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Restaurant Latour
Crystal Springs Country Club
Route 94
Hardyston, Sussex County, New Jersey
(973) 827-0548

By The Artful Diner
Special to NJ.Com
July 24, 2006

Note: The new executive chef at Latour is Michael Weisshaupt. The Artful Diner will return for an updated review.

The Longest Meal (with sincere apologies to Cornelius Ryan) began on a less than auspicious note -- the restaurant had mucked up our reservation. The hostess who stands guard at the elevator leading to Latour's second-floor inner sanctum was adamant. Our name was not to be found. Could I possibly be mistaken as to date and time? No. When had the reservation been made? At least one week prior. With whom had I spoken? Not realizing there would be a subsequent examination on the subject, I failed to get the name.

And so it went. And while the hostess was the soul of glacial graciousness and never lost her composure (although I was very close to losing mine), the hairy eyeball she threw in our direction seemed to suggest that she viewed us as less than legitimate gastronomic gatecrashers and was hoping that we would accept the inevitable and leave.

She did, however, toss a bone in our direction... Latour, she pontificated, was fully booked, but she could offer us a table in "The Tavern" just around the corner -- from which emanated the cacophonous clatter of Crystal Springs Country Club's golfers in joyous celebration of their long-awaited arrival at the 19th hole. Not likely, I replied. I somewhat less than patiently explained that we had driven three hours to dine at Latour and were staying at a local B & B. Absolutely true. It was our anniversary. Also true. In point of fact, I did everything but threaten to call my attorney or confess that I was a restaurant reviewer.

She finally journeyed downstairs to confer with the powers-that-be. When she returned, she indicated that an executive decision had been made and that we would be granted admission to the culinary holy of holies... and promptly whisked us up on the elevator, introducing us by name to an illustrious representative of the dining room staff.

Interestingly enough, a scant five minutes after being seated, our server indicated that our reservation had been discovered. Seems restaurant reservations are taken at two different locations -- upstairs when the restaurant is open; downstairs when it is closed -- and, occasionally, never the twain shall meet; which, in this instance, proved to be the case.

A nerve-jangling beginning to any evening at table. But, to paraphrase William Congreve, Latour's ambiance "hath charms to soothe the savage breast." The setting is unabashedly elegant and intimate (with seating for just 45 patrons), the carpeting plush, the woodwork rich cherry, the view spectacular, the white-glove service (literally) impeccable, and the mind-boggling wine list (assembled by John Foy and built upon the considerable collection of proprietor Eugene Mulvihill) nothing short of phenomenal.

All of the above, unfortunately, conspire to make the food that much more disappointing. Is it sub par? Au contraire. In many cases it is very, very good. But given the extraordinary ambiance, extraordinary view, extraordinary service, extraordinary wine list -- and extraordinary tariffs -- your palate expects to be blown away... and it is not. When compared to a restaurant like Nicholas, for example (and a comparison of this nature is precisely to the point), Chef John Benjamin's cuisine simply isn't in the same league. It's not that his presentations are bereft of creativity. But what they do lack, in my opinion, are the subtlety and sophistication, the symphonic interplay of tastes and textures, and the incomparable clarity that make Nicholas Hararay's cookery so marvelously focused and yet so gloriously exciting.

Meanwhile, back at The Longest Meal -- the seven-course "Chef's Degustation" ($85.00 per person; with wine pairings, $135.00 per person, which was our choice on this particular evening), amuse bouche, and mignardises (miniature sweets) -- a four-hour sybaritic sojourn that could very well have stretched on into infinity had we not ignored the mignardises and requested the check. I'm all for leisurely dining; however, when an extended tasting menu is involved, pace is vitally important. It must be expeditious enough to keep your interest from wandering but intentional enough so that you do not feel you are being rushed. If you begin pondering the whereabouts of your next course, the kitchen has dropped the ball. And that is precisely the problem here -- compounded by the fact that the cuisine isn't all that interesting. By meal's end, you feel more exhausted than exhilarated.

But on to the food: The amuse bouche, a seafood wonton, was both doughy and chewy; on the other hand, the "Cornets," a duo of Atlantic salmon with red onion cream and big-eyed tuna tartare with wasabi cream presented in diminutive crispy sesame-flecked cones, was both sensuous and seductive; the Maryland crab cake was nicely sautéed but contained a good deal of filler; the saffron risotto topped with a perfectly seared, marvelously meaty jumbo sea scallop was quite good, but it suffered a terrible indignity at the hands of its wine accompaniment (more on that later).

The highlight of the meal, in my opinion, was the excellent barbequed duck salad. The duck itself was the irresistible consistency of pulled pork, and it was teamed with pristinely fresh arrowleaf spinach, shaved organic red onions, and Amish blue cheese; all were tossed with just the proper amount of shallot vinaigrette. The herb-roasted filet mignon was good but not exceptional. Requested medium rare, it arrived VERY rare, but nicely companioned by perfectly roasted fingerling potatoes and a rich lobster hollandaise.

Concluding notes: Earthy Piedmont Margherita cheese interspersed with quarters of port wine-poached mission fig and molasses-glazed pecans was as attractively presented as it was delicious; but the dessert of blueberry soup was a major disappointment. The island of lemon pound cake floating in the red/blue sea lacked any discernible flavor; the tiara of peach sorbet clashed with the sweetness of the soup; and the inverted cone (the same as the aforementioned "Cornets") filled with a few blueberries captured the eye but did nothing for the palate.

Another problem with the tasting menu was the wine pairings. For starters, all but one -- a so-so 2001 Cabreo La Petra Chardonnay from Tuscany -- hailed from California. Given the depth and breadth of the world-class international wine list (heavy on French offerings, particularly Bordeaux) this was completely unjustified and, in my book, unforgivable. Had management decided to cut corners by putting the sommelier on a budget? One can't help but wonder. The vintages accompanying the "Chef's Degustation" should be the highlight of the evening, not an exercise in oenological penny-pinching.

Additionally, several of the match-ups with individual dishes were ill-chosen. The red wines fared best -- the 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Bonny Doon was superb with the barbequed duck salad, and the 2000 Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon married quite well with the herb-roasted filet -- but the white wine pairings were a complete washout. The aforementioned Tuscan Chardonnay was barely acceptable with the crab cake, but the 2002 Chateau St. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc and the saffron risotto had at each other like riled- up strangers. Interestingly enough, teaming the sauvignon blanc with the crab cake and the chardonnay with the risotto would have been infinitely more pleasing to the palate. And partnering the blueberry soup with the 2004 St. Supery Moscato was clearly the act of sadist, as the wine clashed unmercifully with the dessert's sweet/tart components.

Following dinner, by way of apology for botching our reservation and nearly ruining our anniversary, our server offered us after dinner drinks on the house; which I considered rather poor form, as we had each enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner and then sampled five additional wines (thankfully, not full glasses) paired with the tasting menu. I explained that we were driving and -- although I hold my alcohol quite well -- did not wish to tempt fate. She then indicated that she would comp our espressos ($3.25 a piece) instead. Mighty cheesy, in my opinion. With all due respect, had the restaurant truly desired to make amends for its unmitigated faux pas, what should have been comped were the two glasses of Château Carbonnieux ($22.00 per) that we had enjoyed as preprandial libations. I wasn't looking for a freebie, but I was quite curious as to how Latour would handle the situation. And it seems painfully obvious that the restaurant is infinitely more concerned with keeping a tight rein on the their long green than with customer satisfaction. And in this rarefied atmosphere -- at these rarefied prices ($400.00 with tax and gratuity) -- that definitely leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

After this somewhat less than memorable experience, I wasn't exactly champing at the bit for a return engagement; and I was sorely tempted to either write the establishment off or write it up as is, so to speak. But I felt that, without at least having a go at the à la carte menu, this would have been unfair to the restaurant.

And so, a few days later... Preludes included Yukon gold potato herb gnocchi and grilled vegetable terrine. The former were far from benchmark, exhibiting a mushy rather than that ethereal yet firm-to-the-bite texture so characteristic of the very best of the genre -- those wonderful diminutive dumplings recently sampled at Aaron Philipson's Blue Bottle Café, for example. And the latter was something of a misnomer. While artfully presented on a teardrop-shaped plate with a colorful splash of sugar beet vinaigrette, the terrine consisted of exceedingly rich slabs of Laura Chenel goat cheese interspersed with anorexic layers of grilled vegetables. "Goat cheese terrine" would have been an infinitely more appropriate designation.

Entrées noted on the regular à la carte menu range in price from $58.00 - $70.00, but also include appetizer and dessert. And they are plenteous of portion, exceedingly rich, and not particularly dapper in their demeanor. Indeed, so much so as to be strongly suggestive of bistro offerings. Nothing wrong with bistro fare -- if one is paying bistro prices. Given the fact that Latour would hardly be so accused, one would expect the kitchen's presentations to demonstrte a good deal more finesse.

The pancetta-crusted sautéed tenderloin of veal buttressed by arrowleaf spinach, cipollini onions, "haystack" potatoes, and preserved lemon jus ($63.00) was wonderfully tender and prepared just right. The grilled lamb duo ($58.00) -- herb-roasted lamb loin and tenderloin roulade -- was also quite tender; but it could have been "mystery meat," as it lacked any distinctive lamb flavor. And the eggplant-saffron ratatouille not only suffered from an overdose of that pungent spice but also left an inordinately odd taste in the mouth. Both dishes were not for the faint of appetite. To quote our server: "They don't skimp on things here."

Desserts, like most of the items that preceded them were something of a mixed bag. The warm Valhrona chocolate truffle cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream looked delicate and demur but was cloying enough to set the teeth on edge. The lemon tart garnished with dollops of raspberry sorbet exhibited a nice tang and consistency, but the crust was noticeably soggy.

If I were you, I'd skip dessert and go directly to the cheese course ($14.00), which is excellent. The selections sampled included 23-month-aged cheddar from the local Bobolink Dairy, Montbriac (French double cream bleu), Langa Rocchetta (a double cream goat and sheep's milk cheese from the Piedmont region of Italy), Petit Basque (semi-hard sheep's milk cheese), and Amerelo Da Baixa (raw sheep and goat's milk cheese from Portugal). This was one instance in which the portion sizes were just right, with the accompanying fig quarters and pecans adding a nicely understated touch.

It appears that The Longest Meal has, unfortunately, also spawned The Longest Review. I do apologize. However, given the exceedingly high marks Latour has received from the New Jersey section of the New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, and the Star-Ledger, I felt it was incumbent upon me to state the dissenting opinion as comprehensively as possible.

The bottom line: You will dine well at Latour -- and pay handsomely for the cuisine, the white-glove service, the posh carpeting, and that breathtaking view. But you may, in my opinion, dine significantly better at any one of a number of other Garden State restaurants... and pay a good deal less for the privilege. It's your call.

Cuisine: Contemporary American
Hours: Dinner: Thurs - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY, TUESDAY & WEDNESDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Jackets are encouraged for gentlemen.
Reservations: Required
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; world-class wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Online: crystalgolfresort.com

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