Update: As of September 2009, unfortunately, Mike is no longer working at the River House. Frankly, I am no longer confident that the food there will be high quality – Dave
It’s not often that a great chef happens by to chat over the garden fence. But that’s what happened a few weeks ago as Dave and I worked out in the veggie plots. Mike Sweetman and his wife and daughter were out for a walk and found us with dirt under our fingernails. We ended up in a long conversation about food, all of us more than a little pleasantly surprised to find serious foodies just three houses apart on the same street!
So when Mike got a job at the River House in Pulaski (north of Syracuse, NY, for you international readers), he started sending us emails detailing the evening’s specials and we just couldn’t resist. We travel for food, and 40 minutes on 81-north isn’t too much of a sacrifice for a meal like the one that awaited us.
River House is smack dab in the middle of little Pulaski, so you can’t miss it even if you try. It’s sitting on a spot that has had one hotel, tavern or restaurant after another, each one burning down in turn. Well, we hope this one doesn’t follow suit! It’s a new building with ample parking, a ramp and stairs up to the front door, and three separate rooms for the public. The first is the bar, a casual place for dining and/or drinking. Then there are two distinct restaurant rooms, one of which you see here – look at the picture over the mantle to see one of the earlier iterations:
We were seated in the next room over (didn’t get a picture of it) and, after looking over the menu, decided to go with the specials that Mike had put together for the evening:
The appetizer: SURF AND TURF- Pan seared tenderloin and scallop medalions – shitake mushroom – white truffle butter:
I don’t quite know how to convey the series of sensations that this dish caused to take place in my mouth. Every bite was a descent into the depths of every flavor Chef Mike could bring out of the simple ingredients. I do not remember ever having had a scallop so expertly prepared, incredibly moist and tender, the caramelization and black pepper contrasting so pleasingly with the tender textures and flavors of the interior. Amazingly, the tenderloin provided the same experience, in its own beefy way. Even the bit of greens was an eye-opener. Heavenly.
Dave ordered the pasta dish, described by Mike thus:
PASTA – Shrimp & Angelhair al’ Arrabbiata – Seared jumbo shrimp – house-made arrabbiata sauce – aglio spinach.
“Arrabbiata sauce is made with whole plum tomatoes, garlic, basil, sugar, olive oil. It has a very faint spice and is sweet and just a nice hint of garlic. I know it may sound a bit strange; arrabbiata means angry. It was made by an old Italian chef who got pissed off one night and threw a pan of sauce that landed with another; someone tried it and loved it. There is nothing angry about how it tastes.”
Again, expert handling of the seafood, and this time a sauce that was certainly not angry-making, but indeed surprising. I don’t like sweet stuff in my dinners, yet in this case the wee bit of sugar was used like a salt or a spice. It just brought out the best in the sauce. Dave was very kind to let me have as much of it as he did.
My own meal was something I haven’t dared to order in decades, literally. Delmonico steak. I have fond memories of one of these from back in the’70’s, and every other one since then has disappointed. Well, not tonight. Mike managed to coax out all those deep, dark layers of flavor that a good Delmonico should deliver.
Delmonico steak – caramelized onions – white truffle butter – wild mushroom risotto:
The caramelized onions were the deepest brown I’d ever seen. I asked Mike about this some time later and he said that those onions are in the pan for over an hour. It takes that long for all the chemical changes to take place. This is dedication to an onion ideal.
The wild mushroom risotto was as good as my own. I don’t make a lot of really outstanding food (most of it is good to pretty good), but I’m picky when it comes to risotto being done right. I make a good one. But this one was every bit as good… okay, it was better. It was sooo good! When I need comfort food, this is what I want.
Most meals fall into one of three categories:
1. It’s pretty bad, but we’re traveling in upstate New York and there’s no good food for fifty miles so we’d better just shut up and eat.
2. It’s a decent meal. You know, most of it is average but one or two items are really good, worth considering a return trip.
3. It’s memorable. Everything is right – the lighting, the service, the food, the beverage selection. One or two items are truly outstanding and the rest is quite good. But mostly, you’re glad you came and will return some day.
But then there are those meals that just build, one course at a time, from one excellent experience to another. The care that the chef or cook takes, the feel that they have for what treatment would make these ingredients really sing, is evident in every single bite.
We’ve had two other experiences like this just in the past few months; once at Amada Restaurant, chef Jose Garces’ place in Philadelphia. We were eating their tapas menu and at one point, overcome with sensation, I simply started weeping. I couldn’t help it! Fue superior a mí. It bested me.
The next time was at the home of a couple we happened to meet at an art opening in Albany. They guided us slowly through course after course, and at one point that feeling of overwhelm started to bubble up. Trying to look like a rational human being, I dabbed daintily at my eyes and admitted that it was all so delicious I was moved to tears.
And wouldn’t you know, it happened again at some point at the River House Restaurant – probably during the steak. You don’t get this with just one great dish. It’s like a symphony – every instrument has to be in tune and every movement has to be played not only expertly but with feeling and even love. If you have never cried at some point while listening to the Ode to Joy, then you might not know what I’m talking about.
But you might give it a shot at the River House. Tell them you read this blog and you want Mike’s suggestions for the evening. I’d be interested to know how it goes for you.
That’s Chef Mike Sweetman. Actually, he’s adamant about introducing himself as co-chef along with co-chef Sam Carpenter, whom he dragged out of the kitchen so we’d know who was responsible for part of the meal.
The RiverHouse Restaurant is at 4818 Salina Street, Pulaski, N.Y. 13142
Phone: (315) 509-4281