A Matter of Taste: Robert Henry’s, by Jane and Michael Stern

“Entrees at Robert Henry’s are brought to the table under opaque white china domes. They are set before the diner, and the dome is whisked away, revealing the meal. At most places, such fanfaronade would be insufferable. The moment you focus on these plates, however, you know that a dramatic presentation is the only way to do justice to food so beautiful.

Many nouvelle chefs design their food, but these plates are not the familiar meretricious indulgences of style over taste. Culinary artistry, not pretense, determines how these things look. Each hors d’oeuvre, entree, and dessert is inspiration for a visually breathtaking – then devastatingly delicious – tableau.

Even before the food comes, you’ll be aware you are in the presence of genius. Although operated by very real human beings (formerly of the Copper Beech Inn and the Inn at Mill River), Robert Henry’s is a godsend – the fine restaurant that New Haven had conspicuously lacked in the 20 years we have known the city. Here, at last, is an important dining room, at the vanguard of fashion and the height of luxury.

The physical facilities are of a sort that don’t get built any more. Such palatial space is of another era: stained glass windows, mahogany paneling, marble pillars, and capacious fireplace with antique mantel. The new proprietors have taken full advantage of the former Roger Sherman Inn (before that it was the Union League Club), but they have brightened it with panache. Cushy banquettes are installed along the walls (and along the white-curtained window that provides a view of Yale). A plush rug keeps room tone at a dignified hush.

Service is spectacular. If anything, there is too much of it. The table is de-crumbed after each course. One lad does nothing but replenish and adjust your battery of silverware. Another cruises the room with a lace-wrapped basket from which he dispenses warm rolls.

The rolls are simply the finest you will get anywhere in Connecticut, similar to the bread at Restaurant du Village but not quite as chewy. They are hot, fresh, yeasty almost to the point of sourness, with a hard, golden crust. As soon as you reduce one to crumbs, the roll boy asks if you want more, supplying a new little tray of butter each time.

-Image courtesy of the Hartford Courant, photography by Jim Meehan, 1987

One the monthly changing menu, crab taboule seems to be a regular. It is an hors d’oeuvre in which a perfectly molded ring of fine-grained tabouli is filled with fresh crab meat and encircled by citrus mayonnaise. The citrus nature of the mayo is expressed by minuscule nuggets of grapefruit – pink and white – that dot the ivory emulsion.

Mussel salad is also circular, but in this case the hub is composed of about a half-dozen fat, out-of-their-shell mussels, and the ‘spokes’ of the wheel are flattened leaves of bibb lettuce. They sit atop a bed of sliced fennel. Here is inspired food preparation: impeccable ingredients combined in ways that encourage you to savor nuances you wouldn’t otherwise know. In this case, the gastronomic theme is one of overwhelming oceanic sensuousness – in taste, texture, and eye appeal.

Another good example of the ‘more is more’ aesthetic is the endive salad. Whole, crisp leaves are meticulously arranged to form a pearlescent teepee, under which are sliced crescents from more endive leaves, bathed in a cool dressing of thinned brie cheese sauce speckled with walnuts. To counteract the bitterness of the endive, tiny nuggets of apple dot the sauce, making the salad at once refreshing and rich.

For lunch you can get calves liver. It is a plump steak, nearly an inch thick, topped with a breadcrumb and horseradish halo that provides fire and a coarse counterpoint to the smooth organ meat below. The liver is surrounded by a ring of popping-fresh corn kernels and little leaves of smoky bacon.

At dinner, a similar breadcrumb blanket, this one ‘deviled’ with mustard, enrobes a moist breast of chicken that sits within a circle of braised endive speckled with green peppercorns.

Another circular wonder: filet mignon, meltingly tender, ringed by potato disks that are glazed with walnuts.

Not ever meal is geometric. Spit-roasted lamb is chaotic on its plate: Slices and a couple of baby chops – invigorating in their lamby intensity – are shuffled with large, unwieldy ravioli stuffed with strong goat cheese and slivers of black olive. It is a miraculous combo, maybe the best in the house.

Tonic-green spinach, sauteed to luscious limpness, is the foundation for an eloquent lobster galette, a circle of lobster chunks which is itself adorned with translucent slices of crisp browned potatoes. That’s lunch; at dinner, a lobster is removed from its shell and, in a visual tour de force, is rearranged back in perfect lobster form – including claws. If the sweet, pink meat is not lush enough for you by itself, it rests upon a pool of hazelnut butter sauce.

Sweet things are the coup de grace; and because the kitchen is aware of the marvels it sends forth, the menu lists medleys and symphonies of many different desserts, so you can taste them all. A ‘harmony of ice cream’ is three flavors: rum raisin, which seems twice as rummy and four times as raisiny as the leading gourmet brand; dark chocolate, nearly bitter in its cocoa intensity; and hazelnut, as smooth and inviting as a new silk pillow. Each is wrapped in its own crisp tuile; all three surround a mound of whipped cream that is stuck like a pincushion with ethereal chocolate twigs.

For those who must concentrate on one dessert, we recommend the pear and brioche tartine, a small, round cake studded with almonds, upon which sits a ring of glazed-crisp slivers of pear. The whole crownlike vista floats upon a creamy sea of black currant sauce.

If Robert Henry’s is not the best restaurant in Connecticut, what is? Dinner for two, without drinks, is $50 – $100; lunch for two is $20 – $40.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Newspapers.com, the Hartford Courant, A Matter of Taste, “Robert Henry’s,” by Jane and Michael Stern, Sunday, February 15, 1987. (top) Image courtesy of the Hartford Courant, Northeast Magazine, cover by Richard McNeel, May 3, 1987

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