Years ago, a friend who — like me — was a line cook in a former life, invited me to lunch at Celebrity Dairy in Siler City North Carolina. Celebrity Dairy is a bucolic goat farm that also features an inn, a full kitchen, and an event space. The guest chef that day, my friend explained, was his friend Chip Smith, a superb local chef who he wanted me to meet. A delightful afternoon ensued; we ate many courses of classic French food that had been elegantly tailored to incorporate local and seasonal ingredients, and then we visited the goats. (I almost took one home…) I met Chip Smith and Tina Vaughn for the first time.
In Chapel Hill, Chip and Tina opened Bonne Soirée, by far the classiest restaurant the town has ever seen. I dined there once, perhaps twice, before I moved to the metropolis. Perhaps it’s pretentious to use the word “dine,” but I can’t help it; the word “eat” in this context would seem to diminish the experience, which is at once of food, wine, ambiance, and hospitality. The attention given not just to the quality of the food, but to space, noise level, presentation, wine pairings, service, etc… was of a caliber previously unknown in Chapel Hill. After I moved, I heard news of Chip and Tina through the small culinary community of my home town and environs. Ultimately, even though the area has a thriving food and wine scene by any standard, the town wasn’t ready for a restaurant like Bonne Soirée. Luckily for us, Chip and Tina found a sympathetic investor for their new venture, and they came to New York.
Chip and Tina’s restaurant on east 82nd Street is called The Simone; I was fortunate to dine there recently for the first time. Committed to enjoying the evening without interruption, I did not take a single picture or tasting note, but happily Tina has furnished me with pictures of the wines we drank that night. Set back from the street by a small terrace that will be the envy of all and sundry once spring deigns to grace us with its presence, The Simone is ever-so-slightly sunken into the ground level of the building, which doubtless contributes to its peaceful ambiance. Walking in the door, I was struck (as I had been at Bonne Soirée years ago), by Chip and Tina’s ability to create a quiet dining environment. Most restaurants are incredibly loud, especially in New York, and, like over-seasoning, loud music and the din of fellow diners can destroy even the best culinary endeavors.
Once seated we accepted glasses of Champagne and large leather-bound menus hand-written (by Tina) in beautiful, sloping, calligraphic script. The fellow who took me to The Simone is a VIP (for lack of a better word) there, and so I can’t swear that a Champagne flute miraculously finds its way into every diner’s hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case because Tina is impeccably hospitable. I looked over to the neighboring table to see Eric Asimov of the New York Times enjoying a jovial meal with friends.
To start I ordered terrines of various sorts: quail and foie gras, pork with Armagnac soaked prunes, served on a bed of perfectly al dente lentils du puy with two mustards and brioche. (I can’t stand the expression “house-made,” so I’m going to leave it out. Please assume, dear reader, that everything at The Simone is made in situ.) Tina poured a Swiss wine from the Rosenthal portfolio: 2010 Amigne from Cave des Tilleuls. Amigne is the grape variety, grown on schist, gneiss, and granite soils, almost exclusively in the town of Vetroz. This is a big, broad, sexy wine — somewhat like a ripe Altesse with waxy yellow fruits, and a honeyed, nutty character — with wood used in the élèvage, robust in alcohol but with high acidity. Sometimes these wines are sweet, and the sweetness level is indicated by the number of bees on the label: one bee for a dry wine, two for a demi-sec, and three for a sweet wine. C’est mignon! I certainly appreciated venturing into Switzerland after my recent escapades in the Savoie.
My companion had a fiery red soup based on red peppers topped with a layer of creamy foam. Tina served Coenobium, the orange wine made by Cistercian nuns under the supervision of Giampiero Bea. I’m sure Coenobium needs no introduction to many of you. It’s a striking wine made from native grapes to Lazio: Malvasia, Verdicchio, Grechetto, and Trebbiano. Maceration on the skins gives it a deep, orange color, and the body and complexity necessary to stand up to a full-flavored soup. One (among many) compelling aspects of dining at The Simone was that Tina curated the entire experience for us, and we had the pleasure of getting to know her palate and pairing preferences. It would never have occurred to me to drink a Swiss white wine with terrine, nor would Coenobium have dawned on me as a match for red pepper soup, but the pairings were very good. I’m often asked to pick bottles of wine from restaurant wine lists, a task that should be fun, but is in fact daunting and stressful; if the wine list is long enough, it feels like homework. I’d like someone else to do the choosing; in fact, the only thing that makes me happier than a quiet dining room is someone else picking the wine!
Next there was a puff pastry tart with caramelized onions, gruyère, prosciutto, and a sunny side up egg. You can’t really go wrong here. Tina’s wine choice was fascinating: Coda di Volpe from Campania in southern Italy. Had I been called upon to propose a wine for this dish, my thoughts would have gone immediately to eastern France, or perhaps Alpine Italy, but Campania? In researching this wine, from the Vadiaperti winery in Avellino, I came across such a fabulous rendering of Italian into English that I’m compelled to share. Antonio, who made the winery’s first bottle of Fiano in 1984 “loved walking through his lands, among his vineyards, watching their seasonal changes, smelling their perfumes, touching their fruits; he considered himself a “vine-dresser.” It’s now Antonio’s son, Raffaele, who makes the wine. From volcanic soil, it’s a full-bodied, earthy and musky white wine that certainly speaks of the warm, dry Mediterranean climate of Campania. Perhaps it was the wine’s inherent volcanic smokiness that harmonized with the caramelized onions, perhaps its layered richness that mirrored the dish. In any case, I’d be thrilled to encounter this wine again. As a confirmed consumer of almost exclusively French wine, there are moments when I ask myself why I don’t drink more Italian wine and this was one of them.
My main course comprised every single one of my favorite foods (except cheese). It was rainbow trout stuffed with Swiss chard, raisins, and fresh garlic, wrapped in bacon, and served atop potato rostii, drizzled with caper brown butter. Interestingly, here I would have potentially sprung for an Italian white wine, especially considering the combination of seafood, raisins, and garlic, which finds its way into Sicilian food from time to time. But Tina flipped the script on me! She served a Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny! The gentlemen who make this wine are clearly winemakers by day and jesters by night. They have an amusing and energetic website that was fun to look at, but left the Domaine shrouded in mystery. It’s a fairly plush, ripe style of Cabernet Franc, necessary to accommodate the bold flavors of this dish. In fact the dish was so flavorful that, in retrospect, I’m hard pressed to imagine a white wine that could stand up to it … Those of us who are gluttons know the moment well when one needs to stop eating, but the food is simply too delicious to let the plate disappear into the hands of the quietly hovering server.
After dinner, there was Cognac, Armagnac, lingering at the table chatting with Tina and the staff, brief greetings to Chip, who’d been slaving in the kitchen. We met the restaurant cat, who surfaced once the other diners had left. It was a civilized amount of time to digest such a satisfying meal. We weren’t rushed in order to turn a table or clean up. On the street in the bracing winter air, I began to think about Manhattan restaurants, how corporate they’ve become, the fancy ones owned by massive restaurant groups: Danny Meyer, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, etc … There are so few truly independent eateries. And despite that the food, the service, and the wine at these establishments is often excellent, you’ll never find a hand-written menu, or the level of personal attention given to each diner that Chip and Tina offer at The Simone. Maybe my evening at The Simone reminded me of my hometown, the friendliness and generosity of the south, a little escape from the fast, cold, hard city. But this restaurant is special, and that I’d encourage every local reader to check it out … before it becomes insanely popular and you have to wait months for a table …