At 25, Chef Ross Warhol has done training stints in some of the world’s best kitchens, like Spain’s El Bulli, the French Laundry in California, and Alinea in Chicago. ¶ Then he returned to Chautauqua County, where he’s the chef at the Athenaeum Hotel in the Chautauqua Institution. He’s responsible for feeding the hotel’s guests and has upgraded its main dining room’s menu to include daily choices such as poached lobster tail with cauliflower puree, baby bok choy and chorizo vinaigrette. ¶ But on Friday and Saturday nights through Aug. 24, Warhol has a dining room of his own design. Bloom is a 36-seat space where Warhol aims to celebrate Chautauqua County farmers by doing his best with their best. The servers wear country plaid and jeans, the curtains are burlap, and the room’s only decorations besides fresh flowers are portraits of the local farmers who are supplying his ingredients.
There’s two ways to eat: a la carte from three starters, three entrees ($36-$40) and two desserts, or the seven-course chef’s tasting, with wine and beer pairings, $120 including tax and tip. I chose the tasting, while Cat went a la carte.
Crumbly, toasty wholemeal biscuits arrived with a quenelle of cultured house-made butter, golden from the grassfed Lapp Dairy Farm cream Warhol used. Faint herbal notes accentuated the butter’s sweetness.
Amuse of fried squash blossom arrived stuffed with shiitake and cheddar cheese, on a schmear of chicken fat mayonnaise. It was two perfectly fried bites. Our server said Warhol picked the blossoms from a nearby garden an hour before service.
Rahal Farms Peach Gazpacho ($12) was intense peach essence poured over basil sorbet, accented with fresh peas and cornbread croutons. The soup was cold and the sorbet colder, a marriage of fragrant fruit and vibrant herbal flavors.
A salad of butter crunch lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers was undeniably fresh but might have been a little too simple. Feta cheese dressing, judiciously applied, added briny flavor.
Pate de campagne was deeply porky with a liver twang. It came adorned with beet, sweet cherry, bay radish and dill flower. Weird maybe, but delicious.
My first main was Lake Erie walleye over warm potato salad with baby carrots, fresh fava beans and oregano pesto. The fish was delicate and moist, supported ably by the earthy foundation of potatoes and beans. The pesto I would order on its own, if given the chance. A dry riesling pairing was particularly apt.
Cat’s Green Heron Growers Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($40) was breathtaking. Crunchy-crusted chicken breast was juicy inside. It rested on a cornmeal waffle and braised greens with pickled ramps, and it was drizzled with a ruby blackberry syrup packing deep fruit essence. “Ridiculous,” Cat said, a compliment. The waffle texture was soft and grainy, probably due to Warhol’s determination to use local whole-grain flours.
Those flours brought a touch of nutty flavor to the housemade pappardelle pasta, served with braised rabbit and shiitakes in a port demi-glace. The result was comforting, savory ragu, silky as fine pot roast, with a flavor between chicken and beef.
Beef tartare was accented with a quail yolk, pickled ramps, cucumber, sugar snap peas and tiny, perfect onion rings.
Desserts were blueberry crumb cake with currant-thyme chutney and yogurt sorbet, and black cherry cake with salted caramel ice cream.
The blueberry number offered luscious fruit with properly browned crumb top. The yogurt sorbet had tangy dairy coolness but was melting before it got to us. Despite our desperate spoons, it ran off the rimless dish onto the table. The currant chutney was sour to the point of astringency, past Sour Patch sour to Warheads level. I tried it twice then avoided it.
Black cherries topped layers of rich chocolate sponge. The buttercream frosting seemed heavy for the occasion, but the cherry-chocolate combination hit a primal note of satisfaction. The ice cream’s caramel flavor was strong and long-lasting, almost winey, and it was my turn to say “ridiculous.”
While Warhol’s cuisine was mostly excellent and even artful at times, the room was understaffed. The two servers were valiant and composed, but they had to greet customers and refill water pitchers besides table service. While never embarrassing, the service didn’t measure up to a $120 tasting menu.
On the upside, it’s now simple to get to the Athenaeum Hotel for dinner. Customers drive to the hotel and are valet parked.
Bloom is pricey, but through Aug. 24, it offers Chautauqua bound adventurers – especially admirers of the Rene Rezdepi school of local cuisine – a meal to remember. Warhol showed that in skilled hands, Chautauqua County’s produce can become fine dining indeed.
Bloom: 8 plates (out of 10)
WHERE: Athenaeum Hotel, Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua (800-821-1881)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Aug. 24.
PRICE RANGE: Starters, $12-$15; entrees, $36-$40; desserts, $12; chef’s tasting, $120.
PARKING: Hotel valet.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.