THE TAILOR & THE COOK
Utica, New York
When you find a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and the dish you order, sea bass to be precise, is as good as any piece of fish you’ve ever eaten at Le Bernardin in New York City, you have to wonder who has that much talent cooking in the kitchen? The talent in question is Tim Hardiman and the restaurant, The Tailor & The Cook in downtown Utica is a welcome addition to an otherwise very bleak upstate New York culinary scene. Both chef and co-owner, Tim and his wife-to-be Melissa Fraser, opened the restaurant earlier in the year. You could almost miss it, sandwiched as the space is between a coffee joint and a pizza place on a one-way street which is difficult to get to. But do whatever you have to do to get there, park your car, and escape inside to drink, to relax, and most importantly, to taste some well-crafted dishes.
It was a Friday night and every table in the long railroad apartment-like space was taken. So was every seat at the bar but Lynn and I managed to stand comfortably at one end and admire the exposed brick and duct work. I was amused at the oak barrels that had been retrofitted into light fixtures that hung over the bar, as well as wine bottles that had also been crafted into lighting over some of the tables. But be forewarned, while there are many such lights hanging from the ceiling, the restaurant itself is quite dark.
We didn’t have to wait very long for a table to free up and soon were seated in the back of the restaurant. Since this is an establishment with an open kitchen, if you are seated in the back as we were, you will be able to watch Chef Hardiman and one of his assistants busy at work. You’ll also unfortunately be exposed to a lot of heat and steam emanating from said work space. I didn’t think it was a problem, but a few couples seated next to us seemed to have an issue with the rising temperature in the room. I generally ignore people around me who are unhappy about one thing or another so decided to turn my attention to the pretty pink and white tea roses that were stuck in a mason jar in the center of our table, then focused on the menu.
This is a restaurant that prides itself on sourcing its ingredients from as many local purveyors as possible, which means when you are reading the menu, you know where most of what you will eventually be eating and drinking came from. I like that.
We were brought a bread basket filled with some slices of bread that were a little too soft for my taste but there was a lovely sweetened butter to go with it. Tap water was poured and there is a short, but decent wine list with quite a few New York State varietals.
I was torn between ordering the duck wings or the beet and carrot salad as an appetizer but decided to go with the latter since it came with fresh feta cheese from Jones Family Farm . Now since I know Peter and Suzie Jones and their feta, I was eager to see what Chef Hardiman could do with these three very basic ingredients.
There were lots of carrots, a few beets, some greens, and a lovely triangle of the aforementioned feta that had been slightly warmed. I loved the combination of the flavors but truthfully thought the salad needed more vinegar and less oil. Lynn’s scallop appetizer, four decent-sized scallops plated on some quickly sauteed fresh spinach generously showered with pignoli, had a cloyingly sweet raisin-studded sauce that also seemed to be suffering from a too liberal dousing of oil.
I was worried. Nine times out of ten in many restaurants I’ve eaten in, the appetizer usually steals the show and what inevitably follows are less than stellar entrees. Luckily, that was not the case here. But before we got to the stars of the show (that would be the entrees), I, unfortunately, had forgotten when reading the menu that a salad comes with your entree. This I think is unnecessary in this day and age but perhaps in upstate New York people need to feel they are getting some sort of “freebie” with their meal. So the “salad” in its minimalist state was composed of some greens, some raisins (I guess Tim loves raisins), and a dressing that needed more punch. We ate the salads but had they not been served would have been ok, too.
While I originally was going to order the duck as my main course, that night’s special was a sea bass. Since Lynn and I had joked with each other as we were driving to the restaurant that we probably wouldn’t be eating fish, given as we were in the middle of nowhere, I was intrigued that a) there was a fish special and b) curious as to how it would be prepared. So I ended up with the fish and Lynn ended up with the duck. (I nearly always manage to convince this guy I’ve been married to for a thousand years if not more that he’s going to end up with a dish I wanted to try if something else catches my fancy!)
My sea bass, plated with a generous portion of fresh-from-the-farm-asparagus and Chef Hardiman’s take on Pommes Anna (basically a French potato gratin) came with some swipes of a dark pesto-like sauce on the plate. Originally I thought the sauce was a sweet pea concoction but it turned out to be wickedly original – pesto made with a combination of sorrel, macademia nut and a touch of sesame oil. One bite of this perfectly cooked fish with the pesto and I realized it was as good (if not better) than any fish I’d ever eaten.
Lynn’s entree, perfectly cooked slices of duck breast plated with fingerling potatoes and lots and lots of asparagus (too much I thought) came with an interesting apricot masala sauce. As usual, he finished his plate before I could steal more than a bite or two.
Usually, after this much food (and drinks and wine) we skip dessert or share one. Not so tonight. Our server recommended the first two on the menu, the slow roasted pineapple and a cheesecake made with cows milk cheese from the Jones Family Farm. Now since I absolutely love pineapple in any shape or form, and nearly every cheesecake I’ve ever had, how could I refuse? First the cheesecake’s bottom: an incredibly moist graham cracker crust, then a light and creamy filling, and on top, strawberries that actually tasted like strawberries should. Should I mention that the slice was about twice the size of what other restaurants call dessert these days? The pineapple while described as slow roasted, was in fact warm but didn’t have the roasted quality I was looking for. In fairness, I could have been confusing this dish with grilled pineapple desserts that have become quite popular. Still, it was topped with a decadent Frangelico caramel sauce and paired with a local vanilla ice cream. Both were absolutely delicious.
I would like to go back, frequently. I would like to see the house salad disappear. I would also like to see chewy homemade bread and perhaps a hand-crafted gelato or two. Of course that would mean Chef Hardiman would have to work even more than he probably does now and since he is by far the thinnest chef I’ve seen in a while, that may not be possible. That said, Tim Hardiman has enormous talent and it shows in the high level of cooking coming out of The Tailor & the Cook’s kitchen. Run to enjoy it.