Dining Review: The Dining Room at the Vanderbilt
Dining out in a former Vanderbilt residence gives guests a taste of high society.
The Vanderbilt, Auberge Resorts Collection has undergone a radical sea change. Purchased by Auberge Resorts five years ago, the former estate of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt has, as of late, become a full-throated embrace of its illicit past. Rumor has it that Vanderbilt constructed the downtown mansion for his mistress, Agnes O’Brien Ruíz, and, if there’s any enclave in the state that celebrates the sultry draw of forbidden appetites, it’s the lush, moody dining room that inhabits the west wing of the manor.
The restaurant is an homage to Farrow and Ball’s deepest hues — part blue, part black, the entire room sits in the resplendent shadows of romance. Bulbs burn barely over forty watts and, consequently, each party takes on an air of mystery manifested in film noir. The bar is a mammoth sprawl of black marble and carved wood, illuminated under a coffered ceiling that looms like midnight. This is a place that not only appreciates transgressions, it practically demands them. Sins all fall to the corporal here. If there’s no temptation to down a gin and tonic and stumble upstairs, then the damage will be done with food and drink.
Auberge brought in April Bloomfield (of the often-praised, now defunct Spotted Pig and Breslin) to develop select dishes for the menu, and she has leaned heavily in the direction of indulgence. It’s not surprising that the dining room’s aura is fully manifested in the bar plates: all are offered as several bites of opulence, just enough to pair with a Negroni ($20) or an Old-Fashioned ($17). The pinnacle — not surprisingly — is a bowl of softly scrambled eggs piled high with Alverta caviar and served with brioche toast sticks ($32). What surprises throughout the meal, however, is that Bloomfield has infused the menu with Middle Eastern spices and, in this case, it’s a sweet curry that tempers the briny fish eggs. It’s bites like this that conjure the Vanderbilt legacy and, looking around this lavish room, everyone is led to believe that gratification is the great American birthright.
The aesthetics are just as complicit in this gastronomic fever dream. Stuffed pheasants perch on the inky walls, gilded frames sit under fixtures that offer only a whisper of illumination. Is that a landscape or a nude? Doesn’t matter, as either is an effective ode to beauty. On cooler nights, the majestic fire burns in the entryway, filling the air with more romantic haze. But even in the height of the season, there’s a tendency to close the heavy drapes to block out the world and simply submerge oneself in the velvet, leather and cane decor. Occasionally, there’s a break in the fantasy — Echo and the Bunnymen pop up on the playlist, or a fedora-wearing toddler nestles into a banquette with his iPad in tow. But the food will pull an entire table back a hundred years, to a Newport that’s less Thames and more Bellevue.
Triangle shards of magenta fried beets stand up like an expressionist sculpture, glued down by a chive and garlic cream dip ($12). It’s a modern take on onion dip, disguised in an avant-garde costume. Even the warm cranberry brown bread ($10) comes paired with a mossy green seaweed butter that tastes subtle but basks in its own dramatic declaration. No one knows the power of aesthetics like the uber-wealthy, and it postures confidently in every corner of the Ralph Lauren-like room. Even the plates bear a Vanderbilt insignia — a regal “V” inside a pierced heart that’s embroidered on the cuff of each server’s sleeve. Servers, incidentally, remain largely composed despite increasing popularity and what’s becoming a permanent staff shortage, even in this well-constructed fairy tale. They may recede into the kitchen for stretches of time, but when they reappear with a goblet full of pink peppercorn-tinged gin and acquiescent approval, all is forgiven.
But as drinks evolve into dinner, some of the drama dissipates in favor of the familiar. Entrees center around New England ideals but with a dash of exotic spice: chicken marinated in yogurt is seared with cilantro and mint ($32); cauliflower is roasted with garam masala ($20). Other centerpieces are more traditional in scope: halibut steamed en papillote ($45), filet mignon served with duck fat potatoes ($52) and a lemon tagliatelle tossed with fistfuls of lobster ($42). The braised lamb shank ($43), however, straddles both lines — unctuous meat in a sauce glistening with red wine-soaked root vegetables like a jewelry box. It’s hearty fare for a place that oozes sensuality and diners who have cleaned their plates seem content to sit in the adjacent library with a port in preparation for an early snooze.
For those who refuse to forfeit their turn at turn-of-the-century living, dessert affords another hour of fantastical fixation. There are housemade sorbets and ice cream, as well as a fruit-forward cheese plate. But whimsy is what’s needed when you’re four drinks deep, and the dining room does not disappoint. Warm coffee cake ($12) is wedged with caramel apples and a coffee milk ice cream so full of roasted beans that it may keep you up for days. (It’s the first signal that over twenty-one may refer to more than just alcohol.) The Pavlova ($14), however, is the clear star of this stage production. If one could recreate the Vanderbilt Ball of 1883, surely it’d be constructed out of meringue, and this one arrives like a piped hoop skirt perfumed with cardamom. An eager server will crack it open at your request, revealing a grapefruit mousse beneath and several slices of fuchsia fruit. There are plenty
of beverages to pair with dessert — from sherry to scotch to Sauternes-style semillon. But dessert is so ornamental, so decorative in its own right, that even a $45 glass of wine seems to pale in comparison.
It’s only fitting that the dining room exists within the walls of an Auberge hotel. Heading anywhere but upstairs would seem like a disappointment. However long the evening lasts, though, is enough to call sublime. In a town that is often defined by water views, the Vanderbilt asserts that man can compete, even with nature.
41 Mary St., Newport, 846–6200, aubergeresorts.com/vanderbilt/dine.
Open for dinner daily. Wheelchair-accessible. Valet parking.
Cuisine: New England, elevated.
Vibe: Ralph Lauren, made-to-order.
Prices: Appetizers: $10–$32; Entrees: $20–$52; dessert: $10–$25.
Must Get: Bar food, soft scrambled eggs with caviar, braised lamb. Cocktails are de rigueur.