your nice dress when you bite into them, or crappy, frozen mini-quiches at this fete. It was pure class, and pure pleasure.

And that train to Pleasure Town kept right on chugging, because after a brief respite to move some of Michael’s belongings out of his swank dorm (outfitted with Viking ranges and granite countertops), we hit
Caterina de Medici, the school’s on-campus Italian mecca. This jewel-box of a space has student wait staff and student sous chefs, overseen by their professor/executive chef. The menu is seasonal, and not a minute there was less than fantastic.

Our meal was begun with an amuse bouche, although our adorable little waiterman used an Italian term for this pre-appetizer. It was perfectly crisp bruschetta, not so crusty that it tore open your gums, but crunchy enough to hold up the schmear of gorgeous, herbed, tangy goat cheese and one tiny, perfect, sweet, roasted grape tomato. Simple and sublime.

As Chandler would have said, it’s amoosing

We then had a series of proseccos, cocktails and toasts, after which I ordered an appetizer so amazing I’m still salivating for it: pumpkin flan flanked by two perfect cannels of whipped, sweet goat cheese and a small micro-green salad. This thing was a revelation – savory, without all the usual fall trappings of nutmeg and cinnamon that accompany pumpkin. The texture was indescribably airy – I don’t know if there’s an airier word than airy, but if you think of one, insert it here. It was creamy without being milky, pumpkin-y without being sweet, savory without being salty. Mixed with the salad and those gorgeous little mounds of the sweetest, creamiest goat cheese I’ve ever tasted, this was a dish in complete harmony with the season and my mouth.

Someone please send me this recipe!

A bunch of other poor suckers at the table ordered the spinach and ricotta tart. It was served with a little frisee salad. Shawn quite liked this, and it was good, but didn’t compare to the flan for me. It was solid, good, but it didn’t soar.

Cutie pie

I totally grossed out Shawn’s cousin BT with my entrée order: braised oxtails with romanesco broccoli. She wouldn’t try a bite, even after I proclaimed its deliciousness! This was a very good dish – the oxtails echoing the lush tenderness of short ribs in both flavor and texture, but covered in a slow-cooked, yet light, tomato and celery sauce. It was both earthy and bright, which is a mark of the very best Italian food. The romanesco broccoli, which is a prehistoric-looking lighter-green floret than your traditional cruciferous fav, was brackish and good, and served with a few small wedges of salt-boiled potato.

Tails from an ox. Not gross, even though I know you’re thinking that.

Michael, who had worked at this restaurant earlier in his CIA career, recommended and ultimately ordered the potato gnocchi with duck ragu. It was insanely good, the duck rich and cooked-down, the gnocchi surprisingly light for a potato-based dumpling, soaking in that fine wine-based ragu like Heidi Klum in a Jacuzzi. Gorgeous. Shawn had the pasta tossed with radicchio, pancetta and balsamic, which was slightly outside of his comfort zone, but that he ended up really enjoying. The bitter radicchio was fabulous foil for the salty, rich pancetta and sweet balsamic – an outstanding example of the Italian agro dolce principle of bitter balancing sweet.

Shawn’s agro dolce pasta

In our final, dessert course, the real stand-out was Shawn’s choice, the caramel panna cotta, sprinkled with hazelnut brittle. The silken texture of this browned-sugar beauty rivaled that of my pumpkin flan starter, and I nearly abandoned my pear tart with chocolate whipped cream to hijack his plate. All of those flans and panna cotta-like custards take extraordinary finesse to do well – I see cheftestants on Top Chef hose them up all the time – so to have two outstanding offerings in that category in one meal was a treat.

I wonder if this is similar to crème caramel?

There is no other number to award every single culinary aspect of our day at the CIA than 10. Ten is for the presentation, the unique atmosphere of a campus navigated by young men and women in check pants and chef coats, the impeccable, innovative, gorgeous, tasty cuisine, the professional but not stuffy service, and the fact that everywhere we went, Michael’s dear classmates recognized him and wished him congratulations on his accomplishments. The campus is warm, inviting and clean, welcoming to friends, family and students alike. I’m not saying the professors there don’t browbeat those kids – I heard some Gordon Ramsey-esque tales over the course of the day – but as a visitor, I felt wrapped in a Snuggy of food and warmth the entire day. If you live within a day’s drive of Hyde Park, I could not more strongly recommend this as an amazing getaway. Whether you just go there to eat in those wonderful restaurants, or for day classes on specialty cooking, revel in the beauty of the Hudson Valley and the hospitality of this singular college. It is a true destination for any foodie, and I feel privileged to have walked its pathways. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Ristorante Caterina de' Medici on Urbanspoon

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