Blenheim – First Bite
Blenheim is not a place you want to be on a cold winter’s night. (At least not until they fix the heat!) On the night I dined there, it was nearly as cold inside as it was outside. (A frigid 16 degrees to be exact.) So dress accordingly and throw back a few cocktails to stay warm. Named after an 150-acre farm called Blenheim Hill in the Catskills, Blenheim makes its own dairy and grows its own pigs, lamb, and beef right upstate; come spring, they’ll be a whole lot of homegrown produce. The owners, Morten Sohlberg and Min Ye, are so serious about farming, they split their time between the farm and their new restaurant in the West Village, where Ryan Tate oversees the kitchen.
I’m a restaurant junkie, but I somehow let TriBeca pop up, Le Restaurant, slip through the cracks. It was there where Ryan Tate first made a name for himself, and even earned a Michelin star for his good-looking American food served in a basement just three nights a week. But before I knew it, Le Restaurant closed and Ryan Tate fell off the radar.
That is, until just recently when he resurfaced at Blenheim after the opening chef, Justin Hilbert, made a sudden exit only weeks after opening. Blenheim is tucked inside a slim corner space, just across the street from Cafe Cluny in a fashionable part of town. The dining room itself is simple with multi-colored wood beams lining one wall and a quaint, white marble-topped bar with a smattering of comfy stools for dining and drinking along the other. At the rear, there’s a glassed-in private room, where you can get a good glimpse of the kitchen, and the back wall is adorned with gardening tools, the likes of a rake, clippers and a hoe for pastoral effect. It’s totally quaint and cute, albeit a little empty.
Which made me perplexed why they sat everyone right next to each other when they could’ve scattered us around the dining room for more intimate conversation. But no matter: I’m a restaurant girl, meaning I’m all about the food, so let’s get to it. I rarely write a negative review. Instead, I usually take a beat, consider it a lost meal and move on to find a better restaurant. But dinner at Blenheim was so befuddling that, well, I can’t resist, mostly because there were so much buzz surrounding it, and a few, very good reviews that lead me to eat there in the first place.
Let’s start with the Chicken Tacos, which were literally Barbie doll-sized tacos, or as another dining companion put it, “They look like dog treats.” Each soft taco is topped with an oddball and utterly bland combination of braised chicken, celery root and grated egg that tasted like nothing at all. Then came a canape of bare naked Charred Scallions strewn on a plate, served room temperature, and sided by a bowl of pecorino cream sauce, which I assume was to be poured over the top, as if the kitchen didn’t have the time and thought you should assemble the dish yourself. The menu is filled with curious combinations, like Poached Lobster Tail (also served room temperature), partnered with Artichokes and Satsuma Tangerines whose sweetness overtook the poor crustacean, and tepid Crab Carrot Bisque capped off with yogurt and cumin.
In fact, nothing on the menu arrived warm. Not the Spaghetti Squash “Carbonara,” which I may have taken too literally. But when someone writes carbonara (albeit in quotes), you expect something toasty and comforting; bound by cheese, eggs, pepper, & pancetta… not a frigid mound of squash with a slab of pork belly and slow-cooked egg strewn over the top. And why in the world was the Sweet Potato Gnocchi cold? What a shame because it actually would’ve been a good bowl of pasta — itty bitty gnocchi arranged around a lemony puddle of cream and sprinkled with smoked pumpkin seeds — but pasta on a winter’s night should be bone-warming; the kind of thing you want to snuggle up to.
But perhaps my biggest issue with Blenheim is with the main courses. “Lamb should never be a circle,” a friend griped as her entree arrived. She had a point. Why was her shoulder of Blenheim farm-raised lamb molded into a weird (and yes, cold) pate of sorts, alongside caramelized sunchokes and black garlic. Or how about the duck? A breast served on a bed of wild rice porridge with wild berries, and duck molded into a circle. Really, the only entree worth ordering is the Roasted Cod anointed with a Spinach Jus on a pedestal of Blue Potato Puree. “Its all like a cold 80’s flashback,” another friend commented, ruminating over the foams and frothy reductions, like a frothy gruyere broth in a composition of Cauliflower Custard dabbed with Trout Roe and Garlic Chips – ironically, the one dish I actually liked.
While I could’ve cut my losses and skipped dessert, I was determined to find a silver lining at Blenheim because it’s hard to believe Ryan Tate’s success at Le Restaurant was a fluke. But after eating the Smoked Pear Tartine, I’m at a loss. Don’t get me wrong: I’m loving the smoked trend right now. Smoked butter, smoked bread, smoked eggs, sign me up. But these sliced pears were smoked to a point of no return. I could taste nothing else for the rest of the evening. Thankfully, I had spooned out a few bites of a fine Blood Orange Mousse with a Vanilla Dacquoise before I beelined it over to that fateful tartine.
And while I’m not one to hate on a restaurant, I can’t find much to like about Blenheim other than their passionate farm to table play. Dinner at Blenheim was many things, mostly weird, which isn’t something I look for in a restaurant. Hopefully, they can get their act together by springtime, so we can take advantage of all of the wonderful fresh produce they’re growing upstate.