You generally think of Westchester County Airport as a place to go if you want to catch a plane somewhere, not as a destination for dinner. But entrepreneur Sammy Eljamal is seeking to change that perception, having opened The Travelers Club in the airport terminal eight months ago.
Airport restaurants are usually aimed at travelers, but it's not very often that you build in enough time when you're traveling to a destination to enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner at a fancy restaurant.
That's why The Travelers Club, which replaces the old Skytop, is looking to attract customers from nearby communities to supplement the airline passengers they get.
Since the airport terminal is located in Rye Brook and only a short distance from Port Chester, The Travelers Club sits exactly in our coverage area and is an ideal location for an enjoyable Sunday brunch or dinner any night of the week. Especially at dusk with a nice view from the large windows in the dining room, you can watch the planes, both large and small, taking off and landing. There are many more planes coming and going during the week than on the weekends.
I ran into Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont on two occasions at The Travelers Club, and he claimed the restaurant was in his territory or why else would he eat there so often. So I set out to find the truth because I had always thought the terminal was in Rye Brook. Rye Brook Village Administrator Chris Bradbury confirmed and showed me on a county GIS map that it is just barely in Rye Brook, located near the border of the two municipalities.
It's a bit of an adventure to dine out at this sumptuous airport restaurant, but that's what adds to its mystique. Currently you have to park in the airport garage at $3.45 per half hour, but that's not an issue because the cost for two hours of parking is subtracted from your check. In a few weeks the restaurant will have free valet parking from a location to the left of the terminal where there will be signs you can't miss. The restaurant is on the second floor.
Eljamal, who won the contract for all the restaurants and food establishments at the airport almost two years ago, invested at least a million dollars to completely renovate what had been a diner style restaurant into a bar, lounge and dining room with a beautiful Mediterranean feel. Eljamal has been a successful business entrepreneur since he was in his teens, starting as a Mobil franchisee at age 18 and since adding several other gasoline brands to his portfolio.
Built around the movie 'Casablanca'
Manager Andy Durgaj said the restaurant was built around the romantic 1942 movie "Casablanca," from the décor to the waiters wearing black and white. This film and other classics are shown Monday nights on the multiple TV screens positioned around the lounge and dining room.
At other times the TV screens run a slide show of colorful drinks and food offered at The Travelers Club, and that's okay, but my party found the occasional flash from these changing screens distracting.
The dining room, which seats 80, is filled with comfortable seating-either gold velvet banquettes or chairs with leather seats-around square dark wood tables set with brown leather placemats and royal blue cloth napkins for two, four or more and decorated with black battery-powered lanterns.
Old-fashioned-looking lights on the walls branch into two and are covered by small shades draped with clear jewels.
A divider between the dining room and attractive bar contains a pedestal set with a vase of fresh flowers. The dining room is carpeted while the lounge has a wood floor. Besides tall leather stools at the bar, there are low tables with upholstered chairs around them and a baby grand piano in the lounge.
You forget you're at an airport until you leave the restaurant to use the restroom or go home-at which point you are jolted back to reality.
Besides the décor, you can't help but be impressed by the service. From the moment you enter The Travelers Club, you are literally pampered with friendly, efficient assistance. Depending on your point of view, you might even think it is too attentive.
"Service is one thing we stay on top of," said Durgaj, who worked at Alba's in Port Chester for more than a decade before transferring to The Travelers Club shortly after it opened.
My husband and I decided to try the restaurant with another couple about 9:00 on a Saturday night which happened to be their grand opening and were immediately drawn in by both the pampering and the festive atmosphere. We later returned on two Thursday nights which were much quieter, but we received the same spectacular service. In addition to Durgaj, who oversees everything, our waiter on all three occasions was the personable and funny Royce Lane. He also works at Modern Barn in Armonk two days a week and had previous experience at restaurants in Manhattan and Miami.
Manning the hostess desk outside the restaurant, at least on Saturday nights, is the lovely Ela Durgaj, Andy's wife, who leads you into the eatery through a longish hallway.
The quality of the cuisine, featuring steaks, seafood and Italian specialties, is generally outstanding and the dishes are beautifully presented. Our one complaint: the food could have been hotter across the board.
Obviously we couldn't try everything the few times we visited, so I asked Durgaj for the biggest sellers and his personal recommendations. Lobster bisque, meats, Chilean sea bass ("just the smell of it"), branzino, porcini [mushroom] risotto and skirt steak, frutta di mare, Pork Paisano with mixed peppers and onions, and Veal Chops Campagnola are some of the dishes he recommended, many of them daily specials.
Chef Felix Escamilla of West Harrison, who has worked at BLT, 42 and Paparazzi in White Plains, prepares 5-6 specials a day and they usually sell out.
Don't pass up the Osso Bucco (veal shank) if it's offered. Exceedingly tender, the meat just fell off the bone and the sauce of carrots, celery, red wine, veal demi glace, thyme, rosemary and tomato juice flavored it perfectly.
In keeping with the staff's effort to make your stay at The Travelers Club a fine dining experience, they also provide tableside service, I learned from Durgaj. Examples include Caesar salad for two prepared tableside, although that is not on the menu or we definitely would have ordered it, fileting and deboning of a whole branzino, and bananas flambé.
Dinner for two
Meals start with toasted Italian bread brought in from Arthur Avenue and a dish of extra virgin olive oil infused with oregano, garlic and crushed red pepper by the chef to give it a nice kick.
Except for the fact that the lobster bisque ($11) was not piping hot, it was exceptional with its creamy, delicate flavor. Served in a large wide bowl, the seafood soup was finished with a dollop of tarragon crème fraiche and a mouthful of Maine lobster.
I was delighted with the special compo salad of mesclun greens, strawberries, dried cranberries, walnuts, crumbled gorgonzola and thick, tasty balsamic dressing.
The Salmon Marechiara special brought a good-sized piece of fish overcome with mussels and clams in the shell as well as calamari, all in a chunky marinara sauce.
I am still raving about the tender, savory grilled skirt steak in a chimichurri sauce ($27) made with olive oil, garlic, parsley, cilantro, shallots, sherry wine vinegar and balsamic reduction. It was served with elegant Pommes Parisiennes, small, round potatoes pan fried in clarified butter until golden and crispy.
When you order a steak of any kind, you get what I would call a substantial steak knife to cut it with.
Plates were beautifully presented and decorated with pink orchids.
We accompanied our meals with a glass of red and a glass of white wine, both priced at $10 and both of good quality.
For dessert, the chocolate mousse-good but not great- was also nicely presented in a small glass dish with whipped cream in the middle and chocolate shavings on top.
We had a Groupon, which included two soups or salads,two entrées and one dessert, for which we had paid $51. Our check totaled $130, so we owed $18 for one single-malt scotch ($12) and the two glasses of wine ($20) after the $14 was subtracted for parking, a real bargain.
Small wine list
The Travelers Club has a small but excellent list of wines by the glass, half bottle and bottle. On our second visit we went with the manager's recommendation of Ramsden Estates cabernet sauvignon ($50). It cost more than we usually spend but proved an excellent choice-exceptionally smooth, dry and flavorful.
Desserts not remarkable
Besides the bananas flambé, desserts are not homemade and therefore not remarkable. In addition to chocolate mousse, New York cheesecake, blood orange mascarpone cheesecake, crème brulée, tiramisu and tartuffo are usually available. Weekly specials may include cannoli, fresh fruit, panna cotta and molten lava cake.
Hours including brunch
The Travelers Club is open Monday to Thursday from 12-9 p. m., Friday and Saturday from 12-10 p. m. and Sunday from 11 a. m.-4 p. m. for brunch. Lunch runs from 12-4 and dinner from 4 p. m. until closing. The lunch menu is similar to dinner except it offers smaller portions and lower prices.
A three-course brunch costs $19.99 per person and includes a starter salad or fresh fruit plate, entrée of a Belgian waffle, a Harvest Frittata, Eggs Benedict, smoked salmon on a bagel, skirt steak or hash and eggs, Penne Primavera, dessert and coffee or tea. There is also an a la carte brunch menu with more lunch/dinner type offerings.
Future plans call for a singer and piano player to perform on Saturday nights and sprucing up the entryway- which Durgaj called "a work in progress"-with columns and curtains similar to those found inside.
An offer you can't pass up
With the type of cuisine and service The Travelers Club provides its customers, buying a Groupon and using it for brunch or dinner while business is ramping up is money well spent. You really can't afford not to take advantage of the offer. I plan to return soon because eating at The Travelers Club is such a pleasant experience and there are so many other dishes I want to try-including all that the brunch has to offer.