Restaurant Review: Thomas Henkelmann, Greenwich
Poached Florida snapper with jumbo lump crabmeat, asparagus and lobster sauce making its way to a happy diner.
Ensconced in a white wedding cake of a 19th-century Victorian manor house set on three acres of garden and lawn, the Homestead Inn looks right at home in the stately Belle Haven section of Greenwich, but when we enter we leave Greenwich behind. We leave geo-graphy behind. We are in an enchanted place, a place like no other, somewhere between the Black Forest and Samarkand.
One-of-a-kind treasures abound. A few steps from the front door, a mirror framed with gleaming porcupine quills hangs above an amazing tabletop garden of mosses, ferns and lichens, a verdant fairyland and a portent of what lies ahead. Terrariums, popular in the Victorian era, have made a comeback lately. Trust the owners of The Homestead Inn to know. Everywhere we look, old meets new with polish and panache.
Forged iron and bronze sculptures and playfully baroque furnishings evoking Garouste and Bonetti share pride of place with paintings by contemporary artists and sleek bespoke furniture by Dana Robes. Fabrics are rich and rare, colors luscious enough to eat. Pomegranate, kiwi, peach. Bushel baskets of apples in the hall honor the building’s farmhouse history, while a pair of zebra-striped wing chairs in a small sitting room speak of faraway places with exotic-sounding names.
The bar is small, dark, alluring, and the bartender makes a mean negroni. Judy orders a cosmo and pronounces it the best ever. I fall in love with a Domaine Henri Clerc & Fils white Burgundy. The dining room, low-ceilinged and half-timbered with chestnut rafters, looks like Baron von Something’s hunting lodge—set with white linen, fine china and gleaming silverware. Royalty knows how to relax.
I am here incognito to see if chef Thomas Henkelmann’s cooking is still as impressive as it was the last time I came almost 15 years ago. Menus are presented. Where to begin? The list of “hors d’oeuvres warm and cold” includes Hudson Valley duck foie gras three ways—truffled mousse, terrine and seared. Rudely, I immediately claim it for myself. My friends understand, I’ll give them a taste and there are more than enough sumptuous choices to go around. Ed already has his eye on sautéed sweetbreads. A bit of a rarity nowadays, sweetbreads entail a lot of work for the kitchen and call for a sophisticated dining audience. They get it tonight plus a round of applause. Crisp on the outside, velvety within, they are paired with black truffle sauce. A marriage made in heaven. Or Perigord.
Much of the brilliance of Thomas Henkelmann’s menu derives from inspired combinations and variations on a theme. A flaky pastry package with spicy lobster filling finds its soul mate in a mild, creamy leek fondue with saffron-scented lobster broth. My foie gras sings to the accompaniment of rhubarb ragout. A combination of smoked and marinated Atlantic salmon, cucumber, avocado quenelle and yogurt dressing is at once traditional and au courant.
Entrées stand back to let the primary ingredient shine. Order lamb and lamb is what you get—lamb that tastes like lamb, full-flavored and juicy in its thin rim of tasty fat, trimmed but not denuded, lightly strewn with herb tapenade and served with thyme-scented lamb jus.
Filet of halibut, warm and exceptionally moist and tasty in its potato crust, rests on a simple julienne of vegetables with a mildly hot sauce diablo. Roast Long Island duck, gloriously crisp-skinned, tender and flavorful, is blessed but not inundated, with a light, not-too-sweet fresh cranberry sauce. Pommes Boulangère, poached apple, cranberries and baby vegetables come along for the ride but pale beside the splendor of this perfectly roasted bird. Poached Florida red snapper calls for and gets more ornate accoutrements—jumbo lump crabmeat, baby bok choy, gnocchi and champagne sauce in this instance, each carefully chosen to enhance the delicate flavor of the fish.
Desserts are luxe and appealing. Dark, intensely delicious Valrhona chocolate mousse cake with a liquid center is served with pistachio ice cream and candied pistachios, while a light, lovely vacherin made with meringue and vanilla bean ice cream almost floats away. Both are flawlessly made and have been on the menu for a long time. Other options, more seasonal, may vary: A delectable peach tart, a sugar basket of assorted fresh sorbets. All, however, have the sweet intensity of a mannerly flirtation.
The excellence of all of the above and the glowing pleasure our meal provides comes as no surprise. Thomas Henkelmann is a world-class chef. German-born, he began his culinary career at an early age, working in his family’s restaurant near the Alsatian border, and serving a three-year apprenticeship at the Trescher Schwarzwaldhotel on Lake Titisee. Brilliant, talented and rigorously trained in classic French cusine, he’s held prestigious chef positions at haute restaurants in Paris, Geneva and in the U. S., where he was executive chef of Maurice at Le Parker Meridien in New York City and La Panetière in Rye.
At the Homestead Inn chef Henkelmann has won numerous national and international awards, among them Relais & Chateau membership, top ratings from Zagat and The New York Times and four stars from Connecticut Magazine, from this reviewer. For me, it was an easy call then. It still is. In fact, I like this enchanting restaurant even more than I did before. It’s still as elegant and refined as it is opulent (jackets are worn at dinner), but it feels more self-assured—and we feel more relaxed. In short, sophistication and comfort, formality and frivolity are in perfect balance. Thomas Henkelmann calls it gemütlichkeit. The French call it l’art de la table. I call it four stars.
420 Field Point Rd., Greenwich, 203/869-7500, homesteadinn.com
Lunch Tuesday through Friday 12 to 1:30. Dinner Tuesday through Friday 6 to 8, Saturday till 8:45. Closed Sunday and Monday. Open Sundays in December only. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: Appetizers $12.50 to $22, entrées $38 to $45, desserts $13.50 to $14.50.
Restaurant Review: Thomas Henkelmann, Greenwich