Taste Test: Amuse at the Essex Culinary Resort & Spa
Until last week, I couldn’t recall the last time a dish made me feel as though I had stumbled on secret treasure.
This happened to me at Amuse , the month-old eatery at the Essex, Vermont’s Culinary Resort & Spa. On my plate was pork belly, two triangles of which were seared until their edges were wafer-crisp, their insides a melted mass of salty fat. Granted, pork belly is easy to love, but when it’s served with charred-then-chilled cubes of juicy watermelon, wasabi and a fan of inky, sweetened soy sauce drops, well, you might swoon, too. I wanted another serving almost as soon as I was finished.
Other food frontiers awaited us, though. Almost every dish from Amuse’s à la carte menu is, as the name suggests, a play of color, flavor and texture; layered and arresting in its freshness. The usual and the unusual mingle in almost every dish. Ever eaten parsley root or pickled onion rings? Me neither.
Two kitchens operate in tandem at the Essex. The larger, out-of-sight one is headed by executive chef Shawn Calley, the former chef at Smuggs’ Hearth & Candle. (A few weeks ago, he picked up the honor of Top Chef of the Champlain Valley.) Calley and crew pick veggies and herbs from their kitchen garden and gather more produce from local farms, some of which are listed on a chalkboard in the dining room. Then the team wields the tools and techniques of molecular gastronomy — an antigriddle and sous-vide machine among them — to create tiny masterpieces. Diners can order à la carte or from a tasting menu offered at three seatings per night.
The second kitchen, in front of the dining room, is open and faces a marble counter. Here, chef de partie Jean-Luc Matecat whips up the dishes in tasting menus varying from six to nine courses.
Dark wood floors, sepia photographs and teardrop-shaped lamps lend the dining room an urbane, elegant feel. Nothing distracts from the plates, where the real art happens.
Each meal begins with a complimentary themed trio of amuse-bouches — a foam, a solid and a liquid — built on a seasonal item. One night, the chefs whipped up an airy peach mousse with hints of nutmeg; a mini-Bellini made with champagne and peach pulp, served in a shot glass; and a spoonful of piquant peach salsa with red onions and herbs. Another night, apples prevailed: a gentle Pink Lady apple foam; a spicy-cinnamon apple cider; and a sharp, herbed apple slaw. These offerings make for a sweet and welcoming touch, but they are not the main reason to visit.
Foams and mousses and purées abound, though at certain tables the light is so dim that it’s hard to see the food clearly. The anti-griddle — a flat surface at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit that can quickly freeze sauces and purées — assures that chilled morsels appear often, too, such as the antigrilled slices of watermelon that accompanied that voluptuous pork belly ($14). The method doesn’t always work perfectly, though. For instance, a chilled heirloom-tomato soup ($8) comes in a pitcher, which a server pours over a mound of poblano crème fraiche. Whether the latter met the antigriddle is uncertain, but it didn’t mingle easily with the fresh-tasting soup. As a result, bits of crème fraiche floated around the bowl like tiny pearls.
Mostly, though, the savory dishes at Amuse are tasty adventures. A trio of raw oyster shooters ($9) arrived topped with, respectively, a cilantro emulsion, pickled cipollini onions and a tart yuzu foam. Each bite brought a tiny tide of minerals and herbs or acid.
Portions at Amuse can be small. The tender, almost ethereal rabbit gnocchi ($17, rabbit from Glover’s Vermont Rabbitry) — with earthy truffles, browned butter and thyme — was no larger than a fist.
More filling, if less delicate, was sliced buffalo sirloin ($38), which came with an earthy blueberry sauce spooned alongside. My steak was just the wrong side of rare, and so was a mite tough. But the flat round of creamy, rich, browned potato roulade was crush-worthy.
Serious foodies would do well to park their bums at the chef’s table, where Matecat will spin a languorous meal using whatever is freshest. On the night I visited, he seared velvety veal sweetbreads, then served them atop a tangle of barely caramelized red onions; slivered, sharp apples; and peppery arugula, all of it dusted with crushed hazelnuts and drizzled with honey.
Matecat then spooned crème fraiche into a bowl of creamy, bright-green and peppery watercress soup, and used a wooden stick to pretty up the surface. He seared scallops and balanced them atop a finely chopped ratatouille, smearing puréed parsley root (from the garden out back) along the side to ground the briny, salty flavors. Matecat sliced enormous, sweet beets (also from Amuse’s garden) next to a pungent goat-cheese emulsion. Last up was a juicy, peppery prime rib nestled against creamy mashed chive potatoes and dripped with an almost cocoa-like port sauce. This is where the pickled onion rings made an appearance, providing tart little pockets of acid with each bite.
Desserts at Amuse are imaginative, but not as showstopping as their savory counterparts. A deceptively petite round of lemon cheesecake throws a powerful citrus punch, while its ginger-snap crust, blueberries, whipped cream and sprigs of thyme create a symphony of intriguing flavors. Yet the cheesecake itself was too cold throughout, as if it had come straight from the fridge. Was this the antigriddle at work again? I wasn’t sure, but would have preferred it only slightly chilled.
Matecat’s dessert course was simple: sliced mangoes over fresh Maplebrook Farm ricotta, sprinkled with crushed oats. It was cooling and comforting, but nowhere near as impressive as what preceded it.
Adventurous wine drinkers may be underwhelmed by the unimaginative glass list (which includes the pedestrian Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay). For more interesting choices, go for a bottle from the cellar. Be sure to ask for the tavern drinks menu, as well (we weren’t given one on the first visit), which lists the craft beers available. If you’re in the mood for booze, try a saucy maple Manhattan made with Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur and Crown Royal, with two cheerful cherries at the bottom.
There’s so much I still want to try at Amuse: quail panzanella made with grilled peaches; squid-ink pasta with rock shrimp and preserved-lemon crème; a ploughman’s plate with Lazy Lady Farm cheese, pork rillettes, chicken-liver mousse and saucisson. And, of course, whatever new creations Matecat doles out.
At $55 for the four-to-six-course tasting menu and $75 for the six-to-nine-course, with entrées in the $25 to $40 range, Amuse isn’t an everyday place for most Vermonters, including me. But it’s worth socking away your quarters for that really special dinner.