In its former life, The Drawing Room at The Vendue was The Library, a reliable but rather staid venue flanked by historical portraits. Last year, new owners Jon and Lisa Weitz launched a multi-million dollar renovation. Perhaps inspired by the success of places like Louisville's avant-garde 21C Museum Hotel, they chose to transform this string of old warehouse buildings into a vibrant, contemporary art forum. And not just a place with cool images on the walls, but a living, breathing, interactive gallery, with art for sale, an artist in residence, art demonstrations, and a full-time art docent.
A cool concept, certainly. But the question remains: with all this focus on visual arts, is the food itself an afterthought? Is it like the cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where cold turkey sandwiches are hardly on par with Rembrandts? Can you really have the best of both worlds?
To answer this question, I headed to The Drawing Room on a Saturday night. Despite being fully booked, they managed to shuffle some tables at the last minute to accommodate my group. The scene is fresh, vibrant. Tapestry patchwork lions snarl from hallway walls. Crystal chandeliers refract light on neoclassical columns and polished marble floors. Diners cozy up on plush banquettes and intimate tables. Live bossa nova streams fluidly from the dexterous hands of an eight-string guitar player in the corner. The graphite gaze of a woman casts a serene spell from the wall by the lively bar. I caught on to the dual meaning of the restaurant's name, both in the sense of The Drawing Room as the room for entertaining guests and as venue for artistic expression. Art is neither ploy nor afterthought here, setting the mood for a creative dining experience. The word "vendue" translates literally as "sold," a nod to French auctioneers who conducted trade here post-1785. And "sold" I am on this place. You could say they had me at "foie gras beignet."
For cocktail starters, the Blue Ridge Manhattan ($11) comes with a string of boozy cherries artfully dangling from the lip of the martini glass, substituting sweet vermouth for the smoky undertones of Ardbeg single malt scotch. My friends enjoy the Caipirinha ($9), Brazil's national drink, made with Leblon Cachaça single-estate cane sugar rum.
Nearby diners nibbled on plates of scorched shishito peppers ($8) from Ambrose Farms, gobbling them with their fingers like popcorn. We passed a plate of ceviche between us ($11), the fresh catch delightfully balanced with olive oil, bright citrus, a crunch of slivered fennel, and the moderate heat of raw jalapeños, all beautifully balanced.
The oyster mushroom tart ($11), showcases flavorful, earthy mushrooms from the Trappist monks just up the road at Mepkin Abbey. The mushrooms are tucked into a flaky puff pastry and plated with brushstrokes of acorn squash purée, port gastrique, sprinklings of pistachios, and a smattering of garden greens.
The trio of Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($21) is an epiphany, definitely worth the price. Creamy, room-temperature foie gras custard nestles into a petite duck egg balanced on rock salt. The classic Torchon Brûlée French preparation caramelizes the exterior of the duck liver but leaves the center velvety and glistening, served over a crisp buttery brioche with a dab of brandied fruit chutney. The pillowy beignets stuffed with warm foie gras (a dreamy marriage of two indulgences) round out the trinity.
Chef Jon Cropf's dedication to local sourcing and seasonality really shines in his salads, with just-picked-this-morning flavors, whether it be the poached pear and gorgonzola with spiced pecans ($9), the Kurios Farm butter lettuces with a crispy poached egg ($10), the "caprese" with fall tomatoes and housemade burrata ($10), or the multi-colored heirloom beets with smoked goat cheese and slivers of duck prosciutto ($12). I could eat any of these salads as a meal and be perfectly happy. The carefully arranged, gently tousled platings are so artful that we Instagrammed like social media addicts.
Cropf demonstrates a passion for molecular gastronomy with the "licorice soil" that dusts the beet plate. Comprised of dehydrated, ground black olives with notes of juniper and star anise, the "soil" adds an herbal, salty crunch to the dish, kind of like Pop Rocks for foodies. This culinary team is having some serious fun. The mood is so positive that when the bartender accidentally drops a tray of glassware, the entire dining room breaks into applause.
From my seat, I peer around a column through the open kitchen door and watch Chef Cropf bathed in light, stooped over each plate, arranging his compositions, surrounded by his army of creative apprentices. We learn from our waiter that Sous Chef Nick McNevin is a certified mushroom forager and grows the delicate edible flowers that garnish many a dish. Another chef is the mastermind behind the smoked olive oil featured in dollops of "pudding" encircling the braised rabbit crêpes ($14). The crêpes themselves, crisped on the upside, are perhaps too generously stuffed. They're more like rabbit burritos than the flatter pancakes I expected.
Chef Cropf, an avid fisherman, nails the striped bass special however. Pan-seared skin-on and juicy within, it is served over a bed of nutty lentils. We passed plates of perfectly cooked medallions of venison tenderloin ($29), tender and aromatic spiced glazed lamb ($28), and possibly the best ribeye I have ever put in my mouth ($36), so tender I could have cut it with a butter knife. The sides on various dishes speak to this kitchen's gastronomical adventurousness: savory bread pudding, black rice, peppery white soy gelée, farro, bone marrow béarnaise. I vow to come back for more.
The chocolate "pâté" is the highlight of the dessert tray, light, airy, and deliciously creamy. And the charcoal roasted butternut squash ice cream proves that Cropf's team is rounded out by an exquisitely talented pastry program.
Our bills arrived neatly tucked into books, a nice touch considering the restaurant's former life as The Library. We read aloud passages from The Alchemist and Spell of the Yukon, as our waiter Ryan Fogerty admits he peruses Nostradamus in his off time. Although tempted to linger longer, nose deep in great books, fine wine, and after-dinner liqueurs, we headed to the rooftop bar to clown around with the interactive life-sized art installation that invites us to make full-body impressions against three dimensional sliding metal pins. All in all the perfect end to an evening that engages all the senses.