A delicious bit of intelligence has surfaced: For a four-star French meal with a prix fixe menu of $20, your contact is the CIA. The Culinary Institute of America, that is -- arguably the best school of its type in the country.
While a four-star restaurant in a school may not seem like the most encouraging of situations, at the CIA's Escoffier Room -- named for no less daunting a personage than the famed 19th-century French chef, Auguste Escoffier -- apprehensions evaporate like the wine in a beurre bercy sauce.
The elegant Escoffier Room is a heaven of haute cuisine in anyone's book, but its raison d'e~tre is to throw CIA students nearing the end of their 21-month curriculum headlong into the real world of classical French cuisine and service. The students get to practice on us, and we get a meal well worth an 80-mile trip, which is about the average distance clocked by those who dine here.
Both lunch and dinner are served, and my husband and I chose lunch, preferring to make a midday drive through the legend-logged Hudson River Valley to the CIA's upstate New York campus. In the little riverside town of Hyde Park, home to the old family estates of the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts, U.S. Route 9 runs by massive stone walls and towering evergreens before the emerald sign with gold letters announces the Culinary Institute of America, and a wide driveway leads to a cluster of brick-red buildings.
Roth Hall is alive with the everything's-possible energy of a campus. Students, dressed in the traditional chef's black-and-white checkered pants, white jacket and starched toque blanche, rush about dimly lit terrazzo corridors full of easy between-classes banter, for the moment oblivious to the imposing display cases of culinary trophies awarded to the school and its illustrious alumni.
At the end of the hall, though, the campus scene stops, and as the glass doors open on the Escoffier Room, the mood turns uncompromisingly professional. This could be some prestigious suburban country club: The main dining area is pinkish, comfortably so, with rose-red seating and chintz-draped, floor-to-ceiling arched windows that overlook a gentle blue-gray Hudson.
On a Friday afternoon the Escoffier Room, though full of patrons, is tranquil. Well-dressed diners -- who seem to know their way around the full-regalia tables, set with a dozen pieces of flatware and a bevy of sparkling glasses -- speak in hushed tones over the discreet tinkling of silver on china.
Tableside service is an Escoffier Room specialty, and the maitre d' is patiently presiding over two student waiters in black bow ties and crisp white shirts who are earnestly perfecting their flambe' techniques. And just so you don't forget that meals are actually student-prepared, an enormous window affords a full view of the spotless kitchen, where fledgling chefs peel, poach, slice and saute' under the supervision of the chef-instructor.
My husband and I scan the menu, still congratulating ourselves on ferreting out this incredible deal (there are a limited number of $20 prix fixe luncheon meals prepared each day; entrees ordered a la carte range from $11 to $16). Risotto de pommes de terre au parme et crevettes, soupe de lentilles au faisan, choucroute garnie aux poissons -- these kids can cook!
The young man who's placing a lighter-than-air croissant on our butter plates tells us the CIA has been around since 1946, and that the school was established as a New Haven storefront after the war, a place to teach out-of-work veterans a skill. It caught on so well that it eventually expanded to larger quarters in Hyde Park, claiming a former Jesuit seminary as its new home.
But why practice waiting on tables, we ask. Surely these culinary whiz kids aren't going to be toting trays after graduation. "They want us to understand what it's like to work in all parts of a restaurant, so when we're cooking and a waiter comes in with an urgent order, we know what he's up against," explains another student as she serves our appetizers -- artfully arranged plates of tiny potato pancakes topped with glistening black caviar, and saumon fume' (smoked here in the garde-manger room) with a mound of horseradish parfait the color of pink geraniums.
The students rotate one week in the dining room, and one week in the kitchen, she tells us, and this is their penultimate turn at the real world. Already they've been through the CIA's Italian restaurant and St. Andrew's Cafe, which specializes in nutritional, spa-type cooking. After their stint here in the Escoffier Room, they wind up the restaurant rotation with a "cook American" flourish at the CIA's award-winning American Bounty Restaurant.
For the CIA's 1,850 students, 72 of which graduate every three weeks, the restaurant rotation is the fun part, the culmination of their rigorous training. And the accent is very definitely on rigorous: Our waitress mentions the breakfast detail in which new students get a taste of cooking for the entire student body, and rising at 3 a.m. to do so.
The food in the Escoffier Room is superb -- imaginative, intricate, tasty -- but we are equally intrigued by the workings of the school. The students are serious, and visibly proud of where they are and what they're doing. When another waiter appears with our entrees -- we've decided to go with the e'mince's de veau et sole a l'aneth, a tangy mixture of strips of veal and filet of sole -- we press him for some tidbits of campus routine. Do they teach every type of cuisine? Can you specialize? Where do students go from here? Can they speak French as well as cook it?
We're obligingly briefed. Everyone must learn the fundamentals of classical cooking and baking, but there are also courses in things like ice sculpture and planning your own restaurant and in culinary French. And the CIA students are nothing if not prepared. An "externship" program means they work for several months in a real, and usually top-notch, restaurant (the strong alumni network helps make this possible).
One waiter tells us he went home to New Orleans to do his externship (although students do go all over the country and some, he thinks, to London and Paris). After graduation, he'll rejoin his family at their hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter with plans to introduce a more modern style of French cuisine and unique plating to the hotel's restaurant.
We linger over our meal, and as student-waiters clear and de-crumb our table for the next course, we pump them about their future plans. One says he will head west to Park City, Utah, to open an Austrian restaurant, and another says he will stay on for a post-graduate, 30-week course in baking.
It is a perfect prelude to dessert, and the menu glows with stars. For me, though, it was never anything else but the apple sabayon with Asti Spumante gele'e, a prizewinner, we learn, created by chef-instructor Ronald Desantis in an international cooking competition. It is a masterpiece of the unexpected: a quivery mound of softest pale gelatin on yellowy sabayon and a dark round of crispy hazelnut confection.
Scraping the last crumbs from our plates, we are flushed with the glow of rich food and a little too much wine. Would the CIA take a culinary clod like me, I muse, recalling the mention of second-career students, even retirees, attending the school.
By the time the check arrives, I'm set to enroll -- 3 a.m. breakfast duty or not. Perhaps an externship at Lucas-Carton in Paris, or even at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, might be just the thing.
Then again, maybe we'll just go up for another lunch.
Charlotte Forbes is a New York writer.
In addition to the Escoffier Room, the Culinary Institute of America runs three other student-staffed restaurants that offer a variety of cuisine:
St. Andrew's Cafe focuses on nutritionally balanced meals. Students use computers to plan and analyze menus to conform to the cafe's nutritional guidelines, and entrees, even traditionally rich ones like seafood Newburg, total less than 1,000 calories. St. Andrew's Cafe is open Monday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with entrees of $6 to $8, and for dinner, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., with entrees $9 to $11. Casual attire is permitted.
Caterina de Medici features northern Italian cuisine, both traditional and updated. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for a $16 prix fixe lunch at 11:30 a.m. and a $24 prix fixe dinner at 6 p.m. (There is one seating only at both lunch and dinner.)
The American Bounty Restaurant, recipient of a Mobil three-star rating and the restaurant industry IVY Award, uses local produce from the Hudson Valley to turn out the regional cuisine of America from New England to California. It is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, noon to 1 p.m., with entrees $11.50 to $14.50, and for dinner, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with entrees from $16.50 to $21.
The Escoffier Room is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, noon to 1 p.m., and for dinner, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The prix fixe meals are subject to availability: The lunch is $20 per person, the dinner $40.
Except in the cafe, jackets are required for men, and no jeans or sneakers are allowed. Reservations are required, often months in advance, and can be made by calling (914) 471-6608 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. GETTING THERE: The CIA is located on U.S. Route 9 in Hyde Park, N.Y., just north of Poughkeepsie. It is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from New York City. -- Charlotte Forbes