|Chef-owner Craig Shelton creates a trio of unique tasting menus.|
In Washington, D.C., three restaurants rival Italy's best
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It is becoming increasingly obvious that some of the most serious dining in America is happening in the 'burbs and countryside. Any major city would be proud to have a restaurant like Bernardus Lodge in Carmel, Calif. Urban restaurateurs would kill for the kind of cellar space that allows for lists that display the breadth and depth of those of rural retreats like The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.
Then there's The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, N.J., home to a splendid vegetable and fruit garden (growing 30 different varieties of lettuce alone) that Alice Waters has called the best of its kind in America. There are three wine cellars--one kept at a constant 55° F for everyday use; another, for whites, that's 48° F; and still another, just for reds, at 65° F. Ryland also boasts a luxurious cigar-lounge, and a heliport. How many city restaurateurs can even dream of having all this? And can any New York or San Francisco chef claim to hold a degree in biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University? All of the above only begins to describe the bounty of the place, housed in a rambling 200-year-old country home with a Victorian gazebo, set on 10 acres of landscaped greenery crossed by a historic Indian footpath.
Located an hour's drive from Manhattan in a region of New Jersey with a considerable equestrian presence, the inn is a reverie of chef-owner Craig Shelton, who is committed to providing his guests with the same kind of romantic culinary experience one enjoys at a beloved auberge in Provence. His guests have responded with enthusiasm; on any given night of the week, 70 percent of his clientele opts for the three-hour-plus, eight- or 10-course tasting menus, including one that is wholly vegetarian.
The wine and spirits list of this Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner is currently 45 pages long, crammed with great bottles from the finest French estates along with a small but judicious selection of wines from the United States and other countries. There are seven labels of Chassagne-Montrachet, 11 Meursaults, 13 Alsace Rieslings, seven vintages of Latour (including 1945, '55 and '59), five of Cheval-Blanc and eight Hermitages. There are two welcome pages of half-bottles, including François Gaunoux Corton Grand Cru Les Renardes 1995, and four pages of dessert wines such as Milz-Laurentiushof Trittenheimer Apotheke Eiswein 1990, Château Coutet Barsac Cuvée Madame 1986, and M & D Rouvière Automnal de Condrieu 1995 (though, oddly, only a single bottling--1983--of Yquem).
There are no bargains, however; The Domaine Maillard Les Grandes Lolières 1996 costs $100 at The Ryland Inn; Château Latour 1990 is $1,100; Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill 1993, $225. Glassware, as you will read on the menu, is exclusively Riedel.
The proper pairing of food and wines (which Shelton compares to the &"magic between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers&") is crucial here. Wines can be deftly paired with each course on Shelton's tasting menus, an option that adds $70 and $140, respectively, to the $90 and $120 per person fixed prices of the tasting menus (à la carte dinners are also offered). High as those prices seem, the tasting menus are actually bargains: The "Tradition" menu and vegetarian menu each comprise eight courses, and the "Craig Shelton" menu, which is a bit more adventurous, is a 10-course offering.
On a recent visit, my guests and I opted for all three of the tasting menus, totalling about 30 dishes. Each one manifested Shelton's fervid imagination, coupled, I'm sure, to his background in biochemistry, for he is clearly trying to marry flavors on the basis of how ingredients interact both on a molecular level and on the palate. He will make a bracingly cold puree of English peas that incorporates a gelée made from Japanese wakame seaweed with a mint yogurt sorbet. Melon soup is enhanced with ginseng and green tea-yogurt sorbet. And a crisp, very meaty soft-shell crab takes on the tender, vegetal crunch of jicama and cucumber under a lush parsnip cream.
That Shelton sometimes goes too far with such ideas is perhaps inevitable, as when he takes a fat Dover sole and treats it to an unappetizing and wholly obliterating "soymilk-flaxseed oil emulsion." His love of fresh--that is, raw--herbs can be too ardent, as when he sprinkles flowering thyme with abandon on sour cherry soup.
But so much else is sensible and based on such terrific ingredients that one forgives the errant dish here and there. I certainly cannot recall when I've had a better lamb chop, simply accompanied by sweet peas, onions and classic pommes à la dauphinoise. Sancerre-infused butter gives a lustrous gloss to braised lobster, served with wondrously slender but full-flavored wild asparagus and woodsy morels. Roasted baby chicken with sunchokes, stinging nettles, ramps and cardamom cream was very good (though the cardamom was barely noticeable), and seared sea scallops à la mariniè res could not have been sweeter.
One of my favorite dishes was the lustiest--braised short ribs and oxtail with parsley gnocchi, peas, carrots and a Barolo sauce, and I was impressed with the delicacy of a blanquette of steamed turbot with succulent hearts of palm, pretty periwinkles and watercress. Lackluster, however, was a bland Arctic char with microgreens, a few stray pine nuts and a mushroom-balsamic sauce.
Several of the vegetable dishes delighted me most of all--not really a surprise given Shelton's personal cultivation of them. Grilled wild asparagus with morel flan and sauce Maltaise was superb, as was the puree of English peas. But vegetarian pad Thai, a dish usually containing shrimp, gained nothing from slabs of insipid seared tofu, and I couldn't see the relevance of the "smoke" listed in a dish of Japanese pumpkin agnolotti with porcini broth and overly assertive sage.
Desserts at The Ryland Inn seal the meal happily--a stylized tiramisu with coffee ice cream, a perfect chocolate soufflé and a chocolate tart showed as much attention to fine ingredients as to refined technique.
The same degree of attention obtains with the service staff here, from the warm greeting by maître d's François Rousseau and Ramon Manalo to the helpful recommendations of sommeliers Olivier Dufeu and Katherine Klymyshyn. The waitstaff itself has obviously been rigorously trained in wine service too, and there are genuine niceties here. For instance, diners get a copy of the appropriate tasting menu in a small gold frame on their table so they can refer to what they're eating--which makes unnecessary the laborious recitations by the waiters of every ingredient and the technique involved in preparing every dish (your food gets cold during the spiel). And Shelton might want to rethink having American waiters refer to guests as "madame" and "monsieur," in their colloquial New Jersey accents.
For in so many ways, The Ryland Inn, though clearly an evocation of a French country restaurant, is a very American place. The amenities are French or European, as is the background music (Charles Aznavour gets plenty of play here), and the menus have numerous references to both classic Escoffier preparations and modern French chefs whom Shelton admires. But there is also a very American exuberance about Shelton. He so clearly loves the New Jersey countryside, the abundance of American ingredients, and he takes a distinctly American glee in going off in exotic directions. By balancing his own Yankee imagination with a grounding in classic culinary traditions, Shelton shows the kind of breadth American haute cuisine now possesses--in or out of the city.
John Mariani's most recent book is Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).
The Ryland Inn
Route 22 West, Whitehouse, NJ 08888
Telephone (908) 534-4011
Web site www.therylandinn.com
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost A la carte, expensive; prix fixe: $90, $120
Credit cards All major
This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 96. (Subscribe today)