July 7, 1977 | Vintage Insatiable
A Celebration of Amateurs
Americans tool along the bicarbonate blacktop crisscrossing our land of mythic bounty risking insult and assassination with every grilled-cheese sandwich. No wonder the grouch is tamed on finding in some bucolic corner a restaurant as ambitious as The Quilted Giraffe in upstate New Paltz.
Nestled into Victorian clapboard on a quiet village path, the Quilted Giraffe is a celebration of amateurs -- vivid testimony that amateur in its sense of "loving" can infuse the mere act of nutrition with sensory adventure. True, amateur passion often lurches over the edge into silliness. Here it's a gibberish of giraffes. They come patchwork on the window shades, frolicking across banquettes, quilted in portraits, spindly as plastic swizzle sticks, and even inflated four feet tall in the bathtub in the powder room…almost too much, but somehow not quite. Amateur means a tart lemon ice between hors d'oeuvre end entrée -- and excess that makes the Francophile purist snicker, but the customers love it. And amateur often provokes feverish invention: the Quilted Giraffe's duck with bananas sweet as candied apples, its boned breast of chicken stuffed with quail eggs and cognac-marinated grapes in a grape-studded cream sauce that might be ghastly and might be wonderful. I can't say. It just went on the newest menu.
The house's loyal regulars who journey down from Kingston and Woodstock, over from Poughkeepsie, or up for lunch on the way north from New York adore such loving excess perhaps even more than they do sedate classics. And they bask in the luxury of sensitive lighting, fresh daisies, giant goblets, the sophistication of the wine list, Chopin by a pianist -- live -- upstairs, and deft service by graceful young men with obvious pride in their venture. On one earlier visit we gently informed the waiter that "navets" on the menu should be translated "turnips." He summoned the "house expert in French," a charming young Irishman. "I'm sure 'olives' is correct," he said, smiling indulgently, finally agreeing that he might consult further.
Chefs have come and gone, but lawyer-owner-cuisinary amateur Barry Wine has been taking courses down the road at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. And the menu reflects his passion: voluptuous desserts, complicated entrées, ambitious reaches, occasional misunderstandings.
The daisies were a trifle weary one recent evening, but the welcome was warm, the house crowded and electric with anticipation, the country music too loud over our heads. A complaint brought an apology -- "The pianist is late; she got lost in Beethoven" -- and the volume was instantly lowered. A small wooden board arrived with butter in a ramekin and spectacular bread -- a crusty baguette hot from the oven. The $16.50 prix-fixe dinner includes hors d'oeuvre, entrée, salad, dessert, and coffee. We'd ordered a soup á la carte as well-- creamy, rich cold asparagus with parsley flecks and a crisp of raw asparagus in a giant balloon goblet.
Pâtés maison -- served slightly too cold -- tonight meant a subtle and delicious kidney-studded sweetbread terrine and an end of goose terrine overwhelmed by its smoky pork wrap, with a garnish of gherkins. An hors d'oeuvre sampler included minced veal in a doughy pastry wrap, crunchy red cabbage vinaigrette, a rubbery morsel of fish, and beautiful melon and strawberries -- splendidly ripe but somehow wrong in this company. Pause for the grainy lemon-ice "intermezzo." Veal Oscar was fork-tender, with delicate crabmeat in a béarnaise sauce that a perfectionist might find overwhelming. I suppose a serious mouth should not have ordered duckling, "with bananas, banana brandy, and light caramelized banana sauce." But I love duck. And I love bananas. It didn't work. And in this world of overcooked vegetables, I hate to complain, but these were a crunch too crunchy for me. Still, the '71 Rausan Segla ($17) was growing mellow, and the good cheer and coddling blurred such missteps.
"That's spinach and arugula in the salad," our host boasted. And when we failed to find a single sprig of arugula among the mandarin oranges in a lemony sour-cream dressing, he sent over a separate bowl of the pungent green. From a siren lure of desserts we choose homemade brandy-alexander ice cream and something called French silk, a creamy chocolate pie with a crunch of toasted coconut and a rosette of whipped cream. And French roast coffee, poured cup after cup. With one aperitif, a $7.50 half bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé, the red wine, and a cognac, dinner for two, with tip, came to $70-- for all its flaws, a fine evening, with its sense of style and pride and beauty.
Good friends who have loved the Quilted Giraffe through ups and downs report that an even more recent visit was near perfection. I realize they are less demanding than I. But so is almost everyone else I know. Now the latest chef has left. Barry Wine is running the kitchen himself with a handful of culinary students. He is serving special cuisine minceur dinners on summer Thursdays with, for an optional $11, three wines-- '73 Bâtard-Montrachet, '71 Rausan Segla ("It's like licking velvet," he says), and a '67 Château d'Yquem. So if the Quilted Giraffe is not worth a four-hour round trip from Manhattan, it easily rates an hour's detour. Spare yourself the bicarb-black-top blues. Find an oasis of delicious excess and loving care.
3 Academy Street, New Paltz, New York (914 255-9801)