At its best, fine dining is an artistic performance that engages all five senses. Food and drink is at center stage, but a menu's star qualities can quickly be overshadowed by a second-rate supporting cast. Remarkable flavors can be soured by poor delivery, or a hubbub that suffocates conversation.
The nights where everything goes right, and revelation follows revelation, are the finest dining of all. Like the night recently at The White Carrot when conversation paused as we all spooned up velvety chicken veloute punctuated with juicy truffled celery nuggets, and crunched toasted brioche slathered with chicken liver mousse.
The stillness that comes over a table in the presence of a remarkable dish has a charged quality, as in a cathedral just before the choir soars into full-throated song. Then a family of deer, lined in gold by the setting sun, gamboled through the restaurant's backyard and I wondered if this was what bliss felt like.
I wish The White Carrot was in Buffalo, but it couldn't be anyplace but Chautauqua County. A Bemus Point kid named Brian Kiendl left town to seek his fortune. After making his bones cooking in kitchens in Florida, France and New York City, he was hungry to come home. He wanted to use skills learned under Daniel Boulud and others to prove his home was just as rich in terroir.
With his wife, Robin, a fellow Maple Grove High School graduate, the Kiendls have given Chautauqua County another fine upscale option, rivaling Jamestown's Forte.
The airy room is tan, with high ceilings, and a back patio. Tables are set with white linen and miniature oil lamps. Diners can opt for a three-course prix fixe ($65 at my visit), or if the entire table agrees, the chef's tasting menu, seven courses at my visit ($80, $110 with wine pairing). Seriously consider the reasonably priced wine add-on, whose keen selections made an effective pleasure amplifier. One pairing was enough sips for two people.
The wonders started with bread and butter, housemade baguette and a shallot-infused cultured butter that exhibited addictive properties. After our second bread-and-butter refill, I warned about the need to reserve space for courses to come. My guests politely refrained from pointing out I had delivered my homily while holding a piece of buttered bread. It followed an amuse bouche of braised oxtail, its richness cut by shreds of pickled kohlrabi.
First was a corn and leek soup poured steaming tableside, the last of the season's corn joining morsels of gently smoked trout. Fennel fronds added licorice astringency. A sip of Riesling sent fruit and acid ripples through the quiet flavor party.
Next up was another soup, which would be a faux pas in a classic tasting, but Kiendl is not interested in rules for rules' sake. Our palates, already warmed, welcomed full-bodied, gently thickened chicken broth poured over morsels of garden celery that had been poached with truffle, then augmented with shaved summer truffle. Its partner was housemade brioche carrying another chicken accent, chicken liver pate.
Another rule fell as foie gras followed liver. Foie – duck liver so oleaginous it spreads like butter – joined duck leg rillette and Rahal Farms plums, for tart fruit punctuation. A swoosh of mustard completed the plate, to be spread on delicate, housemade melba toast.
Lamb neck from Stillwater Farms was braised into tenderness and served with impossibly light truffled dumplings. The pool of foie gras emulsion beneath it was only one of a dozen things I wanted a plate full of, but Kiendl metered his tasting properly, as if weighed out with jeweler's scales, so we left feeling satiated, not stuffed.
A head-on roasted prawn rode to table on a lozenge of Faroe Island salmon, both atop puckery sorrel greens. Then a slice of Pekin duck breast from Fickle Fields farm, crispy outside, ruddy within, presented with carrots roasted in duck fat, juniper salt and dabs of vibrant plum puree.
Dessert was three-phased. There was outstanding, light and nutty peanut mousse, fudge "in the form of a brownie" and basil chocolate ganache, a surprisingly welcoming pairing. Housemade chocolate truffles came with the bill.
You won't get that dinner, but your own experience, unique or darn close. Courses change from night to night as Kiendl applies the best stuff on hand to the mission of dinner.
Service was smooth as silk. When the organic gin in my martini turned out to be oddly flavorless, she whisked it away and returned with another choice.
Here are the negatives I witnessed: The lighting was slightly murkier than optimum after night fell. Two of seven wine pairings did not rise to the level of alchemy achieved by the others.
At one point a server bumped a picture off the wall with a clatter, quickly recovering to rehang it. When it comes to demerits, that's all I have. A three-hour dinner felt just long enough, though perhaps the company deserves some credit.
The restaurant will be closed Oct. 22 through 31. It will also be closed in February and March. I suggest you plan ahead. It will be worth it.
The White Carrot is a destination restaurant. Whether foliage or lakeside idyll or ice skating draws you to Chautauqua, The White Carrot will be the icing on the cake.
The White Carrot – 10 plates (out of 10)
Where: 4717 Chautauqua Stedman Road, Mayville (269-6000)
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday.
Prices: Three courses about $65, seven-course tasting about $80
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free options: Review plentiful options when making reservation.