Muse by Jonathan Cartwright
At Muse, the chef’s tasting menu combines rich, classic cuisine with a fresh, American approach.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
Muse by Jonathan Cartwright
41 Mary St., Newport, 846-6200, vanderbiltgrace.com. Hours Open for dinner seven nights a week. Reservations strongly suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine New England ingredients, French technique, elite attitude. Capacity About forty with copious amounts of room. Vibe The recurring dream of waking up in a mansion that suddenly belongs to you comes true. Prices Four courses: $75 per person; five courses: $95 per person; seven courses: $120 per person. Karen’s picks Seafood, particularly the butter poached and smoked lobster, and leave plenty of room for dessert.
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There's a certain establishment that resists personality in favor of persona. Hosts smile demurely and servers bow their heads, eager to respond to questions but resistant to appear too human. Vanderbilt Grace, the newest hotel to animate the venerable mansion on Newport's Mary Street, functions in just such a bubble, impervious to mood or outside influence. Whatever lies beyond the wood-paneled walls of the billiard room, the tufted lounge chairs or the American illustration art on every wall ceases to exist as you walk through the door, with conversation focused on nothing more than your immediate happiness.
Muse, the hotel's formal restaurant, follows suit: Hosts and servers say little unless you ask (or look as if you've lost your way), blending with gentility into the teal-gray walls and pleated tablecloths. It's an old-school sensibility, a properness that permeates everything, and yet there is evidence — the gargantuan globe pendants above the bar and the pair of ebony chandeliers — that modernism cloaks the classics in a definitive manner.
Responsible for the convergence is British-born Jonathan Cartwright, chef de cuisine for the hotel conglomerate and often at the culinary helm of Kennebunkport’s renowned White Barn Inn. An accomplished enthusiast of American cuisine, Cartwright is at home with New England fare, designing menus that speak partly to innovation and yet never deviate from indigenous culture. So dedicated is he to the cause that the holiday menus are often planned months in advance, proving that availability is limited only by budget and sheer will. On an ordinary night, however, the kitchen falls under the control of Daniel Oosthof, who also hails from White Barn, and a detail-oriented staff that cater without fawning.
The best approach to dining here is a five-course tasting menu that allows diners to sample dishes large and small while still maintaining personal control. (Only the seven-course is at the chef's discretion.) Most options are interpretive presentations of the familiar: lobster bisque with cognac creme fraiche, paper-thin beets with a goat's milk terrine and a playful, yet simple, beef carpaccio bon bon. Thin slices of tenderloin are wrapped decoratively around a sphere of chilled mushroom duxelles, served absolutely unseasoned atop undressed arugula. Only purists need apply. Better is a composed plate of pan-seared quail with foie gras and a pool of sweet and sour rhubarb puree — well balanced in its paradoxically rich tartness.
But Muse’s native language is seafood, offering a lyrical proficiency with dishes both complex and minimalist. A trio of tuna covers traversed ground (coated with sesame and seared as well as a quenelle of savory tartare) and also dabbles with less expected combinations. A subtle version marinated in coconut and cucumber exudes delicate flavors without giving up the meatiness of its base.
But the quintessential dish — which hails from the White Barn kitchen and would lure a diner in from across the state and farther — is the butter poached and smoked lobster. Brought forth under a porcelain cloche, the servers can’t help but gaze with anticipatory glee as the column of smoked air is eventfully released, filling the surrounding area with the scent of a beachfront campfire. The lobster itself maintains its innate sweetness, but with an intricacy that lingers far past the meal itself.
One may never wish to leave the seafood portion of the meal, though the intermezzo is the menu's most playful course at barely three bites. There are soups and sorbets, but here the restaurant's second bon bon proves irresistible. A delicate pasta pouch, akin to a Christmas cracker, is filled with parmesan and napped not only with pancetta foam but also with small granules of the salt-cured ham. Earthy and yet still precious, it's as entertaining as it is enjoyable, more so than the meat-based courses that follow, which bring a gravitas to an otherwise festive meal.
Given that diners eat at least four courses, entree portions are gargantuan. A dozen (twelve!) substantive slices of duck and a pungent red pepper coulis is daunting to all but those with limitless appetites. The kitchen is working with Lola duck, a hybrid of Pekin and Mallard—known for its leaner skin, yet it arrives with an unrendered layer of fat that adds to the challenge. Veal loin has more appeal based on technically adept preparation: Crusted with a chicken farce and olive paste, the normally nuanced meat gains depth. The farce lends a nostalgic flavor of crisped skin to the meat, but a pairing of couscous, eggplant and tomato puree and a cold ratatouille croquette muddles the singular veal.
You may think you have room for dessert. If there is such an inclination, now's the time for a walk around the property to settle the first four courses. Dessert at Muse, it turns out, is never just a morsel, no matter what your plan was. The half-dozen staff members presiding over the parlor-like dining room are keen on playing audience to this final presentation and, though your stomach may protest the treatment it's about to receive, it's worth giving yourself over to the pomp and circumstance.
The kitchen begins the grand finale with a gift — a demitasse of butterscotch mousse for example, served with a tuile spoon. It would be the perfect end to a substantial meal but, for better or worse, it's more of a beginning. Each dessert is multifaceted: a blueberry brulee with almond cookies, peach reduction and blueberry sorbet borders on straightforward next to a wagon-wheel-shaped chocolate cake with chocolate shortbread, caramelized bananas, banana sorbet and artistic splatters of chilled caramel sauce. Cheesecake mousse served in a white chocolate parfait glass is so rich that it's easy to ignore, and that was apparent to a conscientious server who quickly whisked it away, bringing a bright passion fruit souffle in its place. Listen closely and you may hear the pitiful wailings of a self-respecting stomach whimpering, “Uncle.” Futilely though, as four varieties of truffles are doled out with silver tongs and mini pecan muffins arrive with the check; not a culinary stone, as it turns out, is left unturned. It’s indulgence on a quietly grand scale and, largely, a rewarding one.