Seasons at the Ocean House

The new super-luxe Ocean House has set the bar incredibly high for its signature restaurant. Can the farm-to-table fare outshine the stellar surroundings?

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One Bluff Avenue, Watch Hill, 584-7000, oceanhouseri.com. Open for dinner nightly. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine The very essence of farm to table; the hotel employs its own forager to select the daily bounty.  Capacity Two hundred-plus can fill the dining room and spill out onto the veranda. Vibe Conjure the Rockefellers and then consider their playground. You’re in it. Prices Small savory dishes: $12–$29; desserts $10–$19. Karen’s picks Let the ingredients dictate your order. Salads are as complex and multi-faceted as seafood.
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The sight of the modern Ocean House Hotel, on a hill almost on top of the 
Atlantic, is dazzling by moonlight. The expansive veranda is speckled with spritzers and juleps and even the manicured croquet field beckons on a warm summer night. On one particular evening, however, the crowds of out-of-towners were a little less entranced by the romance of Watch Hill. An overheated dishwasher had just tripped the fire alarm, sending diners into the street. Some ended up, drinks in hand, across the street at the village chapel, others remained to absorb a view that only the most fortunate were born to see. “Not again…” moaned a nervous, vest-clad valet, carrying bottles of water to an impatient man in Nantucket reds.

Turns out it takes a lot more than a shrill alarm to break the fairy tale spell. The already languid traffic of Westerly stopped entirely for Ocean House guests and residents as they mingled in the road. They are, after all, beneficiaries of a $140-million restoration (doled out by Brown alum and mutual fund mogul Charles Royce) and a manifest remind-er that extravagance lives on in select pockets of the world. So dizzying is the pervasive privilege of this resort that the inevitable comparisons to Gatsby only seem to taint the property with a crudeness that refuses to touch this isolated bluff.

The impeccable refurbishment of the hotel — which mostly meant tearing down and rebuilding — has expanded the square footage of its rooms and married nineteenth-century charm with contemporary trappings. The hotel’s main restaurant, Seasons, is still filled with wicker seaside seating, but a mammoth plush banquette and bevy of Tory Burch-clad visitors, tanned to rawhide, suggest a striking modernity.

It also suggests that Ocean House’s enormity of both prestige and property may become a small state’s open gateway to non-native clientele. Newport’s mansions, after all, don’t offer overnight accommodations.

Among the many storied facets of the Victorian property is a ten-acre garden that produces enough of a harvest to change the menu nightly. Beyond roughage and root vegetables, almost all of the ingredients come from a radius of less than a hundred and fifty miles and local farms dominate the daily menu. If the approach to sourcing is simple, however, the menu’s construction is anything but. Food is not compartmentalized by course but by origin: Gardens, Waters, Fields and Pastures dictate a dish’s main focus.

It’s central casting for New England fare, where a single extraordinary ingredient achieves top billing and all of its tangential traits — preparation, accompaniments, price — are secondary tidbits that culinary groupies access tabloid style. “Local fluke, caught by the lines of Watch Hill residents Anne and Richard Cook, plays the part of amandine in this evening’s production. Supporting actors include Marcona almonds, potato confit and a subdued but sturdy sauce Grenobloise.” This is literary showmanship, capable of competing with a $1,000-a-night suite and a view that stretches far past even the periphery. Luxury, after all, should have no end in sight. Nor should it have a cap on the number of courses you eat.

Dishes are rarely larger than a first- course portion, though meats and fish still hover around $23 — a tough pill to swallow when you’re talking about six bites of food. But, as with everything at the hotel, image is paramount. Chef Albert Cannito, who has set up shop in resorts from Texas to Hong Kong, has a four-course vision in his head that runs $58 a person if you take the chef’s suggestion. However, order on your own and you could be looking at upwards of $80 without a glass of wine. Of course, thirsty guests have the world at their fingertips — or at least seventy pages of alcoholic options — that begins with an $80 glass of Salon Champagne and ends with pricey cocktails (all $14). How do the numbers add up? Don’t be surprised to find dinner for four approaching $500. And, if you have any hope of fitting in, try to look like that makes perfect financial sense.

Admittedly, the attention to detail in these small dishes is agriculturally inspired and technically inspiring. Cannito and chef de cuisine Eric Haugen are at their best when they bask in the innate strengths of each leaf, each minute mouthful of flavor. Native field greens are laced with bold licorice herbs and stained glass slices of granny smith apples; globe turnip soup is punctuated by earthy bits of smoked pork; even panzanella goes upscale as peeled cherry tomatoes pair with pickled onion petals, ribbons of English cucumber and thin sheaths of Watch Hill squid. Agnolotti, stuffed with Shy Brother’s cloumage (a cows’ milk curd) is precious in appearance and refined on the palette. Served with diminutive quenelles of “melted” Swiss chard, one gets the sense that each dish is a tiptoed walk rather than raucous sprint through local farms. The tendency may be to wolf down the often spectacular results though the aesthetic parameters forbid it.

Larger (that’s price, not size) dishes are assertive, primarily because their condiments are more forthright and the protein more prevalent. (Even so, Seasons is more than willing to embrace the proverbial three-ounce portion of meat.) Wolfe’s Neck sirloin gets both a peppercorn jus and a sweep of pommes puree, each offering a different approach to a perennial favorite. Pekin duck is equally compliant, the breast paired with compressed Asian pear (made firmer with the aid of a vacuum) while briquettes of crispy skin rillettes are drizzled with a nuanced emulsion of red currents and foie gras. Even jaded travelers can find something to marvel at when local chickens are transformed into a tender ballotine and served with wedges of pain perdu (technically French toast but, here, more like a crunchy bread pudding) and a mildly acidic ravigote. Artful, yes; but not at the expense of taste.

Unfortunately, the culinary romance breaks precipitously with dessert. There are several traditional sweets that pastry chef Adam Young handles capably — shortcakes, sorbets, souffles — but, inexplicably, others take a turn toward innovative disaster. Many have a surprisingly tenuous relationship with sugar. A tangy fromage blanc tartlet might respond well to an array of slightly sweet accompaniments, but the bright pink, sour beet ice cream was not one of them. It’s astounding that a vegetable with so much natural sugar could taste so blatantly…wrong. The balance was also off in the Ecuadorian chocolate beignet that lacked sugar altogether though its side dish — a quirky kumquat mojito — had the viscosity and sweetness of straight syrup. The only saving grace? A pitch perfect caramel fleur de sel ice cream.

In such an environment, one is ceremoniously lulled into thinking that nothing could stray from the path of perfection. The tented clambakes, the powder rooms filled with gilded frames and glass bottles of Shalimar, the scent of massage oils and tufted towels — all offer entrance into that ephemeral world upon a fairy wing. So when it does falter — with an overly ambitious dessert, a too-salty lobster or a stomach that leaves still growling — diners risk breaking the pervasive dreamlike bubble. Of course, there are hints that a less sublime world exists outside the expansive edifice. In addition to the temperamental fire alarm, there is the inevitable trip around the sun; one that will eventually deposit thick layers of snow on the bright green lawns. Oh, well. This world may be precarious but it’s a beautiful oasis and each course, each meal, extends the vision just a bit longer. Winter can wait; so, too, can dessert. The dream lives on.

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