Peter Xaviar Kelly is extraordinary. Although soft-spoken and gentle of manner, he managed to navigate state and city bureaucracies to achieve an almost impossible dream: the opening of X20 Xaviars on the Hudson, a restaurant jutting out into the Hudson River in the most improbable of cities and in the most improbable locations in that city.
Kelly has successfully extended his fiefdom (he owns three other restaurants) to a once decrepit pier near a train station in Yonkers, where at one time angels feared to tread. But he recognized that the city was gentrifying Getty Square and that new apartment buildings and condos overlooking boardwalks and the majestic Hudson beyond were attracting young executives working in the city.
It took six years of dreaming and determination before X20 opened its glass and steel doors to the high-definition panorama within and without.
The space is fantastic. For one thing, it’s huge, accommodating close to 150 people at a time, and secondly, it’s a very handsome, contemporary environment. Chandeliers hang from chains sculpted like silvery spun sugar from a ceiling soaring at least twenty feet at its center. Windows on three sides put every diner literally right into the river and, at times, you feel as if you are on a luxury yacht cruising on the water.
If you time your visit just before sunset, you will be treated to a spectacular show as the sun slips behind the soaring Palisades. The spire of the College of Mount Saint Vincent and the jagged edge of the Manhattan skyline fade from view just as green and white lights flicker on the George Washington Bridge to the south and a neon ribbon illuminates the Tappan Zee to the north. The water taxi at the attached dock adds a Crayola touch of chrome-yellow to the canvas.
Any time during lunch, Sunday brunch or dinner, Kelly might wander out from the kitchen in crisp chef’s whites to greet guests, known and unknown. One memorable service saw Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Dylan Lounge and Dick Morris in the main dining room. Directors from Greystone Productions rub elbows with movie stars and folks from Jersey, Greenwich Village and Fairfield County. You’ll think you’re on vacation in celebrity land.
On three separate occasions that we
visited, there were tables with guests toasting birthdays, anniversaries and reunions. We saw groupings of ten to twelve people and intimate seatings of two to four. Every guest is treated to fresh Roquefort rolls and an amuse-bouche, such as a well-flavored cold melon soup with a side of raw tuna over a cooling cube of watermelon.
Kelly bills X20’s cuisine as Contemporary American. It’s “approachable” food — center of the plate recognition in chef’s parlance and, for the dinner, it often means comfort food. Our menu hopping, for example, included a large portion of tender Kobe steak (a special one day); deftly seasoned salads (Caesar, tomato, butter lettuce); a perfect pan-roasted chicken; halibut topped with a lightly browned and delicate leek crust; a huge serving of crab salad with more meat than greens; and rack of lamb (the chops juicy and quite thick, the outside beautifully seasoned and the interior pink and tender).
Zucchini and tomato dipped into couscous, corn and Cheddar into grits. A cranberry mustardo was a shock of deep purple and red on the plate that bore a very large Black Hog chop, a favorite among our guests one evening.
The pork had been brined in a not unusual bath of soy sauce and ginger, with one surprise ingredient: star anise, eight of them. A licorice, almost smoky flavor seeps into the meat. Pork belly also gets a soak in the same brine and then gets cloaked with breadcrumbs. A purée of sweet potatoes played nicely against the richness of the meat.
There are other unexpected touches with almost every dish — huckleberries, balsamic syrup, Meyer lemon vinaigrette, amaretti crumbs, citrusy yuzu, preserved kumquats and wasabi foam — and other flavors that play beautifully with the main attraction.
The side that accompanied the split quail breast, which was so small it reminded us of a thumbnail of a magazine layout, was a creamy polenta flavored with pancetta. Star anise once again upped the flavor ante, this time in a luscious lobster/mascarpone filling for a crêpe, and a mélange of early summer vegetables nudged a veal hanger steak that got a “dusting” of porcini, which we could actually taste.
X20 has so much to admire: the calla lilies swirled in enormous round cyclinders at the maître d’s table where a glass cookie jar holds “Peter Brittle”; paintings of the restaurant from every angle on almost every wall by J. Beerman; the passage from front of house to main dining room between wine cellar and wine cases; the surprising tower of windows in the restrooms; the serving stations that divide the dining room into four areas where white napped tables, cushioned chairs, plush carpets and an expanse of fabric-covered wall keep the noise level so low you can actually hear everyone at your table.
Step outside on the small balcony and you’ll feel as if you are in the bow of a ship. In good weather, there are sailboats catching the river breezes, and almost every day tiny tugboats push a string of barges along. Spin around and look up — at the sign spelling out YONKERS, recalling the sign that hung over the Victorian-era pier when it was a bustling center for river traffic between Jersey and New York.
The Dylan Lounge, on the opposite side of the main dining room, is more casual, with the usual sashimi/sushi offerings, from tuna and shrimp to scallops and salmon. Particularly outstanding is a napoleon of barbecued eel over spicy tuna and rich avocado. Rice is blessedly kept to a minimum. Fish is so thinly sliced, you actually can taste the sweetness of the fish, which is often lost when it is cut as a thick slab and which can be difficult to snare with chopsticks and more difficult to eat in one bite. Our platter came with an orchid in a tiny vase.
Don’t skip dessert. The chocolate ganache and cream custard on pilings of hardened caramel (labeled “Black and Brûlée”) has received such considerable press since it first appeared on the menu that we wouldn’t be surprised if it appeared on a billboard hyping the restaurant. Other confections with star status are the peach sabayon, lemon napoleon, and milk and dark chocolate timbale, each with its own berries and sauce.
Everything is fine-tuned, including the wine and beverage menus, which offer a gamut of international selections with an equally diversified price point. The staff with its multiple layers of overseers — you and your table are checked every few minutes by waiters, busboys, captains and dining room managers — rate high marks.
One of our guests summed up her experience: “A thoroughly memorable, enjoyable and true dining experience as only a top-notch chef can give. Definitely upscale but comfortable and fun.”