Those who have been reading my blog for some time may know that I’m originally from Long Island; I was raised in a little town called Seaford on the South Shore of Nassau County for most of my life, and my parents still hail from there. And throughout the travels I’ve had so far in life, I’ve learned that Long Island, for the most part, is not a place people usually associate with class, charm, or elegance. It’s unfortunate in many ways, because some of the most wonderful, warmhearted and generous people I’ve ever known are from this little offshoot of New York State. On the other hand, taking in the crowd at Jones Beach on an afternoon in August, or observing a rowdy crowd on the Nautical Mile of Freeport, one can understand why many wouldn’t describe Long Island as, let’s say, refined.
But they clearly have not been to Old Westbury Gardens.
Visiting Old Westbury Gardens is like stepping back in time. Built in the first decade of the 20th century for John Shaffer Phipps (1874-1958), heir to a U.S. Steel fortune, the gardens and structures on the premises are reminiscent of the European estates for which it was modeled. The beautiful sweeping grounds and majestic old house make you feel like you’re in a faraway time and place, but surely not modern day suburban Nassau County.
Walking up to the old house on Saturday afternoon, a shiver of anticipation trilled down my spine; the strong sense that a wonderful night was ahead of me. As the sun began to near the edge of the horizon, the colors of the grounds changed from the bright primaries they had been to deep jewel tones – greens, blues and purples – and the beauty of it all was truly breathtaking.
But I wasn’t at Old Westbury Gardens just to take in the majestic scenery. I was visiting Old Westbury last Saturday evening for their annual Taste of Spring event, which showcases local caterers, restaurants, and wineries that often partner with Old Westbury Gardens in a food tasting for the members of the Gardens. The weather was warm, the lighting perfect, and at six o’clock on the dot, the still, peaceful landscape of the gardens was transformed into an energetic one as the various food purveyors began to unveil and serve their spreads of food and drink. Meandering along the trellis behind the main house with a wine glass in my hand, smelling the various aromas of the delectable food around me while a woman sang soft, romantic songs nearby, I felt as though I had fallen into one of my favorite novels, the Great Gatsby, and on this mid-spring evening Daisy Buchanan might appear any moment. The well clad, well heeled members of Old Westbury Gardens began to graze from table to table, sampling what these caterers had to offer, and I followed suit.
I started off with what seemed like an obvious promising choice: beautifully seared beef tenderloin served atop a crouton with sheen of garlic butter mushroom sauce.
Standing in a patch of sunlight, I enjoyed this little bite, and though it was cooked to perfection and the sauce was rich and creamy, I couldn’t help noticing the lack of proper seasoning. Perhaps my education at ICE so far has tainted my normal perception for salt and pepper, but I craved a more savory dish.
And then I saw it. Claude Cassagnol Caterers had set up a table manned by who I would assume to be Claude Cassagnol, jubilant and instantly likeable in her bright pink chef’s coat. At her table, Claude had put together roasted pork tenderloin, ratatouille in a steaming clay pot, and stick black rice – something I’d never seen before. And then there was this whimsical, mysterious blue fondue pot, which I was unsure about the contents of. As I got closer, though, I heard whisperings of the word ‘snails.’ I ambled up and asked the chef. “Yes, escargot,” she said. Perhaps I hesitated, because then she said, “Go on. I like people who are brazen.”
So brazen I was, taking a little bit of everything. Meandering back over to my sunny patch, I of course tasted the black rice first, since it as a) mysterious and b) carbohydrates. Instantly, I was hooked. This rice had the sticky, chewy texture of sushi rice but with a smokier, nutty flavor, making it distinctly different from anything I had before. I was equally impressed by the escargot atop a slice of baguette; the snail’s texture was smooth and tender, smothered in a creamy herb sauce punctuated by sharp, barely cooked garlic that provided a kick to the palate without actual heat.
Finally, the ratatouille was among the best I’ve had – it was tangy and sweet, with the vegetables starting to break down but retaining a backbone of structure, keeping the dish refined and far from the kindergarten paste of ratatouilles gone wrong. And while the pork tenderloin was underwhelming, it provided a solid base for the vegetables on top. Perhaps it was just less delicious in contrast to the other stars on the plate, because upon learning I wouldn’t finish mine, Adam quickly stole it and it, too, vanished.
Inspired by the finds at Claude’s table, Adam and I quickly ducked into the white tent where several more caterers had set up shop, only to find the entrance clogged with a long line winding back from a table where a tall chef was sautéing scallops amidst a cloud of steam. Scallops being quite the fan favorite nowadays, we waited diligently in the line until it was our turn, then watched as the chef plated a bed of frisee greens and arugula topped with a single scallop and a drizzle of grapefruit vinaigrette and handed it over.
Of course, I went right for the scallop itself. It had a crisp, caramelized crust from being sautéed at length and was cooked to a medium perfection, still firm, moist and shy of flaky at the center. The frisee and arugula salad could have used a bit more dressing, but the freshness and quality of the peppery greens spoke for themselves, and so I could not complain. Another winner of the evening!
After that, it was on to the table for Sterling Affairs, who pulled out all the stops with not one, not two, but three adorably plated canapés. First up was a shredded beef taco in a miniature corn shell, topped with crème fraiche and resting upon a bed of dried yellow corn. Sterling clearly used this event as an opportunity to showcase the creative and striking presentation they would bring to any catered affair, and it made an impact; their table was among the most elegant and attractive. As for the beef taco – I popped it in my mouth in one bite, and immediately proclaimed that it was the best thing I’d had so far! Unlike the other more delicate dishes we had tasted so far, the mini taco packed a punch of intense, mouth-watering south-of-the-border flavor, with a cool refreshing finish from the crème fraiche and a satisfying crunch of the taco shell.
I was eager to sample the rest of Sterling’s dishes, and scooped up a tiny cup of springtime risotto studded with asparagus, bell pepper and cherry tomato. As a lover of all things risotto, I hoped that Sterling’s dish would deliver – and it did. Sterling was able to transform a dish that is quintessentially heavy and satisfying into something light, refreshing and springy. Further, the risotto was cooked to perfection, a feat impressive to anyone who has tried to serve risotto as much as ten minutes after its done cooking, while the springtime veggies remained crisp and fresh.
The last canapé at Sterling’s table was a slice of seared Ahi tuna resting on a curved cracker, topped with fennel and orange slice. Aside from the obvious merit that comes with a perfectly seared and high quality slice of Ahi, the citrus of the orange and bite of the fennel added succulence and pop to this bite.
There was one last winner of the night (and that isn’t to say that this was our last dish tasted, because there were by and far more). At the far end of the tent was yet another chef cooking out in the open for the Old Westbury members, sautéing what appeared to be much more food than just scallops judging by the size of his pan and the quantity of steam it was releasing.
Upon closer inspection, we discovered the chef from Fork and Vine was sautéing shrimp and angel hair pasta in chili oil and red pepper flakes, a dish that was responsible for a delectable aroma filling the tent. Though each plate contained just one shrimp atop a bed of pasta, it was a truly beautiful dish, and we dug right in.
Spicy hot!! As one who’s not normally a huge fan of very spicy food, the instant smack of heat from this dish scared me a bit, and I polished off my Pinot Grigio in an effort to cool down. But as soon as the sear of spice faded, I found myself taking another bite, and another. I simple could not stop eating this dish, and a look at the crowd around me proved I was not the only one. There was something strangely addicting about this chili oil shrimp, and I paid the chef my regards as Adam went for seconds. After that, it was a beeline to the West Porch of the main house, where Lenz Winery and Marquis Wines had set up shop for a tasting of their favorite wines. I tried a crisp, sweet and refreshing Riesling which completely soothed my spice-ravaged palate, while Adam was equally impressed by a light, summery Rosé.
We wandered to a couple more tables after that, but in the wake of four great back-to-back showcases, nothing else wowed us quite as much, and we were okay with that. It seems that at most tasting there are those exceptional dishes that rise to the top, and perhaps it is better that way, as it gives you a greater appreciation for those that stand out.
But just when I thought I’d reached my food quota for the evening, a friend appeared with a handmade chocolate peanut butter bar in her hand, singing its praises and reminding us that there was still dessert. Macarons, cake pops, brownies, cupcakes, and of course, peanut butter bars were scattered all around us in between the food stands that had been our primary focus up until now.
The French macarons were particularly enticing to me – can you believe I’ve never even tried one?! Two separate vendors had provided macarons, trendy as they are, and so I made it my personal mission to have a macaron-off. And to eat these colorful cookies while meandering through the gardens at sunset. Because at Old Westbury Gardens, you can do things like meander through a garden while eating a French macaron. Completely normal.
We grabbed a few other sweets and headed off into the greenery for some peace and quiet and sugar. Listening to both the sound of a babbling brook and the party in the distance, I tried my first macaron – a fleur de sel caramel macaron from Mirabelle restaurant. It was pure heaven, and though the raspberry jam macarons from Elegant Affairs were also very good, this Mirabelle caramel confection knocked them out of the park. Sweet oozy caramel is made for fleur de sel – the salt made the sweetness pop, and the rest was history.
I also took a bite of this, if you can guess what it is:
It’s a red velvet cake pop, with a white chocolate and coconut shell! The best part is, the filling was not just red velvet cake but also cream cheese frosting that was mixed right into the cooked cake. As someone who has made this dessert at home before, I can appreciate how labor intensive and also how unbelievable worth it they are.
Finally, we tucked into that chocolate peanut butter bar that we’d heard so much about. Adam tried it first, and as soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew I had dibs on the other half. And in relishing the smooth chocolate and grainy rich peanut butter, I found that there was no better capstone to this evening of tasting springtime.
After we’d finished our tastes of everything, there was still some time and some sunshine left to enjoy and so another hour was spent taking in just a few of the 200 acres at Old Westbury Gardens. I really can’t reiterate enough how utterly stunning the beauty of these gardens were, or how far I felt from Long Island, or New York, or reality as I walked through them. The secret, hidden gardens, the old wrought iron gates from another time, the trees that looked as old as our country… at the end of the day, I have a hard time choosing between the landscape and the food as a highlight of the night.
Either way, our trip to Old Westbury Gardens was surely the highlight of this first real springtime weekend. I highly recommend to any within a walk, drive, or train ride distance from this historic landmark to plan a visit. Pick a day when the weather is nice, pack a picnic and some wine, and take in the beauty that, if you only knew about it, it just a stone’s throw away.