Dining with the Dutchess
Food and Restaurant Recommendation in Dutchess County
Being the breadbasket of New York does not guarantee that Hudson Valley restaurants will have the best bread…or the best anything for that matter. Still, they should start a leg up in the produce department given that local can easily mean right across the street. Happily there are a number of venues in Dutchess that marry local food with excellent cooking. Everyone knows the singular charm of discovering an unanticipated great meal in a small town, be it a little auberge in Provence, a family trattoria in Tuscany or a tiny restaurant in Dutchess. We all have those “remember that great little…” story that just grows in significance over time. For my wife and I, there was the crispy-skinned chicken al mattone at Nina’s in Red Hook (the closing of which many years back we still mourn). It’s as much the delight in the surprise as in the dining itself. The unprepossessing chef that still comes out to talk with guests, the realization that you just passed that farm listed on the menu as the source for the pheasant, the surpassing of expectations. Such simple – perhaps primal – pleasures allow one to be forgiving with shortcomings that might doom a big city establishment. Like the occasionally imperfect service, often drawn from well-intentioned local teenagers who may lack the training to match their enthusiasm or the establishment’s fine dining aspirations. Running an establishment in isolated towns that rely on seasonal or weekend visitors is no easy feat and, indeed, many can feel ghostly quiet on weekdays if they’re open at all. It’s then that you realize what a different game it must be trying to run a fine restaurant in the country. It’s what makes the staying power of some of these all the more endearing. People really care about these places, which fulfill a “gathering ‘round” function for locals (though admittedly some look more like NYC outposts on a Saturday night). We share a personal sense of commitment to their success not just as their beneficiaries but as part of a community’s point of pride. We root for the local boy (or girl) done good. It makes me happy directing you to Mercato in Red Hook, for example, because I want you to enjoy it every bit as much as I want them to succeed. It feels somehow more selfless a charge than recommending a place like, say Daniel. So here’s a list of places I have enjoyed over the years. I am loath to give them ratings so I’ll simply borrow the spirit rather than the stars from Michelin and state that these are all, in my estimation, “worth the detour.”
There are two restaurants that I return to again and again for their quality, service and ambience. My enthusiastic praise for Mercato in Red Hook is the product of many satisfying meals spent under the warm and cheerful direction of chef-owner Francesco Buitoni – of the pasta family empire – and his wife and partner Michelle Platt. His bona fides include time at San Domenico, Al Bacio and Otto (where he served as sommelier, explaining the strong Italian wine list). Spotting Mario Batali holding court in the always full dining room speaks to the level of appreciation his cooking has deservedly received. A diverse (if not frequently changing) repertoire is complemented by particularly efficient, friendly service. It’s a place suited to a romantic dinner for two or for bringing little kids who stick to pasta in butter sauce (prepared perfectly al dente as my 5 year-old can attest to). Be sure to reserve in advance and request sitting in the main room, which has a warmth and buzz somewhat lacking in the back. The other restaurant that delivers dependably on this level is Gigi’s Trattoria in Rhinebeck. This is hardly a discovery; Chelsea Clinton had her pre-wedding dinner here and the walls are filled with the effusive praise of plaudits. Indeed, owner and French Culinary Institute-trained chef Laura Pensiero is something of a local celebrity with offshoots that include Gigi’s Market at Grieg Farm (a good source for local produce and berry-picking) and Gigi’s catering. Still, I am happy to add my voice to the choir as much for their ethos as for their food. Like Mercato, it is a truly professional establishment with the versatility to serve the causal and sophisticated diner alike. Unlike Mercato, it is located in the heart of Rhinebeck, making an outdoor table ideal for watching town life pass by on a warm evening. A third restaurant that deserves particular praise, but at which I’ve dined a little less given its proximity, is Serevan in Amenia. What I particularly admire is chef Serge Madikians’s personal take on Hudson Valley cuisine, which he infuses with both his French Culinary Institute training and his native Middle Eastern sensibilities. The results can yield entrees like black sea bass in a mint-pistachio and sour cherry reduction. On several of my visits, he has made a point of coming round to each table to inquire about diner’s experiences. It’s a rare, old-world touch that speaks to his level of personal involvement, something also reflected in the homey décor.
There are other restaurants that warrant my commendations though some come with caveats. For a reliable bistro meal – fish and chips, burger or similar casual fare – Terrapin in Rhinebeck delivers. The more formal restaurant adjoining the bar/bistro is also quite good and one can’t help but feel it gets short shrift being next door to the ever-popular Gigi’s (though even Gigi’s is getting it’s share of competition these days). Still, it holds its own and the American fare makes for a nice contrast to the Mediterranean offerings of its neighbor. I’ll happily compare the merits of Terrapin versus Gigi fries with any local (though must admit I give a slight edge to the latter’s). Hyde Park is home to the venerable Culinary Institute of America, source of many of Dutchess’, indeed America’s, notable chefs. A trip here is worthwhile even if you don’t choose to dine, simply to appreciate the impressiveness of its scale and mission. It has three restaurants, a formal French, casual American and in-between Italian. I would suggest Caterina de Medici, the Italian restaurant. I’ve had three meals there and each one was it’s own experience, predicated largely on the degree of competence of the waiters and cooks-in-training. One meal was great, one meal was so-so and one meal was…well, they tried. You have to accept that it is a school after all and results will vary. Flat Iron is a very respectable restaurant in Red Hook suffers from what I dub “Sarabeth Spillover Syndrome” after the immensely popular and crowded brunch haunt in NYC where neighboring restaurants often serve as a receptive second best. It seems to live in the shadow of the ever bustling Mercato around the corner but sit for a meal and you will might even be grateful that Mercato couldn’t accommodate you. The chef served his time at Giorgio’s of Gramercy and Beacon (from where he took their admirable roasted oysters. The decor is not particularly inviting but the surprisingly diverse menu and wine list is ample compensation. The Red Devon in Bangall is a place I would like to be able to recommend. They have very good – perhaps the best – local bread and diverse produce available both in their shop and restaurant. The bar area has a warm, English village pub feel and is well stocked with good selections. It’s a good perch from which to view Millbrook burghers while enjoying a very good burger. The main dining menu is ambitious and the cooking often lives up to the challenge. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the service can be so haphazard that it often tests the patience of the easiest going country squire. My advice is to get their excellent pastries and bread to go or enjoy something at the bar rather than embarking on a full service affair – though, in fairness, recent lunches have gone smoothly and hopefully bode well for the future. Then there’s the barbecue front. I know people get very particular about their barbecue preferences but I’d have to give my nod to Big W’s Roadside BBQ in Wingdale. I recall when it was truly roadside, little more than Warren Norstein plying with pluck out of his truck on Rt 22. Now he’s got an actual space that is just a little bigger and though it’s not much to look at, no frills are needed to appreciate his remarkable smoked chicken and pulled pork. For ribs, I confess to a slight preference for the less dry variety like those at Max’s in Red Hook (which is more a restaurant and perhaps better for a large family gathering). Both places cater and are worth considering for the big summer party when you don’t want to stand in front of the grill or smoker yourself.
Wine and Food Shout-outs
There are so many wonderful, small food establishments in the Hudson Valley. Some have held on for generations but what’s equally exciting is how many young and dedicated specialists have emerged. Like British retro-styled soul singers of today, they have created a new vibe while reviving old school varieties and techniques. Here are some of the farmers, merchants and establishments that impart these seasonal rhythms…
• Bread: Red Devon as mentioned above, excellent French-style baguettes and croissants along with very good mutligrain loaves.
• Chicken/Game: Quattros in Millbrook is the destination for fresh chicken and wild turkey. They also make some very good sausages. The quality of the beef is a little less commendable. The combination butcher/gun shop adds a certain immediacy to the sign outside reading “freshly killed chicken.”
• Seafood: Slammin’ Salmon in Millbrook is the only fishmonger I’ve discovered that offers a dependably high level of seafood. They also do some very good sandwiches for eating in or to go along with respectable catering.
• To-Go: Babette’s Kitchen in Millbrook is a worthwhile destination when preparing for a country picnic with good selections on the sweet and savory side.
• Tea/Coffee: Millerton can provide for both the tea-totaller and the coffee- quaffer. Who knew that omnipresent Harney’s Tea was based in this little Dutchess town? They have a very quaint little teashop where one can sample, drink or buy tea. Up the hill is Irving Place where locally roasted coffee beans can be appreciated.
• Farmer’s Market/Produce: Most towns have their own little weekend market but the Rhinebeck’s Farmer’s Market is by far the largest and most bustling. Open Sundays from late spring through late fall, it is a good place to track down many of the purveyors mentioned above all in one spot. Dutchess also has wonderful CSAs, most especially Sister’s Hill in Stanfordville. Unfortunately for the tourist, one must be a member to enjoy their bounty but if you’re planning on an extended stay, it’s something well worth looking into joining. For those just in need of a one-time purchase, Migliorelli Farm in Tivoli with outposts elsewhere has an excellent variety of fruits and vegetables.
• Wine/Beer: It takes a certain sadistic streak to attempt to make fine wine in the Hudson Valley. I dabbled with the idea myself but preliminary research led me to the conclusion that contending with chilling winters and blazing summers was too overwhelming an undertaking for a mere dabbler. At least it led me to a more profound respect for those with the temerity to try and still more for those who succeed. Alas, many of the wines that I’ve sampled from local wineries are, to my palate at least, more admirable in effort than in results. A marked exception is two offerings from Millbrook Wineries. Deep pockets help and John Dyson’s bring that to bear but, importantly, he also brings along a passionate commitment and a skilled winemaker in the person of John Graziano. I remain a little skeptical on the potential for exceptional chardonnay and pinot noir from the Hudson Valley but their Tokay is a lively, flavorful white and their cabernet francs are consistently good. I’ve sampled their single vineyard Block Five Cab Franc alongside great French examples from the Loire valley and have found they keep very respectable company. Their rose is nice summer sipper, a bit darker hued and fuller than the Provencal variety, closer in spirit to a Spanish rose. While on roses, the winery also offers the much sought-after wines of Williams Selyem, which Dyson also owns. If you’re lucky, you can score a couple rare bottles of the Williams Selyem roses, which are wonderful and, while you’re at it, sign up for the chance to purchase their pinot noirs by subscription. In terms of wine shops, the best include Arlington’s in Poughkeepsie (where the reserve collection has some real gems at relatively good prices) and the more boutique Little Gates in Millerton, which has less high-end offerings but is rich in little off-the-beaten-track finds. It is rare to find a beer shop that approaches its holdings with the same zealousness as a fine wine shop but the Grand Cru Beer and Cheese Market in Rhinebeck is just such a place. It has an overwhelming selection and the added benefit of the option of taking a seat for immediate appreciation of your purchase.