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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Fare for Jacques

Hey, how about Sunday brunch? Here’s an account of a memorable meal. Much has changed (and improved, if possible) at the Sagamore since I wrote this piece in 1987. After going through a couple of changes of format, Trillium, the fanciest of the resort’s half-dozen eateries, has been re-fashioned as La Bella Vita Ristorante, serving fancy Italian grub. And winter doldrums have led them to close the resort during the colder months; you can stay and dine there again after April 27.


In Search of Jacques Pepin's Brunch: 

Trillium at the Sagamore Resort, Bolton Landing (on Lake George), 644-9400.

HE'S NOT TOO LARGE and he’s not too fat and he’s got an accent you could cut with a Sabatier. He’s Jacques Pepin, renowned author of many a book on French cookery, chef extraordinaire. And here he was at the Sagamore to help welcome their new chef.

I don’t think he showed up until late Saturday; I know he was on the cruise ship that carried a press contingent across Lake George that afternoon. But I didn’t know him by sight. That I had struggled into a tuxedo while he sported a kind of pâté-grey sweatshirt only emphasized how little he now needs to work at impressing people.

It wasn’t until the Sunday brunch that Susan and I became really Pepin-conscious. That’s when we decided to discover what M. le Methode piles onto his plate.

See, we knew what he had for Saturday dinner. Executive chef Kevin Graham prepared us a meal the like of which I’ve never had before. We’re not talking cholesterol conscious here. Not when the goose liver pâté mixes the sweetness of butter with the pungent meat. You scooped the pâté out of the hindquarters of a quail, by the way, and tender strips of the fowl were a charming decoration.

But we sat well across the room from the celebrity, catching only an occasional glimpse when he threw back his head with jollity.

Well, why not? The chardonnay was flowing – a Napa valley Grgich Hills ‘84 – and we had many other reasons to feel good. First of all, this is a gorgeous dining room. Good view of the lake, of course (that’s a requirement), but the combination of heliotropes and pinks on the columns and walls is a Campari for the eyes: it awakens the palate.

By the time we sailed through the fennel consommé (with scallop quenelles) and were working on the fish course, a sauté of sweetbreads and lobster with a shrimp glaze, we weren’t too busy looking over in Pepin’s direction any more.

Cucumber-mint sorbet, freshly made and served in bowls of ice, was the palate-cleanser, clearing the way for a good ol’ American sirloin steak (termed, for snooty menu purposes, “Entrecôte of Texas Longhorn”), a deliberate turn in the direction of American tradition that Graham decided to take because, as the native of Manchester, England declared, “You have the best beef in this country.”

We switched to a Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, a hearty red that thrives when accompanying sirloin. And it flowed freely enough that I took practice steps around the table just to be sure I had room for the Port promised at the end of the meal (after the salad of Kentucky bibb, after the dessert of saffron & pistachio ice cream, shortbread, pralines – and creole coffee).

Service doesn’t get more attentive and less obtrusive than this: the Trillium sets a standard any right-thinking restaurant would do well to observe.

Even at brunch the following morning, with a buffet at our disposal, the servers were always near to clear a plate, replace a fork, or fold with a flourish the napkin of a guest gone up for seconds.

We got into the Trillium just as soon as we could, hoping to lure M. Pepin to our table, but we’d made so many friends by this point that it filled before the small man with the big grin swept in with his entourage. And again took a table on the other side of the room for us.

“If we can’t sit with him,” Susan declared, “at least we can see what he eats!”

It was a startling array of foods the staff had waiting, and it wasn’t a moment before Pepin was up, plate in hand, to survey the food stations.

“Very impressive,” he declared, helping himself to nothing. We nimbly followed, but Susan had to make stop at the roast leg of lamb (stuffed with herbs, garlic and flageolets) and insisted I try the roast beef tenderloin Provençal beside it.

The Frenchman disappeared around the fresh fruit into the salads section (beef & broccoli, Oriental, tuna & water chestnuts, many more). I couldn’t tell if he took any of it.

We then were waylaid by the angel hair pasta with pesto cream, and a few vegetables and a croissant was enough to send me back to my table to start on Round One.

“We’ll catch him next time he goes up,” I declared.

My next time up I saw him, seated, far away, chewing on something, obviously enjoying himself, managing to eat, talk, and wave both arms at the same time.

As for me, I got seduced by the waffle iron. Bad enough to see them tumble freshly off the grill; worse to have a choice of maple syrup or whipped cream and strawberries for toppings. So I took some of each. All right, lots of each.

This may explain why I never made it to the omelette station, even though I’m sure at one point that I saw Jacques lurking near the eggs.

Susan meanwhile was sailing through a plate of hot turkey gallantine with oysters and a poached egg served on a tomato crouton with Choron sauce (sort of a Béarnaise with tomato mixed in). And she managed to fit a wedge of waffle amidst it all.

By this time, others at our table were checking out the dessert assortment, an array so spectacular I was forced to make three reconnaissance trips over, sampling the sabayon, the petits fours, the tortes, the cheesecakes . . .

“He’s gone,” Susan whispered, interrupting my sugar orgy. It was true. Jacques & Co. had slipped away, his personal Sunday menu a secret.

I consoled myself with another trip to the dessert table.    

Metroland Magazine, May 15, 1987

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