A Weekend at J House Hotel
Dec 31, 2012 | 7:06 am
On a quiet stretch of East Putnam Avenue, Ivory Coast-born chef François Kwaku-Dongo runs a kitchen that puts out big flavors to match the big money being made and spent in Greenwich, Conn.’s eleven14 Kitchen at the J House Hotel. The restaurant — which opened last summer in a location that formerly housed a Howard Johnson’s — has quickly become one of the most sought-after reservations in town.
Even the hotel entrance is a feast for the senses, as guests are treated to a lively visual art installation projected onto a second-story wall upon entering the lobby and then coldcocked by the one-two aromatic punch of chocolate and coffee from the adjoining Chocolate Lab, a passion project of the chef’s that seeks to explore all of the confection’s possibilities.
Eleven14 Kitchen lies hidden within the interior of the hotel, a culinary jewel worth unearthing. In a brilliant design move, the walk to the restaurant takes patrons through a warmly lit parlor area heavy on ski-lodge-chic amenities like a glassed-in floor-to-ceiling fireplace.
With an Iron Chef America appearance under his belt and years spent heading the kitchens at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurants, chef Kwaku-Dongo’s gastronomic sensibilities are on full display in this convivial setting.
"He’s a great leader," said pastry chef Didier Berlioz. There’s hardly a hotel restaurant in the area that comes close to this kind of smartly composed cuisine. To wit, an appetizer of velvety house-smoked salmon comes with airy blini and crème fraîche and half a lemon for squirting. In an age of fusions, foams, and fussy plating, it’s refreshing to see high-quality ingredients prepared and presented with care.
You’ll excuse the momentary fourth-wall collapse, but it must be said that I had one of the best pieces of pork I’ve had in recent memory at eleven14 Kitchen. A loin so juicy, so smoky that it put to shame some of the best on-the-bone chops I’ve devoured. In another move of educated restraint, the beast meets its match in a straightforward jumble of apples, rhubarb, and fennel.
The dinner menu may be the main event for a chef, but a hotel kitchen that can produce a great breakfast elevates the overall experience tenfold. In both sweet and savory, the morning’s offerings exceed expectations. Fluffy as a Build-A-Bear’s innards, the French-style omelet is an impossibly self-indulgent way to start the day; likewise a plate of paper-thin ricotta-lemon blintzes with rhubarb and strawberry compote, which achieve a nice balance of brightness and sweetness.
All things sweet fall to Berlioz, who for decades delivered a slice of France to hungry Westchester and Connecticut diners at Rye, N.Y.’s La Panetiere. Berlioz has fun with his composed desserts, like a signature called The Eleven 14, a plate where almond dacquoise and chocolate mousse intermingle, a dusting of gold leaf adds visual impact and lets you know that this Frenchman isn’t fooling around. But for a real treat, head back to the Chocolate Lab for a self-inflicted glutton’s punishment of handmade truffles, pastries, gelato, espresso, and coffee drinks.
The Chocolate Lab excels is in its ethos — highlighting and encouraging the most honorable that our global economy has to offer. That’s why the chocolate used in the Lab’s creations comes from a Ghanaian company that chef Kwaku-Dongo personally has a stake in. Berlioz is quick to point out that "the entire process, from bean to bar, takes place in Ghana — which is unusual" (most chocolate companies outsource their processing). In a show of community, the Lab sells several chocolate bars named after the kitchen staff and their loved ones. Which begs the question: what kind of chocolate bar would you be? Why not challenge chef Berlioz to find out.