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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Pierce’s 1894 in 1991

From the Dining Room Dept.: In its heyday, Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant drew customers not from New York’s Finger Lakes wine country but also the Watkins Glen racetrack. It began in 1892 when Crawford Pierce won the Elmira property in a lottery, which cost him $200. He opened a hat factory. Soon after, the Double Decker Cigar Factory opened upstairs. By 1894 there was a lunchroom in operation. Guest rooms were added. A bowling alley went in. But it was the restaurant that soon came to dominate. At a dinner there in 1984, what was then the world’s most expensive bottle of wine – an 1806 vintage valued at $28,000 – was shared among 22 guests. Sadly, the business closed in 2008 and the many antiques inside were auctioned off. Here’s my account of a wine dinner I enjoyed there in 1991.


“YOU DON'T TOAST the birth of a child with a scotch,” said New York Wine and Grape Foundation president Jim Tresize in his welcoming speech, “and Jesus didn't turn water into gin. Wine is special.”

The dining room at Pierce's.
Wine, particularly New York’s wine, was celebrated in its proper context as Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant presented its annual barrel dinner last month at an elegant eatery just south of the Finger Lakes, home to many of the state’s wineries.

It’s not as much of a barrel dinner as was the case a decade ago; that is, not as many unreleased vintages are being offered for consideration. But it’s still an excellent opportunity to sample and compare recently-released selections while enjoying the art of pairing those wines to splendidly prepared food.

Pierce’s has been run by the same family since it opened at the end of the last century and the family is still very much involved. Joe Pierce is the dynamo currently charged with maintaining the high standards that have given the restaurant a superb reputation. He’s a brusque but affable fellow who does what surprisingly few others in the business appreciate: support the local winemakers.

New York’s wine is good enough that there’s no need to provide anything else on the list, and this dinner proved as well that the Finger Lakes output alone can satisfy your complete wine requirements. The snobs will cry foul, of course, but let them – they’re the ones who drive the prices of imported stuff way up anyway.

The restaurant is gorgeous, with an abundance of turn-of-the-century charm. Each of them many rooms has a decorative theme, with lots of charming collectibles (bottles, prints, plates and so on). The 125 dinner guests began the evening sampling a dozen wines with an accompanying display of hors d’oeuvres in various downstairs rooms.

Formal service took place upstairs in the 1894 Room, where each place was set with the first course: tuna timbale “forty-ninth state,” a fanciful way of signifying the Alaskan king crab used as the filling inside a translucent wrap of raw tuna, finished with a dab of seasoned mayonnaise.

It’s important to understand that the menu – and we’ve got eight courses to go – was designed around the wines, so the components of this dish were chosen to complement the two Rieslings poured with this course. Although this grape has a reputation for sweet stylings, both the 1990 Glenora (Dry Riesling) and the 1989 Lakewood had fairly dry finishes that stood up well to the chewy flavors of tuna and crab. And it was a nice way to wake up the palate for the items to come.

Two more Rieslings and a Gewurztraminer were next, with snappier flavors in the wines to balance the punch of gorgonzola and spinach wrapped in puff pastry. These were sweeter wines, with the Great Western Gewurztraminer an especially nice match because of its complicated array of flavors.

My favorite course description was “Young Chicken, Peaceful Garden,” which provided a very uncomplicated preparation of chicken breast and asparagus for two elaborate wines: 1989 Chardonnays from Hermann Wiemer and NewLand. We sat with Andy and Nancy Burdick, the owners and winemakers at NewLand, who confessed to a certain amount of trepidation at seeing their product – offspring, really – put to this gastronomic test. It was a lovely match. In order to showcase these wines effectively, the chef kept the seasonings and sauce well muted.

That’s not the only approach, of course. A complex wine can go up against a hearty meal, and Peppered Pork Loin with Rosemary Rub had a crackle that stayed in the mouth. Hermann Wiemer’s 1990 Chardonnay Reserve (this was a barrel sample) and a Chardonnay Reserve from Wagner Vineyards were its companions, and you could taste the competition as the flavor components from the food danced with the wines’ various flavors. A nice dramatic progression, too, like a classical suite of dances in which a stately opening is followed by minuet, andante and a rousing allegro.

Intermission. The guests were cleared from the room, sent back downstairs to line up for a freshly-made grapefruit granite, an out-of-this-world palate cleanser. The questions were similar to those between the acts of a good play: How did you like it so far? and Do you think he’ll top himself in Act Two?

Chef George Schimert was introduced when we reconvened upstairs. He’s a Buffalo native who worked at Pierce’s in the late ’70s before traveling to Baltimore and San Francisco, where he made a considerable reputation at Starr’s Restaurant. He’s been back in Elmira for two years now and the dinners, I’m assured (this was my first), are better than ever.

Schimert is easygoing, soft-spoken – a contrast to blustery Joe – and he described his menu design with an offhand “here’s how it happened, folks” manner. He makes it sound easy.

It’s not. “Sweet 100 Lobster and Friend” was a compote of fresh lobster meat and sweetbreads, soft-textured meats that were cooked to perfection and served with three sparkling wines for an amazing texture contrast. Although the French try to stake a proprietary interest in sparkling wine (and lobster and sweetbreads), the champagnes of Chateau Frank, Barrington Cellars and Glenora are certainly on a par with anything imported (which is why I’ll even be arrogant enough to call them champagnes).

Although it would be a tough call to name a favorite course, I was astonished by the poached Norwegian salmon with trout cream. I’ve been sampling a lot of seafood in the past few weeks, but this was so fresh I swear I saw it begin to head upstream. Disregarding hoary wine and food myths, it was paired with three reds: NewLand’s 1989 Pinot Noir, a 1988 Palmer Merlot and Hunt Country’s Classic Red (a mix of hybrids). New York has lagged in red wine production until very recently, but these and the Cabernets in the next course were another delicious surprise.

The formal meal finished with a saddle of lamb stuffed with lamb sausage, a hearty red meat for a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. Willy Frank (whose father, Konstantin, helped open up New York for vinifera grape growing and wine production) and Doug Knapp were the winemakers.

Wagner Vineyards’ 1989 Ravat, a sweet “ice wine” with a honeylike complexion and a big, happy presence won the 1991 Governor’s Cup at the recent New York Wine Classic. It was the perfect finish both for the meal and for a the local winery tour. Schimert and company set up a Viennese table crowded with pastries in a downstairs room which a groaning crowd nevertheless managed to sample and sample and sample again.

Dinner for two, everything included, was $250. Call or write Pierce’s if you’d like to receive an invitation for next year’s event.

Twelfth Annual New York State Wine Dinner at Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant, 228 Oakwood Avenue, Elmira Heights, 607-734-2022. Open daily from 11:30 AM, Saturdays from 4 PM. Closed Mondays. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 18 April 1991


Unknown said...

My father , John A. slater painted the portrait of Joe Pierce that hung in the enterance as you walked in the restaurant in its last 5 or 10 years.... I loved that place

Arnie Slater

Unknown said...

My wife and I went to several of the wine dinners, we knew Joe Pierce Jr. fairly well. They were quite the event. If you listened, you would learn a lot, as there were always some Finger Lakes winemakers in attendance.

TK Fudge said...

I know I'm late to the party but have nothing but fond memories of working at Pierce's in the mid 70's when papa Joe and Mrs. Pierce ran the place like a fine tuned instrument. I was thrilled to get to know Little Joe, as he was referred to during my time working there with my Aunt Reah. Little Joe took me to Hesselsons Sporting Goods in downtown Elmira heights when I turned 16 to help me pick out a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun before my first year of deer hunting. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to Mr. Pierce's home where they held a wide eyed summer party including providing dinner after digging a deep hole to fill with individually wrapped seafoods and meats for everyone while we played football in the long front lawn waiting for supper. I was already playing football in 7th & 8th grades when I was lined up against Little Joe and laid an old style body block on him at the knees causing him to tumbled over me to the ground. The excitement of knocking him down overtook the considerable pain I endured through my left rib cage but there was no way I was going to show him after he got up, patted me on the head and said "Fudge, where did that come from", you laid me out. Little Joe taught me how a gentleman shakes ones hand and would scold me every time I went in with the cool handshake of the day. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for Pierce's and learn how the upper level of local society carried themselves. So many Sundays bussing tables in the Bar dining area where the drinking was considerable after guests left church and arrived for lunch. Craigy was just as amazing and at my age I thought there wasn't another lady more beautiful than her and never forgot her wonderful personality and continued laughter while making rounds to the regular's tables. Now at 61 years old I can honestly say Little Joe and Craigy made a wonderful impression on me that I will never forget. Then there was Higgy, a crazy stoned chef but knew what he was doing while working the line. What a fabulous memory to be cherished forever. If either Little Joe or Craigy see this please pat yourselves on the back and know you made an indelible impression on a young teenager without focus who turned out pretty well.
With best regards,
TK Fudge, St Louis, MO

Unknown said...

Started going there in the late 80's and thru the 90's until it closed. I knew Joe well enough to see the market for fine dining in Elmira was going the way of the dodo bird.
A real loss, we went to a number of special dinners, it was all good.