Reports of formal dining’s demise at club and resort properties have been greatly exaggerated. Many chefs report that the tradition is still alive and well, with proper nods to today’s eating preferences.
The demand for casual and family dining may be growing at clubs and resorts across the country, but white-tablecloth, jackets-only options still have a loyal following.
At Menlo Country Club in Woodside, Calif., the Lanai—the club’s 40-seat formal dining room with a fireplace—typically fills up when it is open for dinner Thursday through Sunday and for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, according to Executive Chef Scott Doran.
Classics such as the 16-oz. bone-in ribeye steak are still on Menlo CC’s a la carte menu, but most of the offerings have changed to smaller plates and lighter, seasonal fare, Doran says. “Many members are less likely to want to eat the traditional meal consisting of a pound of meat and a starch, and they’re more likely to prefer smaller portions and greater variety,” he explains.
For example, he notes, a member favorite in Menlo CC’s formal dining room is now pan-seared Petrale sole. Doran changes the formal dining menu monthly, introducing new dishes and techniques each time for this discerning dining group.
In addition to lunches and dinners, Menlo also hosts at least six formal chef’s tables and wine dinners each year. The popularity of these events has resulted in Doran increasing the number of them over the past few years.
While formal dining tends to have the greatest appeal to the 55-plus member age demographic, Doran says, younger members also seem to enjoy a dress-up evening out, including a wine or chef’s dinner.
Special in All Regards
Formal dining usually means a special-occasion private function at Glen Ridge (N.J.) Country Club, explains Executive Chef James Haberstroh. It could be the members’ wine club holding a wine-maker dinner and pairing; a birthday, anniversary or retirement celebration, or just some couples who want to share a dress-up date night. “One member had a party on New Year’s Eve when the club was open just to him and his guests,” Haberstroh recalls. “Recently, two couples who shared a 30th anniversary celebrated together with a formal dinner at the club.”For that dinner, Haberstroh prepared a six-course feast beginning with foie gras blini with Royal Ossetra caviar, followed by goat cheese crème bruleé (see recipe, pg. 30) with a lavender honey-lace cookie. The next courses were cider-braised pork cheeks with wild ramp pesto and morel mushroom; domestic Colorado lamb-rack chops; and prime beef tenderloin en croute with shaved truffle. For dessert, Haberstroh prepared white chocolate cheesecake with Maine blueberry crumble. Each course was paired with a wine selection.
With proper prior notice, Haberstroh will prepare formal dinners in one of Glen Ridge’s two intimate wine-cellar rooms (one can seat up to 15, the other 25 to 30). For jacket-required holidays such as Mother’s Day, Easter and the club’s annual black-tie holiday gala, he uses the upstairs banquet room.
Haberstroh completely customizes the menus for formal dinners (and lunches) at Glen Ridge. “For a wine dinner, you could feature any kinds of wines, from Spanish vineyards to those from France’s Bourdeaux region,” he notes. “Each would require its own particular pairing menu.”
Multiple courses of smaller plates have taken the place of the traditional large cut of meat at Glen Ridge’s formal dinners. One recent appetizer offering was a three-bite version of Haberstroh’s goat cheese crème brulée, followed by an eight-ounce dry-aged steak. A rack of lamb is now two chops, rather than a full rack. And there is always some sort of vegetarian offering.
Formal lunches, which are occasionally hosted at the club, are generally private functions. The lunch menus are also completely customized by Haberstroh, to suit the occasion and member preferences.
Much of the time it is the founding members of Glen Ridge, individuals in their late 40s to 60s, who continue to show a preference for more-formal dining, says Haberstroh. “It has been their tradition and they choose to continue it,” he says. “Their children are usually adults, so they aren’t as concerned about dining venues that cater to youngsters.”
Different Venues, Same Menu
Thomas Pepka, Executive Chef of Illini Country Club in Springfield, Ill., takes a very different approach to formal dining. At Illini CC, formal dining is separated from more-casual options by the location of the meal and the dress code, but not the menu.
While more spaces in the club have been renovated to accommodate members’ increased demand for casual and family dining, Pepka reports, Illini CC still has a solid base that prefers formal dining—particularly older members who want to retain their long-time traditions.
Illini CC has three different and distinct dining venues. The formal one, the Leland Room, can seat up to 18 guests. The menu is the same as that offered in the more casual dining rooms—a series of starters and small plates, followed by entrees.
“It’s not uncommon in [the Leland Room] to see one guest having filet mignon while the person sitting next to him, also in formal dress, is enjoying chicken wings, as long as that person is dressed appropriately for the dining room,” Pepka notes. “If someone wants a hot dog in the Leland Room they can have it, while someone in the Grille Room wanting filet mignon can get that as well.”
Most nights, Pepka reports, the Leland Room does well—and especially on Friday and Saturday nights. “On weeknights, we usually see our elder members in the Leland Room; formal dining is a tradition for them,” he said. “On Saturdays, though, we see a little different clientele, more mixed ages.”
Chef’s tables and wine-pairing dinners are also held in the Leland Room. For lunch, the room generally caters to the business crowd and is usually busy on weekdays, partly due to the club’s location near the Illinois state capitol building.
Like Menlo and Glen Ridge, Illini CC’s menu has shifted to an emphasis on small plates and multiple courses. “We still offer steaks and prime rib, but we also include lighter, seasonal fine-dining entrees such as filet of grouper; chicken caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil; mustard-crusted salmon; flat breads and burgers,” says Pepka. “For heartier fare, we have included lobster risotto and bison ribs.”
Some of the more popular items are the Hot Fire appetizer, which consists of fried shrimp in sriracha sambal sauce (an Indonesian chile sauce) and wasabi cucumber dressing with black sesame seeds; calamari prepared in different ways; steamed pork dumplings; the house salad composed of a mixture of iceberg and leaf lettuce, creamy horseradish dressing, bacon and cheese; and fish tacos (even in the Leland Room).
After Pepka introduced a program featuring different culinary themes, volume has grown exponentially in all of the club’s dining rooms compared to the year before. In January and February, Thursday night has become fried chicken night. Last summer, Pepka offered regional rib nights, focusing on pork ribs and changing the preparations every week.
Saturday is prime rib night, but because Friday evenings are usually busy enough, Pepka does not feature a theme for that day.
Clubs are also rethinking dress and dining rules for their formal venues, along with the menus themselves. To accommodate the many members who still enjoy dressing up for dinner, the formal dining room at Menlo CC requires gentlemen to wear a jacket and tie. Jackets are also required at Glen Ridge CC and Illini CC, but ties are optional. Jeans are not permitted in any of the clubs’ formal dining rooms, and cell phones must be set on silent mode.
Summing It Up
> Intimate spaces are popular for formal dining.
> Fine-dining menus have shifted from large portions to multiple small courses.
> Chefs’ tables and wine dinners are special ways to feature fine-dining fare.
Fresh Grouper with Sweet Savory Corn Pudding, Oyster Mushroom Vinaigrette and Petite Greens
Yield: 4 Servings
INGREDIENTS for grouper:
4 6-oz. portions fresh grouper
2 ozs. clarified butter
10 sprigs fresh thyme
20 grape tomatoes, halved
1 Pan-sear grouper in butter; add grape tomatoes and thyme sprigs.
2 Finish in oven until cooked through. Make sure tomatoes are well-blistered.
INGREDIENTS for corn pudding:
2 cups vegetable stock
6 ears of corn, shucked, kernels off
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. crème fraiche
to taste salt and pepper
1 Puree stock and corn in a blender; strain and pour into double boiler, and let thicken.
2 Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook to desired consistency.
3 Stir in butter and crème fraiche.
4 Keep warm.
ingredients for OYSTER MUSHROOM VINAIGRETTE:
2 cups oyster mushrooms, sliced
2.5 ozs. extra-virgin olive oil
to taste salt and white pepper
2 sprigs thyme, leaves picked
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 oz. sherry vinegar
.5 oz. honey
1 Heat a pan and add olive oil, mushrooms and salt and pepper until mushrooms are wilted. Add thyme, garlic and shallot, and sauté 1 minute.
2 Reduce heat; add sherry vinegar and honey. Adjust salt and pepper.
3 The vinaigrette can be stored for one week.
Ingredients for PETITE GREENS:
2 cups spring mix
2 ozs. basil oil
1 Place corn pudding in the bottom of a bowl; add blistered tomatoes.
2 Top with grouper fillet, 2 tbsp. oyster mushroom vinaigrette and spring mix.
3 Drizzle with basil oil.
Submitted by Thomas Pepka, Executive Chef, Illini Country Club, Springfield, Ill.
Goat Cheese Crème Brulée
Yield: 6 servings
600 grams goat cheese
4 egg yolks
2 cups cream
2 cups milk
2 tsp. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. coarse cane sugar
1 Bring milk and cream to a boil.
2 Whisk egg yolks and maple syrup until the yolks are white and frothy.
3 Temper cream and milk to egg yolk mixture.
4 Add goat cheese and puree.
5 Transfer the mixture to six ramekins.
6 Cook in a combi oven at 280˚ with 65% moisture for 12 minutes.
7 Let chill for approximately 2 hours.
8 To caramelize the tops, sprinkle coarse sugar evenly over the crème. Caramelize gently with a blowtorch.
Submitted by James Haberstroh, Executive Chef, Glen Ridge Country Club, Glen Ridge, N.J.
Pan-Seared Scallops with Butternut Squash, Asparagus, Lobster Claw and Cherry Tomatoes
Yield: 4 Servings
INGREDIENTS for Scallops:
12 U-10 scallops, cleaned
2 ozs. olive oil
4 ozs. butter
To taste salt and white pepper
1 Season scallops with salt and white pepper. Heat a sauté pan with olive oil. Add scallops and sear on medium/high heat; cook for about 3 minutes to get a nice sear on the presentation side.
2 Flip the scallops and lower the heat. Add butter and baste for about another 3 minutes, or until done.
INGREDIENTS FOR Butternut Squash Purée:
1 butternut squash
6 ozs. butter, cubed
2 ozs. brown sugar
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
To taste salt and white pepper
1 Cut the squash in half lengthwise and clean the seeds. Place squash skin-side down on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
2 Top both pieces with cubes of butter and brown sugar and place in a 350˚ oven for 45 to 60 minutes.
3 Once done, remove the skin and discard.
4 Heat up the heavy cream and add to Vitamix blender. Blend the squash and cream until smooth and season with salt and white pepper.
Ingredients for Asparagus:
4 stalks asparagus
Juice from 1/2 lemon
2 ozs. olive oil
1 bunch tarragon
1 Cut asparagus into 3”-length pieces. Bring salted water to a boil and blanch asparagus for about 45 to 60 seconds. Immediately transfer asparagus to a bowl of ice water.
2 Heat olive oil in a sauté pan; add asparagus and cook through. Add the lemon juice.
3 Toss with fresh tarragon right before plating.
Ingredients for cherry tomatos:
12 cherry tomatoes
2 cups olive oil
1 bunch thyme
4 garlic cloves
Combine all ingredients on a baking pan and cover with foil. Cook in a 250˚ oven for about 25 minutes.
Ingredients for Lobster Claws:
8 lobster claws, par-cooked
4 ozs. clarified butter
1 Slowly heat the clarified butter on medium/low heat.
2 Add the lobster claws and cook on low heat for about 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the lobster.
Place a small amount of butternut squash purée in the bottom of a bowl. Arrange three scallops on the purée. Place the asparagus on top, leaning against the scallops. Place two of the lobster claws standing tall against the scallops, to achieve height.
Note: The chef recommends garnishing each plate with a small pile of crispy prosciutto, 3 confit cherry tomatoes, and micro greens.
Submitted by Scott Doran, Executive Chef, Menlo Country Club, Woodside, Calif.