The Nineteenth Hole
A foodie tours five famous grill rooms at the county’s exclusive country clubs
As those who play the game know, a round of golf seldom ends on the 18th green. It almost always actually concludes at the 19th hole, where scorecards are totaled, wagers settled, and tales of spectacular shots and barbs about even more spectacular flops are recounted over post-round libations and viands. At Westchester’s country clubs, this doesn’t mean a hot dog and a beer.
Think instead of luncheon tables laden with colorful, creative cuisine, designer beverages, and superior wines that often surpass those found in the county’s best restaurants. Westchester and Hudson Valley club members are sophisticated diners who expect the finest and freshest ingredients to be expertly prepared with flair and creativity. I visited five of the most raved-about grill rooms to see if their expectations are being met.
♦ Trump National Golf Club
Every country club needs to please its members, but the staff of Trump National in Briarcliff Manor has an extraordinary extra task — they also have to please the man with the golden name, Donald Trump. Executive Vice President Dan Scavino says only the very best ingredients will do for Trump, which is why he has Kobe beef for burgers and fresh tuna flown in daily from Honolulu. When the man’s initial is stamped on the labels on the vodka bottles, he gets what he wants.
What The Donald wants are straightforward classic dishes, according to Executive Chef Joerg Zehe. Christopher Gilch leads the cooking as the grill room chef. Taking a cue from the boss, I sampled a delicious chicken breast in Panko crumbs accompanied by sublime honeyed mascarpone served with 30-year-old balsamic vinegar. Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls in sweet chili dipping sauce and Mediterranean grilled jumbo shrimp were flavorful and succulent. The trio of Kobe mini-burgers, gilded with smoked Gouda, were downright decadent.
Trump’s image gazes from “Trump Ice,” the bottled water served at the club, and his initial dominates the label on his brand of fruit-infused vodkas, the not-so-secret ingredient for drinks like the pomegranate martini made with Chambord, fresh lime juice, pomegranate liqueur, and a splash of fresh grapefruit juice.
Food and Beverage Director Jeff Poling says the grill room is particularly exciting when members like Bill Clinton, Rudy Guliani, Tom Brady, and Joe Torre drop by for a bite. No one galvanizes the room, though, like DT himself, who was celebrating a win over the club champion with fellow real estate magnate Louis Cappelli the day I visited.
♦ Knollwood Country Club
History may be the most famous dish served in Knollwood Country Club’s grill room overlooking the rolling hills and ancient trees of Westchester’s oldest continuous golf site. Knollwood was founded in 1894 and the first iteration of the golf course opened in 1895. It’s easy to imagine sheep grazing the grass in Elmsford as they did a century ago when Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Harrimans were members, or golf legend Bobby Jones dining here with Clifford Roberts and laying plans for Augusta National Golf Club and the Master’s Tournament.
The grill room in which they dined retains its original paneling, minus the dark patina from years of tobacco smoke and grilling residue. Modernized six years ago, the room is light and airy and overlooks stunning sweeping views of the course and the original veranda.
Today’s Knollwood members might toast their round with a Malibu Baby, a mixture of rum, pineapple, and cranberry juices. They’d watch Bobby Jones choose from a modern grill room menu designed by chef Christopher Capstick with appetizers like coconut shrimp with mango dipping sauce, pepper-cheese quesadillas, and salads. Some things never change, though. According to Chief Operating Officer Ted Hennes, the most popular afternoon dishes are pastrami Reubens, blackened-chicken sandwiches, and turkey clubs. When I visited, specials included a flavorful, velvety pea soup and very fresh sole with mixed greens. Hennes says, “Our members linger over meals and drinks. This helps give our club a warm and welcoming atmosphere.”
♦ Ardsley Country Club
Cuisine may be almost as important as the game of golf to members of the Ardsley Country Club. When the food-savvy members extravagantly praised the Irvington restaurant One, General Manager John A. Brisson (a former chef himself) hired its executive chef, Dan Magill, and his sous chef, Craig Johannesen. These CIA (Culinary Institute of America) alumni have wowed club diners.
“It’s a foodie crowd,” Magill says, “and I can put anything I want on the menu and they’re not afraid to try it.” The grill room and terrace offer everything from comfort food to more exotic dishes, and the menu changes daily. I dined on a towering mound of lightly dressed lobster salad brimming with sea-fresh flavor and resting atop a wreath of dark-green avocado slices surrounded by ruby red grapefruit slices and dots of miso-ginger dressing. It was a feast for both the eyes and the palate. I also tried scrambled organic eggs with smoked Scottish salmon, vodka crème, garlic chives, and American sturgeon caviar, a stellar treat decoratively served in brown shells.
Brisson matches his chef’s passion for creative dishes with a 10,000-bottle cellar of extraordinary wines that “mem-bers would never find in their local shops.” I had a very good 2005 Barbera d’Alba and a superlative Henriot, a sparkling wine from Reims served in hand-polished stemware.
Food, wine, breathtaking views of the Hudson — you mean there’s a golf course, too?
♦ Whippoorwill Club
When Whippoorwill Chef Mark Pawlak walked into the dining room at the start of his second year at the club, the members gave him a standing ovation, according to General Manager Raymond Gradale. Originally from Poland, Pawlak became a palate-pleaser by cooking his way through Italy and France. He uses the winter downtime at the club to moonlight in Manhattan’s best restaurants and pick up ideas for new creations.
He serves treats like scallops on a raft of deep-fried asparagus and meltingly tender, slow-cooked prime ribs in the bright and airy grill room at the recently renovated club, which overlooks Whippoorwill’s 1st and 18th holes from the second-highest elevation in Westchester. I was myself ready to applaud when I tried Pawlak’s wild salmon smoked with bourbon followed by a tasting of his Key lime tart, flan with roasted pineapple, and a chocolate ganache cake which outshone my favorite patisseries’ creations. Chef Pawlak makes his own pies, including peach, blueberry, and apple, as well as sorbets and ice creams.
The bar that adjoins the grill room is conveniently designed so that members can see the course while enjoying “The Freddy,” the club’s trademark drink, a popular combination of lemon, lime, Cointreau, and tequila served in 12-ounce bubble glasses. Beers from a microbrewery in Pleasantville and eight different beers on tap served in frosted beer mugs also are very popular.
♦ Winged Foot Golf Club
Winged Foot may be one of the county’s most private clubs, but it understands conviviality and gracious hospitality. That’s particularly true in the grill room in the English Manor clubhouse, the casual dining and drinking spot at the club that sports its original paneling, sconces, ceiling beams, and fireplace as well as a beautifully polished bar. Just outside is the spacious terrace overlooking the fabled 18th hole of the West Course.
Personal service is a hallmark at Winged Foot, according to General Manager Colin Burns, a 17-year veteran of the club. “We have an incredibly high retention rate for our staff,” he says. “When members return after the winter, our staff remembers everyone’s food preferences.”
Chef Steven Haverson changes the grill room menus weekly, often emphasizing organic fruits and vegetables flown in from Frog Hollow in California. I had an outstanding fruit salad served with excellent zucchini bread. Fresh-squeezed watermelon juice was delicious. I also tried the sesame-crusted ahi tuna, wrapped with avocado, alfalfa sprouts, and aioli. The menu includes standards with flavorful twists like crispy fried sole wrapped in a sun-dried tomato tortilla or “Christina Maria” tacos with lightly tossed crabmeat, heirloom tomatoes, and radish sprouts. A classic treat at the club is the house-made luscious vanilla ice-cream sandwich.
Andrea Kurtz is a journalist/photographer whose work appears locally and nationally. She currently completing a novel, set in Westchester, about glitz, greed, gamesmanship, guilt, and a bit of golf.