I didn't order the tuna at the Restaurant at the Cheshire. I didn't order the smoked salmon, either. I didn't order the pork-belly appetizer, the charcuterie sampler or the apple pie with salted caramel ice cream. I didn't order the tiny plate of fat chocolate truffles. Each arrived at my table unbidden, a gift from the kitchen.
Had the staff identified me as a restaurant critic? Um, yeah. Did these "gifts" sway my opinion? Well, I probably would have ordered most of these dishes over the course of my visits, and thanks to my expense account, everything I eat on the job is a sort of gift. If anything, the attention embarrassed me.
I don't think your experience at the Restaurant will differ all that much from mine, though. (Except for the free food. Sorry.) The staff desperately wants you to have a memorable night. Managers patrol the dining room constantly. The general manager hands you his business card and offers you a tour. As you linger over the dessert menu, your server or the beverage director — or both — informs you that this evening they have decanted a very special 35-year-old tawny port. Décor, menu, service: The Restaurant at Cheshire has calibrated every aspect of itself to impress diners as, well, a capital-R Restaurant.
Slideshow: Inside the Restaurant at the Cheshire
The Restaurant is the flagship dining destination for Lodging Hospitality Management's multimillion-dollar renovation of the Cheshire hotel. The property also features Basso, a gastropub; the Market at the Cheshire, a deli, bakery and gourmet grocery; and the good old Fox & Hounds Tavern. With so much activity on the Cheshire grounds, you can't park on the hotel lot; you must valet. I don't object in theory to having to valet, but the fact that the service isn't complimentary, but $4 (plus tip) strikes me as petty. Or you can park along Clayton Avenue for free, as I did, on principle, though you risk getting flattened while crossing the busy street.
You enter the Restaurant through its small, sleek bar. An impressive glass wine tower separates the area from the main dining room — though dining hall is the more appropriate term, given its high, arched ceiling, dark, dark wood and crackling wood-burning fireplace. You would call the second dining room large in any other context; here, though, with a lower ceiling and dimmer lights, it feels downright cozy. Along one side of this room, lit up like a stage, is the open kitchen.
When the Restaurant opened in November, Wil Fernandez-Cruz was the chef, and his wife Lisa was the pastry chef. He departed in January; she left a few weeks later. Rex Hale now leads the kitchen. Hale also serves as executive chef of Three Sixty downtown, another Lodging Hospitality Management venture, and his lengthy résumé includes restaurants in California, South Africa and the British Virgin Islands.
Hale's menu at the Restaurant addresses both the Cheshire's heritage and more contemporary trends. So you can tear into a Flintstonian hunk of blood-red prime rib, served with clotted horseradish cream and, on the side, an airy Yorkshire pudding (this from the section of the menu titled "Throw Backs"). Or you can nod with earnest enthusiasm as your server describes the grass-fed, locally sourced New York strip steak. Both are very good cuts of meat, though I preferred the more nuanced flavors of the wood-grilled strip.
On a dish-by-dish basis, the kitchen gets it nearly all right. An ahi tuna appetizer (the first of my many "gifts") decorates thinly sliced strips of raw fish with black olives, blood orange, Fresno chiles and cilantro. A pork-belly starter, smoked and then seared crisp to order, amps up the meat's unctuous charms with thick, creamy grits; matchsticks of green apple and pickled red onions provide the needed contrasts in texture and flavor.
Short ribs braised in red wine, another of the "Throw Back" entrées, are tender and deeply flavorful. A dusting of black pepper sparks the crisp skin and luscious fat of spit-roasted duck. An order of smoked beef brisket brings a large piece of meat — dauntingly so for those of us who have chewed and chewed our way through this cut too often before. Yet this brisket yields to a fork as easily as the finest barbecue does.
Only one dish flopped entirely: seared scallops with an apple-cider glaze and a strange bacon-cabbage slaw. The outside of the scallops hadn't browned as deeply as they should have, and the dish as a whole imparted an off-putting astringent note.
Most dishes come with utterly appropriate accompaniments: the strip steak with gratin potatoes, roasted mushrooms and wilted spinach; the brisket with horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes; the duck over a butternut-squash purée. Indeed, the kitchen was so consistently sensible that when a server brought me a dish of black bass over...grits?...in a pinot-noir reduction, I wondered if one cook hadn't communicated properly with another. But, no, that was the intention — and it was my favorite dish here. The fish was beautiful, and the grits lent an almost umami-like quality to its mild flavor.
I keep thinking about this black bass, actually. It was the one dish at the Restaurant that made me a bit uncomfortable. It made me think. Yes, it was another of the kitchen's "gifts," but in this case it wasn't a free appetizer or dessert; the chef sent it out between my salad and main dish, and I can't help but think it excited him, too.
The Restaurant, to put it more bluntly, is utterly safe. It doesn't allow for much creativity on the chef's part. It aims squarely for crowd-pleasing comforts — top-dollar comforts to be sure, but comforts nonetheless. Which doesn't mean it isn't delicious. That apple pie with so-overdone-it-might-be-hip-again salted-caramel ice cream? We scraped up every last flake of crust. A chocolate soufflé cake with sun-dried-cherry ice cream? Hoovered it.
The wine list features more than 1,700 bottles, though the back of the menu includes a more manageable list as well as a selection of wines by the glass. The beer list, on the other hand, is an afterthought: seven brews, a cider and Bud Light. The cocktail program is resolutely old school.
Unsurprisingly, given the number of manager types stalking about, service is excellent. When I ordered the scallops on a Friday, the server made sure to point out the bacon in the dish, as it was Lent. When a miscommunication resulted in the negroni I ordered manifesting itself as a French 75, the server and the bar made it right. Did you valet? The servers take your ticket at meal's end so your car will be ready for you.
You will leave feeling sated and coddled, even if the kitchen hasn't plied you with free bites. You do have to order for yourself, but you won't have to think.
Slideshow: Inside the Restaurant at the Cheshire