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It's not often that you get to explore fine cuisine almost as soon as the chef does, but the CIA gives you that chance.

No, not the CIA that cooks up covert operations around the world. This CIA is high on a bluff above the Hudson River, where students and instructors alike would salivate at the idea of a Bay of Pigs and skill with a knife has an entirely different meaning.

The Culinary Institute of America, about six hours' drive from Buffalo, offers fine dining in four on-campus restaurants and a chance to look in on lessons at a world-class culinary education institution. Its faculty includes the greatest concentration of certified master chefs in the world. In fact, the CIA is the only place where the grueling eight-day, career-capping test for that title takes place.

Much of the campus is deliciously open to the public, making it a Poughkeepsie-area tourist destination -- especially for those who plan ahead. Reservations at the finest CIA student-staffed restaurants -- one specializing in fine French cuisine, another in Italian dishes, a third in the tastes of the Americas and a fourth in sustainable, locally grown food -- can be hard to get on the weekends, but reservations are accepted up to three months in advance. That's a lot better than dropping in unannounced, as we did -- but we still got fed, thanks to two more places on campus that don't even take reservations.

Many of the classrooms -- especially in the bakery and pastries building, sponsored in part by the Statler Foundation -- have windows along the corridors for the benefit of student-guided tour groups (hourlong tours are offered for $6 at 4 p.m. weekdays, with an extra 10 a.m. session Mondays).

The 170-acre campus itself is beautiful, a beautifully landscaped expansion of a former Jesuit seminary. There's still a small Jesuit-owned chapel on the grounds, where Mass is offered on Wednesdays and Sundays, and the lobby of the main hall still has the Jesuit motto -- AMDG, the acronym of ad maiorem Dei gloriam, "for the greater glory of God" -- inlaid in the lobby floor. Roth Hall, looking a little like Hogwarts before it magically aged, also has a glorious former chapel with acres of marble and stained-glass windows by John LaFarge (who also did the magnificent windows for Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo); the space is used now for student dining.

The restaurants are the real draw, though. They are staffed by students who spend three weeks as cooks and three as wait staff in each of two restaurants, as part of their intense course work. There's one professor in the dining room and one more in the kitchen, to oversee and grade; otherwise, it's all part of the learning process for the students and a chance for visitors to interact with them as they hone skills for careers in the culinary world.

Escoffier Restaurant, named for legendary French master chef Auguste Escoffier, who brought military organization to the kitchen, is the priciest and most sought-after of the quartet ($26-$34 for entrees). Its rooms (renovated last year) are elegant, and some dishes are assembled and desserts flambeed at tableside. Diners have a view of the kitchen through a large window.

Its a la carte menu offers classical French cuisine, both Provencal and Parisian, with some contemporary touches. Hankering for a Supreme de Canard Roti avec Sauce de Datte (roast duck with date sauce), or an appetizer of truffled house pate with pistachios and celery root salad? This is the place for you. And the wine list is, well, extensive. Just don't tip -- your server will automatically flunk if he or she accepts it, and the house will add a 14 percent service charge anyway to fund scholarships and student activities, or buy graduation jackets.

American Bounty is at the other end of Roth Hall's main corridor, and it offers tastes of North, South and Central America for $18 to $28 per entree. It serves lunch as well as dinner, and it uses produce from the Hudson Valley extensively.

This is the place for steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, followed by a main course of roasted chicken or grilled center cut pork chop or hanger steak -- each paired with a suggested wine or beer -- topped off with warm chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream and toffee sauce. Here be vegetarian dishes, too.

Ristorante Caterina de' Medici has a nearby Mediterranean-styled building, the Colavita Center, all to itself, with the restaurant (including $120,000 worth of hand-blown Venetian chandeliers) on the plaza-level floor and a kitchen and outdoor herb garden tucked underneath. At the CIA, it's not uncommon to see white-jacketed students with snips and plastic bags garnering flavoring herbs from the outside vegetation -- including the ornamental planters flanking the main hall entrances -- as dinnertime approaches.

Another place that offers both dinner and lunch ($14-$21 per main course), this restaurant offers such first courses as Sardinian couscous with saffron and calamari and such second or main courses ($18 to $25) as Reale di Vitello Arrosto, rosemary roasted veal shoulder. And there's a more casual restaurant within the restaurant -- Al Forno -- that doesn't require reservations, offers a view into the kitchen and serves handcrafted $11 personal artisan pizzas and paninis. Interacting with the students was fun, especially when I inexplicably ordered decaf coffee and a dessert of vanilla gelato drowned in espresso.

St. Andrew's Cafe, an homage to the former St. Andrew's-on-the-Hudson seminary, has changed its theme over time from health foods to a current focus on locally grown, sustainable foods. It offers only lunch ($9-$14 per entree). This is the place for barbecue, grass-fed burgers, organic whole wheat crepes or Berkshire pork chops with Maine clams, for example.

The Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, sponsored by Rich Products, rounds out the restaurant list, providing another no-reservations eating place for breakfast, and sandwiches or baked goods up to 6:30 p.m. Familiar sandwiches come with a high-cuisine twist -- grilled cheese with black truffle spread, or BLTs with heirloom tomatoes, for example. Save room for such desserts as truffle pops, red velvet cupcakes or New York cheesecake.

Attire for the main dining rooms is business casual; reservations can sometimes be easy (midweek in winter, for example) or tricky; there's a complete student staff turnover every three weeks, and the number of reservations is capped on the first night (a Saturday) to give them a chance to ease into their new jobs. Also, it's advisable to avoid graduation weekends -- not that easy, with an associate degree class graduating every three weeks. And do remember that salads, appetizers, desserts and beverages will drive up your meal costs on the a la carte menus.

> Stay awhile

Don't want just to visit? You can always enroll as a student (about $30,000 a year, including room and board in one of several dorms named after spices). To see what that might be like, check out 2010 grad Jonathan Dixon's recently published "Beaten, Seared and Sauced," a fascinating account of his two-year immersion in the pressure cooker of the CIA's French cuisine-based curriculum.

Or you can attend cooking classes of a couple of hours (about $250), CIA's lecture program or cooking demonstrations, or any of its four- and five-day "boot camps" in techniques and cuisines (from $895 to a couple of thousand dollars). Check them out at www.ciachef.edu.

> Off campus

The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site is in Hyde Park, next door to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, and the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (her cottage, Val-Kill, was her retreat during his presidency and her home after her husband's death).

Also in town is the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Nearby Rhinebeck hosts an amazing flying collection of vintage aircraft at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Poughkeepsie's art museum and telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse's home are just a couple of miles down Route 9, and the military academy at West Point is a few miles beyond that.

The CIA offers a guide to nearby hotels, but doesn't make recommendations; check online reviews carefully, because the quality apparently varies. Nearby Poughkeepsie offers a full range of brand hotels.