Review by James Leach on May
26, 2010 (view PDF version)
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Rabbit Room
"I don't think you'll like this salad," my dining companion said, as she
crooked her arm protectively around her plate of roasted beet and chevre
salad and effortlessly parried my fork with her own. "Well," I snapped
back, "I don't think you'll like my soup, either," distracting her momentarily
while I stole a delicious-looking clump of candied walnuts from her unprotected
Dinner at the Rabbit Room in Honeoye Falls, I discovered recently, can
bring out the worst in a person: although you are normally nice, normally
inclined to share bites of your salad, or spoonfuls of soup, Chef Andrew
Penner's dishes are so darned good you may well forget the manners you
learned in kindergarten, turning your meal into a Hobbesian war of all
Described by the chef as homey and eclectic, the 4-year-old Rabbit Room
is many things to many people. During the week, the restaurant serves
top-notch diner fare for lunch. On Thursday nights - and only on Thursday
nights - Chef Penner produces an innovative take on contemporary American
standards, using fresh, local ingredients in accord with his own "hundred-mile
rule" (if it isn't sourced within 100 miles of his restaurant, he likely
won't use an ingredient on his menu). The rest of the week, the Rabbit
Room is one of the hottest venues around for weddings, rehearsal dinners,
parties, and even a bar mitzvah or two.
Set in a renovated grist mill just above the Honeoye Creek, the Rabbit
Room could have been awful, an overdone faux historical tourist trap.
But Penner and his wife, Allison, had the good sense and good taste to
let the building speak for itself, leaving the 100-year-old floors bare
and the rough stone walls basically unadorned. The dining room during
the day is light and airy and full of sunshine. By night it is the very
definition of a romantic retreat - dark and intimate without a single
distraction from the beauty of your dining companion, and the excellence
of Chef Penner's food.
I have to admit that my first visit to the Rabbit Room for lunch threw
me off my stride. Mentally prepared for a tasting menu, I was instead
presented with a menu full of sandwiches, soups, and salads. I was a little
nonplussed, but the setting was nice, and there was Brooklyn Local 1 -
a sensationally good abbey ale brewed in Utica for Brooklyn Brewery -
on the restaurant's small but very well selected beer list, so I suspended
my skepticism for a bit and ordered a bowl of onion soup and a burger.
Penner's onion soup ($4 cup, $5 crock) is wonderful. Built on a base of
very good, very rich beef stock enriched with plentiful caramelized onions
and a splash of what was probably cognac rather than the usual sherry
to round out the flavors, it was so tasty that the provolone cheese on
top was almost an obstacle keeping me from getting at another spoonful
Penner's burger ($10), made with ground beef from Seven Bridges Farm in
Lima, was equally good - cooked a juicy medium rare, topped with a generous
dollop of bleu cheese-shallot dip, and served on a roll somewhere between
a brioche and a typical sandwich roll. The only disappointment was the
shriveled tomato served on the side. Fortunately, it wasn't on the burger,
and easily disposed of so that I could devote my attention to the luscious
combination of pungent bleu cheese and meat juices running down my fingers
after the first bite.
I didn't hold out much hope for the chicken satay salad ($9), anticipating
a dry breast atop the usual mesclun mix. Again, the chef surprised me.
The chicken was moist and tender, dressed with a zippy peanut sauce that
accented the char on the meat. The greens were very fresh and very young,
their flavors distinct rather than drowned in dressing.
As good as lunch is, dinner is where Chef Penner really shines. The food
he makes is technically perfect, beautifully presented, and a joy to eat.
Unlike the usual Italian restaurant gnocchi, Chef Penner's are tiny, not
much bigger than the eraser on a fat pencil, and sauteed rather than boiled,
giving them a savory crust which holds in a creamy puree of potatoes and
butter in what tastes like a 1-1 ratio. Sauteed in butter with cherry
tomatoes, scallions, and a handful of finely chopped local mushrooms,
the dish is bursting with bright flavors, acids, and fats perfectly balanced.
It almost doesn't need the finishing swirl of truffle oil, but you'll
be glad the chef added it anyway ($10 appetizer, $19 entree).
Roasted beet salad with goat cheese ($9) is a staple of restaurant menus
everywhere, but Chef Penner's stands apart. I don't like beets, but I
would go back and order this salad and clean the plate. I do not know
what Penner does to his beets, but they are toothsome, flavorful, and
almost candy sweet. Complemented by generous dollops of soft goat cheese
and walnuts that Penner candies himself, the bitter fight over this salad
could end your marriage.
If you order Penner's spring pea soup ($4 cup, $5 bowl) you'll at least
have some leverage to use in getting some of the beet salad, if you can
bear to part with a spoonful. Bright green, finished with a drizzle of
good olive oil and a few pine nuts, this has always been one of my favorite
spring soups, and Penner's is an excellent interpretation, smooth and
creamy with the cool green flavor of spring in every bite.
The most interesting entree is also one I'd usually shy away from, not
being a fan of salmon. Penner's salmon duo ($21), though, changed my tune.
Two different kinds of salmon, a thickish slice of Scottish smoked salmon
and a medium to medium-rare cooked salmon steak, are stacked one atop
the other and perched on a bed of sauteed arugula, roasted vegetables,
and large-pearl Israeli couscous, making for a colorful and pretty presentation.
The two kinds of salmon work particularly well together, the salt and
the peat smoke in the Scotch salmon adding a welcome savor to the larger
salmon fillet without adding any appreciable fishiness to that remarkably
fresh-tasting piece of fish. Pairing the meaty salmon with the fun texture
of Israeli couscous is inspired, and adding the peppery bite and deep
green taste of arugula to the dish brings both color and agreeably deep
flavor to the dish.
Try, if you can, to save room for dessert.