The Luxe Life



October 10, 2002 -- I'm just back from Thomas Henkelmann, the best restaurant within commuting distance of New York City, just 45 minutes away in Greenwich, Connecticut. German-born Thomas Henkelmann is a suave traditionalist in the European mold. He doesn't yoke together oddball ingredients and call it cuisine. You'll recognize everything on the menu--until you taste it and realize you've never had turbot quite like his. Henkelmann's forte is harmony--of flavor, texture, presentation. He makes ingredients play as an orchestra, not as soloists. He uses butter and cream judiciously to enrich flavor, a technique that hearkens back to pre-nouvelle cuisine gourmet cooking. Yet his dishes are light, light, light. Case in point: Henkelmann's divine mousseline. The restaurant is part of the Homestead Inn, a terrific place for a Saturday-night stayover, incidentally, for those of you who no longer acquiesce in the airlines' business-traveler fare gouging. Rooms are beautifully done. Dinner: $150 for two. Rooms: $250 to $495 a night.

Now's the time to discover New Brunswick, a travel secret just over the Maine border. Catch the turning leaves in the St. John's River Valley north of the capital, Fredericton, and the tail of the whale-watching season on the Bay of Fundy. Stay at the 8-room Kingsbrae Arms in St. Andrews, an old-money resort town on the bay. Proprietor Harry Chancey, Jr. knows how to make a houseful of strangers into a house party. Rooms are stylish and cozy; the best ones are on the first floor. ... Have Chancey make an appointment for you with top antiques dealer Joan Irving, whose stock of fine 19th-century antiques includes pieces by Canada's foremost cabinetmaker, Thomas Nesbitt. He's on a par with Duncan Phyfe, according to Irving, who's not given to overstatement. ... And stop by Wolfhead Smokers, 20 minutes from Kingsbrae, for a slab of subtly smoked, melt-in-your-mouth salmon--the same fish used by Chancey for canapés. Owner George Wolf's secret: cold smoking the fish (keeping the temperature below 80 degrees so the salmon doesn't cook) over his own mix of maple sawdust laced with beech and ash.

Calling Gary Danko, calling Gary Danko. What's with that telephone-answering system at your restaurant? A long spiel about groups, when reservations are accepted, restaurant hours, credit cards, private dining, parties of more than six. Is there a reservationist in the house? Yes, press 4. Gary, luxury means having a real person pick up and say, "How can I help you?" ... I loved the petite Elisabeth Daniel, a calm (done in sage-y gray), jewel box of a dining room near the TransAmerica Tower. One great dish: Duck breast with black "forbidden" rice. Dinner: $70 prix fixe a person. ... Tucked into tiny Gold Street nearby is my favorite SF watering hole, Bix. Lively bar scene, jazz trio, good food. This is one great supper club. ... No one seems to know that Four Seasons has opened a very luxe hotel on Market Street. Seems management cut the public-relations position as part of post 9/11 austerity. Plus wacky San Francisco zoning forbids the hotel from putting up even a tasteful sign you can see while driving down Market Street. Making matters worse is the fact that the hotel's main entrance is not even on Market Street, but at the end of a narrow alley off 4th Street--more carting service than limo service. But forget all that because the rooms are terrific: understated, but more residential than corporate in feeling. One small example: stately silk, floor-length curtains instead of the tiebacks that are a central-casting staple of luxury hotels today. "We're very anti-swag," says general manager Stan Bromley. The 08 line of suites ($1,100 a night) wrap around the northeast corner of the building, offering views down Market Street and the financial district. If that's too steep, go for a 27-series double room ($339 a night), which looks right up Grant Avenue into Chinatown. The hotel is located at 757 Market Street.

Attention olive oil connoisseurs: the rich, robust Le Palombe should be on your shelf. Made just outside Perugia, Le Palombe is the passion of Italian rock star Francesco de Gregori. "He's the Bob Dylan of Italy," says Carl Jorgenson, co-owner of Purely Organic, which imports the oil and sells it for $30.28 per half-liter. Jorgenson describes the fabulous flavor as "old-fashioned Umbrian," and says it comes from de Gregori's fanatical attention to quality. The olives are handpicked, not shaken off the trees, and go right to the press. The olive paste, the stage between olive and oil, is not heated, a trick many producers use to increase yield, and the oil isn't clarified by filtering but by decanting--much more time consuming. Bottles are made of dark glass to minimize light contact, which breaks down the oil's organic compounds, and corked rather than capped because plastic dissolves in contact with olive oil. The fabulous peppery aftertaste comes from the high percentage of unripe green olives in the blend.

New York chef Charlie Palmer (Aureole) has found happiness in Healdsburg. He's turning out boldly flavorful dishes at his handsome, newish restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen, in the very hip Healdsburg Hotel. The menu makes extensive use of Sonoma-grown products like Fulton Farm chicken. The wine list is all-Sonoma. Good gimmick: Palmer sells menu ingredients at Provisions, just around the corner. Four-course tasting menu: $70 for two.

Bergdorf Goodman (212-753-7300) is offering a custom-made suit in Super 100s and 120s wool for $2,200. That's at least $800 less than a name-brand custom suit and only a few hundred dollars more than an off-the-rack Zegna. Made in Italy, the suit is mostly hand-tailored and has a high-cut jacket armhole (like most fine Italian suits). Trousers have a full-curtain waistband (a hallmark of quality) and are silk-lined. Nice touch: the waist closure loop. By holding your belt in place when you sit, it keeps the pant top from rolling over. Contact Bergdorf's custom tailor, Tito Vargas (212-339-3250), for an appointment.

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