I was recently invited to the chic Polo Steakhouse at the Garden City Hotel, where I had a fabulous dining experience prepared for me by powerhouse chef Ari Nieminen.
Nieminen’s background as a chef is extensive and impressive. In the short time he has been there, he has transformed the Polo Steakhouse into a top-notch restaurant serving not only the highest quality steaks, but a beautiful selection of fish dishes all prepared with European style and flair. Less than six months ago, Nieminen, a Manhasset resident, became the executive chef at the Polo Steakhouse and adjoining Polo Lounge, where his culinary creativity took the restaurant to a whole new level. When asked where his inspiration came from he replies, “My great aunt.”
Nieminen grew up in Finland and studied language and psychology. Along the way, he also took cooking classes. He claims he first learned to cook from his great aunt, a woman who was taught by Russian chefs who fled during the revolution in 1917.
“The Russian chefs were taught by French chefs in the czarist court,” says Nieminen. “They fled the revolution and ended up in Finland teaching at a culinary school where my great aunt attended. My aunt watched my brother and me when we were little, so I got to see a different way of cooking from a professional point of view. My grandmother and my mom always cooked, so did my grandfather. So I got the inspiration from that.”
Nieminen then came to the states where he applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Upon graduating, he worked at The River Café in Brooklyn and then went on to work with chef Guy Reuge at Mirabelle’s original location. He spent four years working with Reuge as chef de cuisine.
“It was a great experience back then,” says Nieminen, “Guy is a good friend and mentor. I got to do everything. We had a retired biology teacher growing our mesclun mix for us and all the herbs. Guy or myself, we would pick them daily. We would go with a basket and a pair of scissors and cut the mesclun for the lunch service, and then go back and cut it for the dinner service. I’d meet fisherman for fresh lobsters in town, put them in the car and then drive to work. Same thing for oysters. We cured our own prosciutto. We cured everything in house.”
Nieminen is not particularly fond of the nouveau food expression “farm to table” because to him, it’s always been farm to table. There is no other way to cook. He worked with Reuge for about four years and then spent two years working in Southern California at a restaurant owned by the Four Seasons Hotel. The company eventually transferred him back to New York where he started working in the theater district at the well-known Russian restaurant, Firebird. He was there for seven years. During his time there he also opened a cabaret next door, oversaw two other restaurants in Maine, and opened a restaurant in the Mayfair district of London where he lived for two years. He made his way back to New York working for chef George Lang at Café des Artistes for two years, and then worked at Water’s Edge in Long Island City where he also operated a restaurant on a yacht. After a few years working at Battery Gardens in Battery Park, and then Sea Fire Grill in Midtown, he received an offer for the Polo Steakhouse, and jumped at the chance to work closer to home.
Nieminen describes his cooking as healthy and well balanced. His dishes are prepared in the American style combining European traditions and classics as a foundation.
“Obviously I cater to the American palate,” says Nieminen, “but my cooking combines a lot of European, Scandinavian, Nordic and Southern European influences.”
At the Polo Steakhouse, Nieminen uses local products whenever possible, and builds dishes around them. He has a garden on the premises where he grows herbs. Only high quality, prime meats are served, and all the beef is aged in house for approximately 28 days. Prime New York strip steak, bone in rib-eye, and a prime porterhouse steak for two are just some of the selections. Nieminen’s fish dishes seem just as popular as the steaks. Oysters are so fresh; they are harvested and shipped on the same day. Seared ahi tuna, grilled swordfish and whole roasted branzino are some favorites.
The food most definitely compliments the restaurant’s décor which was designed by Italian designer Marcello Pozzi. The large room is luxurious and inviting with its elegant red tufted leather chairs, black sofas and mahogany floors. Lots of wood and warm brown tones tie it all in, as does the beautiful and very large chandelier in the center of the room. One wall offers a peek of the many bottles of wine the restaurant has to offer.
I met Nieminen before I was escorted to my table by the very attentive wait staff. Nieminen informed me that he was preparing four courses, and that we were going to start with dessert. Within a few minutes, the most elegant, chocolate seven layer cake arrived, accompanied by fresh raspberries, homemade chocolate sauce and whipped cream with a large chocolate pipe. The cake was dark and moist and was iced in a rich chocolate ganache. Truly a chocolate lover’s dream. Knowing I had three more courses to go, I put the cake aside just in time for some deliciously warm homemade biscuits made with Vermont cheddar to arrive. The biscuits were light and airy and reminded me of French gougère. I enjoyed them with a glass of Hess Chardonnay.
My next course was burrata served with heirloom tomatoes and slightly roasted red and yellow grape tomatoes, very lightly dressed with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of pesto. The burrata, which had been flown in from Italy the night before and delivered to the restaurant on the day of my visit, was served cut in half to reveal the beautiful creaminess of the inside of the cheese. It looked absolutely beautiful on the plate.
Next up was a fabulous meaty crab cake made with fresh herbs and a little panko served with a roasted pepper aioli. It was served with shaved fennel and apple, and cucumber ribbons and more fresh herbs. The crab cake was so light and moist. I really enjoyed the balance of flavors and acidity in this dish.
Lastly, Nieminen brought out a beautifully prepared seared tuna with miso glaze, shiitake mushrooms, sesame oil, soy sauce, scallion and toasted sesame seeds, served over a mound of jasmine rice and local runner beans. The flavors and textures in this dish were Asian inspired. The tuna was served rare and melted in my mouth.
“I love being a chef,” says Nieminen. “It’s a way of experiencing people and different cultures. Food is the same, it brings all people together. Any event—a wedding, funeral, a birth—food is always a central part of it. It’s exciting like that. I meet people, I’m always doing something new, I’m always learning, and you’re tasting something different and discovering something new all the time.”
The Polo Steakhouse is open seven days a week and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a prix fixe lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday. An elegant afternoon tea is offered on Saturdays at 2 p.m., and seating for their legendary Sunday brunch, which features a raw bar and fresh sushi, begins at 11 a.m. Wine tasting dinners are also offered, and be on the lookout for an upcoming Veuve Clicquot Champagne dinner.