We’ve had some amazing meals in 2011. Hell, we even visited Italy, Greece and Turkey and thought there was no way we’d top those meals for a long time, let alone in the same year. Then we were invited to the Athenaeum Hotel‘s Farm to Table Dinner last Saturday by Chef Ross Warhol as a thank you for asking him to participate in a Buffalo Foodie article (which he did an excellent job with). I was extremely excited to get the invitation, I haven’t been to the Chautauqua Institute since I was 12 years old and I have very fond memories of the place. It didn’t hurt that I was going to have a 7 course meal from a chef who I just recently praised for training at the finest restaurants in the world. You could say our expectations for this meal were very high from the start.
The following is my attempt to recap one of the best meals I’ve ever had…I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to do it justice. What I suggest is that you take the ~75 minute drive to the Chautauqua Institute and have a meal from Ross Warhol at the Hotel, he’ll be working there into October. If you haven’t read his foodie article (do it already!), Ross has worked at literally the finest kitchens in the world and wants to bring what he’s learned back to Western New York.
The whole event really started as soon as we walked out of our car; the front of the Athenaeum Hotel is breathtaking. We hung out on the large front porch waiting for our meal to start and were able to sit on rocking chairs looking out at Chautauqua Lake and pretended for a while that we were on a southern plantation. The hotel is gorgeous and really takes you back in time. All of the ingredients for the meal were sourced from farms and shops that were all within ~60 miles of the hotel (Ross and Sous Chef Alex Gray even planted a small garden on the roof that they used produce from).
As we were sitting on the porch we enjoyed a couple hors d’oeuvres that were being handed out by the staff. We tried mini grass-fed beef sliders (pictured in gallery) that were on a delicious croissant like roll and topped with tiny sweet tomatoes and a small dab of bone marrow mayonnaise. They also were handing out small potato chips with a blue cheese/french onion dip on each chip (not pictured) and these wonderful pieces of bread (forget the official name, pictured in gallery) that were topped with local grapes and some creamy goat cheese.
After relaxing on the porch for an hour enjoying our drinks and making Family Guy references we finally got seated at our table. The room had several large tables (it turns out there was a wedding celebration going on) and we were seated with 6 very nice people. As we looked over the menu we noticed that every course was paired with either a local wine or a beer from Southern Tier. Alli and I knew this was going to be a delicious meal but also an incredibly filling meal.
The first course was Split Pea Soup (pictured in gallery) with pieces of Cured Ham from Nelson Farms. The soup was pureed and had a lovely creamy texture and the pieces of ham added a salty/savory kick. Alli, who isn’t the biggest fan of peas in general, really loved the soup and we devoured out entire bowls. It was a fantastic way to start the meal. The second course was a Farmers Panzanella Salad (pictured above); if you are an egg fan this was the course for you. A piece of multigrain bread from Buffalo’s own Five Points Bakery had a hole cut in the middle and a Hen Egg from Green Heron Growers was poured in and then cooked on a flat stove. Yes, it was as awesome you’re imagining. The bread served it’s purpose of soaking up the runny yolk and the freshly made ricotta cheese just tied everything together. I would eat that course for breakfast every day if I could.
The third course took us into the “entree” section of the meal. Each of the following three plates had a meat and it’s also where I started to hit the food-wall. What you see above is a Chicken Breast from Green Heron that was actually stuffed with Sage Chicken Sausage (made by the chefs) and placed on top of Melted Cabbage and Freeman Homestead Bacon Jam. The skin on the chicken was crispy and fantastic, and biting into the juicy chicken only to find sausage was a fun experience in itself. With all due respect to The Roaming Buffalo and their lovely bacon jam, this stuff was divine and had me googling Freeman’s website to see how close I lived to the farm and if I could order some. More like a pulled pork, this bacon had been cooked so long that it was transformed into a sweet yet savory spreadable meat paste; I tried to include every some in every bite.
The following course was a Lamb Meatball (pictured in gallery) that was on top of homemade fettuccine and shiitake mushrooms. The mushroom’s had a strong meaty taste that I couldn’t shake. Normally I’m not a big fan of mushrooms but the flavor of these were intense. The fifth course was Braised Beef Short Ribs (pictured in gallery) over mashed potatoes and topped with a spicy/tangy Romesco Sauce and Micro Carrots that tasted like butter. The meat was, of course, perfectly tender and full of flavor and while we were incredibly full at this point, it was too delicious to not eat.
Finally it was time for dessert. The sixth course could be considered a dessert or a palate cleanser. Titled “Just Peachy” (pictured in gallery) it was exactly that, a locally grown peach that had been picked at the perfect time so that it was juicy, soft and with the most intense flavor. Honestly, it was the best peach I may have ever had. Somehow, even though the juice was dripping everywhere, I managed to eat mine without getting it all over my shirt. Considering we had 5 courses of food that was crafted by experts it was neat to have a meal that was as bare bones as just a peach on a plate. Sometimes the best food is the simplest.
The seventh and final course (thank god because we were going to blow up) was an Upside Down Plum Cake topped with homemade Sweet Corn Ice Cream. The cake was incredibly tart-y while also very sweet but the ice cream is what I walked away thinking about. You would never assume the worlds of corn and ice cream would collide and create anything tasty but here I am saying it was one of the best things I ate that night. When I bit into the ice cream it had just a subtle but clear flavor of corn and somehow it worked wonderfully.
I’m not a huge wine buff but the beer pairings matched wonderfully with each course. It’s hard to mess up beer and food and considering the high quality of both (I’m a big fan of Southern Tier) it would be hard to not go together. Even Alli was shocked by a few sips of Southern Tier’s Porter that she actually enjoyed a little. Throughout the meal they had a slide show running that displayed some of the story behind the meals, where the food came from and Ross and Alex preparing it. Near the end of the meal they connected a video camera to the projector and showed us actual footage of the chefs preparing the meal in the back (which is how I learned about the bread/egg process).
I can’t say thank you enough to Chef Ross for inviting us to this meal, we don’t normally get to eat like this and every part of the meal experience was awesome. The Chautauqua Institute is gorgeous and really isn’t that far of a drive from Buffalo so it was a nice way to spend a Saturday evening. And Alli and I totally got a kick with the whole fine dining experience with “servers putting the food in front of all the diners at the same time” thing. Realizing how many amazing farms are within driving distance is really cool and the quality of the ingredients for each course was really amazing. I went into this meal wondering if Ross was going to use any of the molecular gastronomy tricks he has learned in his travels (he didn’t), but he still wowed me with his ability to cook with really wonderful yet almost simple ingredients. I’m not positive what Ross has planned for his immediate future but if you can find a way to sit yourself at one of his tables, I suggest you do that sooner then later.
Make sure you are following the Athenaeum Hotel on twitter or facebook and keep up to date with more events that are coming up, they are looking to expand their culinary calender and I can’t wait to go back.