Earlier this year, I got an email out of the blue from a chef in who-knows-whereville inviting me to eat at his restaurant. Aqueous who?
Upon further dialogue, Chef Dave Racicot told me that he cooks at Aqueous, a restaurant in the Falling Rock Hotel at the Nemacolin Woods Resort in Farmington, Pennsylvania. Now, some of you may be familiar with that neck of the, well, woods, but I was not. My only familiar reference points were Pittsburgh, which was two hours drive to the north west and Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water house, which was only ten miles from the resort.
Chef Racicot had stumbled across my blog from my posts on eGullet. He noticed that I had eaten at a number of restaurants he admired and, being located in a remote like he is, he lamented that he had little opportunty to travel and eat, nor get much helpful feedback on his food from well-travelled/well-fed diners. The fact that he was cooking in a hotel (a pretty darned nice one at that – more on that later), didn’t help.
So, Racicot asked me if I would be willing to eat at his restaurant and critique his food. He wanted my feedback and advice. While I was flattered by his request and invitation, I hesitated for so many reasons: reminding myself the time-tested saying, “there’s no such thing as a free meal.”
After a number of email exchanges, Racicot convinced me that he was just an ambitious, benevolent, and young (he and I are of the same age) chef who cared a lot about his craft and improving his skills. I finally agreed – with a few conditions…
He set up the reservation which allowed me to enlist under an assumed name. We agreed to keep my personality out of the encounter. I also made it clear that I wouldn’t necessarily blog or write about the meals or experiences, and, if I did, I would be completely honest about the experience – mentioning the comp’ed meal/hotel stay and mentioning the good and the bad. In return, I promised to give my honest opinion about Racicot’s food.
Racicot agreed and I bought plane tickets for my guest and I to Pittsburgh and rented a car. Everything else was on him.
Nemacolin Woods Resort is an amazing haven in the middle of nowhere. Twenty miles from both Maryland and West Virginia, it’s nestled in the Appalachian hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. The resort is privately owned by Joe Hardy, owner of 84 Lumber.
Aqueous Restaurant is located in the resort’s newest hotel – the luxurious Falling Rock. With only 42 rooms, it is the most expensive hotel built to-date (calculating on a room to hotel ratio, working out to be roughly $2M per room). The hotel was designed by a former F.L. Wright student and is a homage to his mentor’s Falling Water. Everything in the hotel was made exclusively for the hotel – from the fixtures down to the upholstry on the chair.
The hotel is also bedecked with specially commissioned glassware blown by the famous artist Dale Chiluly. In fact, two walls of Aqueous restaurant are floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying his vases. (See my flickr account for some pictures).
Chef Racicot prepared two multi-course meals for my guest and me. The first night, we had 12 courses. The second night, we had 11. Both were exquisitely prepared and very inventive. Many of the dishes recalled dishes I had at other restaurants, but in a slightly different forms. Others, Chef Racicot admitted were inspired by other great chefs, like “Cocoa Butter” (pictured above) white chocolate and caviar-inspired amuse bouche from Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray, England.
Highlights from those two meals included “Matsutake,” a scintillating cut of wagyu beef tenderloin in a simple, but rich and flavorful soy-based broth accompanied by tender first-of-the-year matsutake mushrooms from Colorado. “Duck” featured two preparations of duck on a long rectangular financier. At one end of the balance beam, the financier was topped with thinly sliced La Belle duck breast and dark meat topped with huckleberries, candied orange peel and Marcona almonds. At the other end, a small brick of seared La Belle foie gras accompanied by huckleberries and Marcona almonds.
Marcona almonds starred in another dish, and probably the most stunning, presentation-wise. The course was simply called “Almond” and featured a whimsically delicate strand of celery leaves, white anchovies, grapes, dices of cucumber, cruncy croutons and thinly sliced chicken lined at the base of a bowl. An tangy cold almond soup, (think creamy gazpacho) fortified with a little olive oil and bread, was poured into this bowl. The taste was extraordinarily rich, yet refreshing. The photo I snapped of this dish before the soup was poured in the bowl was perfect for the banner headboard for my blog.
The most memorable course for me was the “Ribeye.” Occasionally, if one is lucky, amidst all the complicated pirouetting of food in modern restaurants, one will be treated to a simple familiar dish that just screams perfection at a gut-level. This cap of ribeye was one of them. The meat, was seared on the outside and left mysteriously uniformly medium-rare in the middle. It made me wonder whether the beef had been sous vides-cooked first and then seared very quickly.
The smoked potato puree, the carmelized onions and the rich complex demi glace were all pampering accompaniments.
I *loved* the broccoli puree (which was ALL broccoli in flavor) topped with shaved Idiazabal cheese. This was thoughtfully contrasted by a crescent shard of crispy rye bread – an appreciated textural counterpoint. The shaved stem, meaty and firm, and the almost crispy floret crumbles just heightened the broccoli experience.
Overall, this dish was a 10/10. One of the more memorable dishes over my meals at Aqueous. Meat & potatoes is certainly a familiar format that quiets the caveman cravings in all of us. This just happened to be a modern version that was not only just as satisfying to taste and eat as it was to look at – *perfect* execution, presentation and composition.
It comes as no surprise to me that Chef Racicot will be moving on to bigger and better things. The last time I heard from Racicot, he is slated to become the next Exectuve Chef of the Nemacolin Woods Resort’s flagship restaurant, Lautrec. I’m sure I’ll be hearing about more wonderful things from Chef Racicot in the near future!!