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Hemisphere opens up new world of taste

Resort changes its staid image with unusual restaurant

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Staid and sedate. Regal and rich. That's The Greenbrier, famous for hosting celebrities and world leaders, from Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier to Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the chandeliers and pink tablecloths of the Old White Lounge are gone, along with the brick and dark wood of the wine cellar-style Tavern Room restaurant. As part of a $50 million renovation aimed at attracting the next generation of luxury traveler — and a more sophisticated diner — The Greenbrier has gone modern.

Where once there were traditional American and upscale regional dishes like five-onion soup, rack of lamb and lobster, there is now Hemisphere, chef Michael Voltaggio's globally themed, tasting-menu restaurant, where a dish such as malted langoustine with whipped beer can get star billing.

It's a big change, and part of the storied resort's effort to recover its five-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide, which rescinded it in 2000. Whether the radical switch will be too much for its traditional clientele is a key question, but the resort's management believes this change is good.

"Hemisphere was born of the need to create more variety," says Greenbrier President Paul Ratchford, who was hired to lead the resort's makeover.

"Hemisphere will be our entree into the world of fine dining, but really the world of wonderful food pairings, tasting menus, wonderful wines and very, very different plate presentations," he says. "It will not be your standard Greenbrier menu offerings.

"Not everyone is going to appreciate the level of sophistication that chef Voltaggio puts into these creations," Ratchford says. "They just won't. But we have to offer variety."

The newly designed restaurant has no floral brocades, candles or vases. The room is warmed by butterscotch walls and contemporary upholstery in fuchsia, orange and lime. Even the centerpieces, whimsical creatures crafted from out-of-service Greenbrier silver, reflect the transformation. Only the engraved G, visible on some pieces, hints at their former lives.

But that is Voltaggio's way. He takes something familiar, then renders it barely recognizable.

A yellow heirloom tomato is disguised as an over-easy egg with the help of coconut milk gelee, then garnished with tangy olive powder and pickle blooms.

Shrimp toast is made of pureed, dehydrated shellfish that's steamed and fried "so it's almost like a Cheeto," then dusted with coconut milk powder.

"Everybody goes to these seafood restaurants on the beach in Florida and orders coconut shrimp and drinks a margarita," Voltaggio says. "You automatically associate that. You think, 'Oh, I've had that.' It triggers a memory. And then you just keep traveling from there."

Prices range from $95 per person for the five-course vegetarian tasting menu to $135 for the nine-course grand tasting menu. With master sommelier Barbara Werley's selections matched to each dish, the prices can go up to $180 per person. The restaurant is open to the public, not just resort guests.

The experience lasts for hours, starting with cigar-sized baguettes inside an Old World humidor. They're served with Vermont cultured butter, English goat's milk butter, Armando Manni extra virgin olive oil and a palette of salts infused with cocoa, smoked tomato, licorice, kaffir lime and vanilla and saffron.

Later, it's the squab pastrami — pigeon breast brined and marinated, crusted in pepper, cooked and sliced thin. The bones create a gelatinous consomme that Voltaggio infuses with rye bread flavors then adds to the plate Gruyere puffs.

"It's almost like you've been to New York and had this deli sandwich with pastrami and mustard," he says. "They're things that they can associate with, but in a way they've never had it before."

The 85-seat dining room and eight-seat chef's table are quick to sell out, with guests invited to watch as Voltaggio dresses each plate.

Voltaggio, 28, apprenticed at The Greenbrier a decade ago and returned here after serving as executive chef of Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif. He's also worked at Ritz-Carlton properties, and he traveled the world to make Hemisphere his own.

He studied Spanish ceramics, picking each serving piece. He chose glass dishes from Turkey. Werley, the sommelier, designed the stemware.

Diners can expect a menu that reflects Voltaggio's latest inspiration — like the day he smelled pine needles, then turned them into pesto. Or the day he discovered his mother-in-law's apple butter, then crafted his own with candied ginger for a cheese course.

For years, Robin and Mike Downing of Augusta, Ga., have come to The Greenbrier with relatives. They were intrigued by the tasting menus and left surprisingly sated.

"It will be interesting to see how the older generation feels about this more modern approach," says Robin, who wonders about traditionalists like her father, in his 60s.

"I had fun and we enjoyed it. But there were some people sitting on the other side of us, talking to the manager, and I could not tell if they liked it or not," she says. "I hope it makes it. Our food was all outstanding."

Voltaggio expects there will be three kinds of diners — those who love his style, those who hate it and those who are unsure.

"It's not so far out there that we want people to be intimidated by it. It's not one of those molecular gastronomy restaurants or whatever," he says.

"I appreciate and utilize some of the techniques from those restaurants to get inspiration and get ideas, but at the end of the day, we are in West Virginia, we are in a big, old, grand hotel, and we are still serving dinner."

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