While the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is just 15 minutes down the road, it feels like a world away from Vassar and the Deece. The campus has a distinctly food-focused design, captured in little details like the pedestrian crossing signs featuring chef hats or the fish sculpture constructed entirely of dining utensils. Students and visitors alike amble amid CIA classrooms and restaurants.
While the grand buildings and bustling environment of the CIA certainly make an impression, the real highlight is the food. Our dining experience at American Bounty—one of eight options at the CIA—allowed us to sample the culinary creations of the CIA and absorb the restaurant’s earthy, yet sophisticated atmosphere.
Our gastronomic adventure began as we perused the menu while nibbling on complimentary bread. Served in individual pans, the golden-brown brioche buns were a delightful pillow of buttery goodness that whetted our appetites for the dishes to come.
For appetizers, we ordered a delectable assortment of dishes: smoked trout, local baby greens, crab and scallop cannelloni and baby kale salad. Of the four dishes, the smoked trout burst with the most flavor. Surrounded by a ring of kale pureé dotted with woody orange and yellow caviar, the intense, smoky trout paired perfectly with the other mild ingredients.
The salads were sparse and disappointing for a farm-to-table restaurant. The salad with local baby greens blazed with color—red lettuce, yellow and green kale and hearty spinach—but lacked volume and flavor. These negatives were exacerbated by a subtle vinaigrette, which couldn’t be saved by a deliciously strong Farmer’s cheese.
When we ordered the crab and scallop cannelloni, we were eager to see how the chefs would execute this creative take on an Italian classic. Traditionally a dish of rolled pasta filled with cheese and meat, this seafood-centered cannelloni was a single tube packed with a mixture of crab and scallop, accompanied by a turmeric fennel puree and dash of mint. While the concept was promising, we were disappointed by the composition of the crab and scallop filling, which resembled meatloaf in texture and lacked cohesion with the pasta. A filling that preserved pieces of crab and scallop would have been preferable, but we still found the dish to be an intriguing eating experience.
Onto our main dishes. Lindsay ordered the Arctic Char main with parsnips, dill, leeks and wheat berries. Drizzled on top was a saffron butter sauce. The presentation was inviting: The crispy fillet featured atop the wheat berries resting in a pool of bright butter. Two parsnip chunks were placed on the outer ring (almost too inconspicuous to appreciate) with emerald-green sauteed leeks on the side. The char was tasty, but lemon or a stronger acid could have added a missing element. It tasted more like a home-cooked experiment with too few spices than a perfectly-curated culinary creation: refreshing for the overwhelmed taste buds, but not as thrilling as the appetizers.
In lieu of the traditional meat mains, Tamika opted for the soup. Complete with tableside presentation, the soup came to life as a stream of warm broth cascaded over a delicate smattering of spinach leaves, seared fish pieces and pieces of focaccia bread. The soup was simple, but the broth was deep in flavor with surprising spicy notes, a welcome warmth in this winter season.
In the interlude between dinner and dessert, we observed the dining area. To our left were formally dressed fellow restaurant-goers, with camera people circulating. We wondered if they were food critics. To the right, we spotted a window to the kitchen. A few chefs were making final touches on the dessert we would soon relish. Noticing our curiosity, our waiter asked if we would like a tour. We enthusiastically agreed, surprised at this offer to glimpse the secrets of the kitchen. They appeared to be honored by our intrigue. Perhaps most diners are more interested in the food than in the people behind the process.
The tour contradicted all expectations we held for a professional kitchen. We expected “Ratatouille”-style screaming orders and messes and collisions, but instead witnessed the measured composure of musicians performing in an orchestra. Some staff chopped onions with speedy precision, others controlled sizzling pans with choice cuts of meat and fish and a few more positioned flowers and chocolate drizzles on bright white plates.
We emerged from the tour to find dessert waiting on our table. We could finally appreciate the dozens of people involved in the construction of any single dish. It takes a village to raise a child and a kitchen team to perfect a panna cotta.
For dessert, we indulged in a pumpkin panna cotta with poached pears, spiced oat crumble and a pear-ginger sorbet. The dish resembled a beady-eyed insect because of the symmetry of both red jams on the poached pears. If these pear parts had been offset on opposite sides of the dish, insectifying would be harder.
Despite our initial judgements of the presentation, the panna cotta tasted as it should: sweet and complex. The rich pumpkiness was balanced with the light pears and oat crumble. The pear-ginger sorbet was the highlight of the dish—its refreshing, fruity chill a crisp complement to the creamy pumpkin custard. We concluded the meal with this satisfying sweetness, a perfect finale for our pleased palates.
Our dinner at American Bounty was an entertaining opportunity to embrace our inner food critics and engage with food more critically than our everyday lunch or dinner. We definitely would return to test out American Bounty’s fare in a different season or to sample one of the CIA’s other restaurant options. If the farm greens were better featured, the char more bold and the dessert less unintentionally frightening, five stars would be fitting. Still, the scrumptiousness of the smoked trout, savoriness of the soup and flavorful perfection of the panna cotta all provided reasons to return. Stay tuned for our next taste tour.