LAUREL HIGHLANDS, Pa. — With the setting sun the rooms golds, Cherokee reds, greens, browns and blues come alive, like a young woman dressing in her finest jewels and chiffons for dinner with the man she loves.
At Aqueous Restaurant, located in the the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Falling Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, interior furnishings are pleasing to the eye with geometric lighting fixtures, organic materials and colors.
You feel comfortable because the room is comfortable. Aqueous makes you feel that you are there, the place to be.
But you are there for the food and executive sous chef Sean Eckman and chef Seth Mahler create incredible plates that are inspired by the environment, local produce and a dedication to creating foods that combine healthy, regional products into works of culinary art.
“As a concept we are bringing the farm to the table in new and exciting ways,” Eckman said. “Tomatoes. For summer, freshly harvested, dressed with a bit of salt. Their strong green floral essence is the smell of the garden that takes me back to my childhood.”
The warm wonderful taste of a summer fresh tomato is highlighted in chefs Heirloom Tomato and Fresh Mozzarella salad. The mozzarella made in house, the tomato lush and flavorful, dressed in a lovely herb vinaigrette a tart balsamic reduction with basil oil.
Summer fresh indeed.
Aqueous is only one of many dining experiences guests to Nemacolin can enjoy. But it surely is one of the finest experiences one can have.
It begins with the room’s incredible ambience. Seating is comfortable, intimate. Silver settings are heavy and comfortable to use. Colors bring in the hues of the outdoors so that visually, the room extends out over the courses to the cool greens of the natural forest.
During our visit, Mahler manned the steel counters of the Aqueous kitchen, and he did so without flaw. Each dish perfect in presentation, weight, seasoning and size.
Aqueous is a steak house, serving thick, regional cuts of the finest beef available. Steaks are served with a variety of sauces – classic béarnaise, brandy peppercorn blue cheese butter, bordelaise – which is incredible I aside – and horseradish cream.
Any good steak house has signature side dishes and Aqueous does not disappoint in its choices of baked, buttery whipped, croquette, or fried potatoes, classic creamed spinach and jumbo asparagus. The hand breaded onion rings are a holy grail for the fan.
However, it is the signature macaroni and cheese that adorned the perfect cut of ribeye I enjoyed. The steak was incredible but the mac and cheese, well that was perfectly cooked pasta in a creamy sauce topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.
A truly exquisite offering is the baked lobster bisque ($13). A creamy, rich, velvety soup full of fresh, rich, sweet lobster topped with a buttery puff pastry is mouthwatering. One of those dishes whose comfort level is so high you can instantly recall its sweet warmth long after the meal is done.
“The lobster bisque is constructed to build in the mouth as you are experiencing it,” Eckman says. “The butter from the pastry adds a very luscious mouth feel to the bisque. Then you have the sweetness of the lobster and the flavors of brandy and sherry, which give the dish a great nose.”
Eckman continues the farm to table tradition sourcing cheeses from Firefly Farm located in Accident, Md. Creating some of the finest artisan goat cheeses I have experienced, the Aqueous Signature Salad ($13) pairs grilled double cut bacon and tartly sweet poppy seed dressing with Firefly Farms blue cheese, fresh tomato, greens and a crisp slice of cucumber.
“The fun thing about the Aqueous Signature Salad is that it is a traditional steak house salad in that it is built around bacon,” Eckman says. “Sherry vinegar and brown sugar reduction layers a smoky saltiness to the salad. The good moldiness of the Firefly Farms blue cheese and the tart sweetness of poppy seed vinaigrette.
The greens are just from the garden so they lend a wonderful vibrancy, crisp and fresh that tends to cut the richness of the dish while the tomatoes lend an acidic note and the cucumber a cool pop.”
This is so not your granddaddies steakhouse.
But it is a steak house and the beef comes in cuts and sizes that you would expect.
Signature Steaks include a 14oz porter ($44) and the 18oz bone-in ribeye ($37). The menu also offers a filet mignon and New York strip, or for something different, the pecan-crusted double-cut lambchop ($38) or honey mustard brined porkchop ($34).
But it is not all from the land. Starters from the sea include a spicy ahi tuna ($15) featuring sushi grade tuna or large, meaty shrimp cocktail ($15.)
Standing out is the garlic-basted halibut ($31) served atop ricotta gnocchi, English peas and prosciutto topped with a caviar crème.
The halibut in this dish retains its moistness and the sweet, flaky white meat, crisped on the top becomes a savory explosion with the gnocchi and prosciutto. The caviar adding the perfect salt.
Dinner is finished so beautifully with the deserts of pastry chef Julie Mosesso. Mosesso’s cheesecake with cherry foam and cherry compote provided a lovely, not overly sweet and uniquely tasting end to a meal that was nothing short of incredible.
“From a personal point of view, food brings people together,” Eckman says. “The one thing we have in common is that we all eat and the memories of special meals – holidays and celebrations, are intertwined in our lives. It is great what I do, how I am able to touch people with people because it is such a big part of their life.”
Guests to Aqueous should expect to spend at least two hours dining while enjoying the ever attentive, but never intrusive staff. Chef refers to them as the “ghosts” of the dining room.
However the administrations of these ghosts, from suggesting the perfect margarita for before dinner to sommelier Christopher Mikolowsky, who pairs wines from the Nemacolin cellar perfectly to each course, add exponentially to the meal.
While Mikolowsky created numerous fine pairings to go with the variety of small plates that Malher sent out in an unending stream of culinary célèbre, my favorite was a bottle I would never have considered, but for this warm summer evening a pour of Whispering Angel Rose added the perfect finishing touch to a dining experience that was so very relaxed and comfortable and very gently elegant.
Read Jacquie’s destination review of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
Jacquie Kubin is a 15-year, award-winning veteran of travel and culinary writing.
Today, Jacquie edits and directs a staff of writers Communities Digital News, where you can read more of her entertainment, travel and culinary reviews. Jacquie is always looking for new talents who want to expand their horizons. Email her at JacquieKubin@gmail.com
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