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Camp Fire: The Hot New Spot From The Meat Market’s Masters

By Hannah Van Sickle Barrett

There is a transparency about the food at Camp Fire in Great Barrington, Mass., the standalone eatery located next door to The Meat Market where, surmises Forbes contributer Hal Rubenstein, Jeremy Stanton is serving up the best burger in America. The open-concept kitchen at Camp Fire sets the tone for the restaurant’s vibe where the food, and how it is being prepared, is the main attraction. 

The bulk of what is served at Camp Fire is sourced from local farms and purveyors, and the fuss is minimal. The restaurant’s aim is to serve straight-ahead food in an inviting, laid-back setting — right next door to The Meat Market, where Stanton has been carving up fresh, local, pasture-raised meats cut to order for the past four years. The proximity of Stanton’s two ventures allows for true collaboration between chef and butcher, who work side by side to craft menus that showcase the best seasonal and local ingredients. The purveyor and farm list, hanging from a clipboard in the kitchen, includes Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, Rawson Brook Farms in Monterey, Equinox Farms in Sheffield, Sky Farm in Stockbridge and Rock City Mushrooms in Old Chatham, New York. This local bounty, coupled with a ready source of local meat, is quickly becoming the talk of the town. (Note: At the time of this writing, Camp Fire is awaiting its liquor license.)

Straight-shooting and well-informed chef Thomas Lee [in photo, right] is making real food for kids and adults. On a recent Sunday afternoon, he chatted at length about the simple yet conscious philosophy behind Camp Fire, a place he sees as “a diner, a burger joint, with a local bent.” As we chatted, a box brimming with local produce arrived:  long, slender carrots, bunches of beets with soil still clinging to the roots, hairy parsnips and leafy kale. I recognized the contents as the likely ingredients for the root veggie hash served with poached eggs ($9), from the breakfast menu. At the same time, Lee is honest about what menu items are selling fast.

“The fact that we have three cows, hanging in the back for ground beef, defines that we’re a burger joint,” he says, adding that for the 30 customers who had come in for lunch, 20 had ordered burgers. 

And the burgers are good. I ordered The Meat Market Burger ($13), a half-pound grass-fed burger served with cheddar, pickles and aioli on a challah bun with a side of hand-cut fries. Delicious. The burger was cooked perfectly, and the flavor was outstanding. The juicy grass-fed beef, sourced from three different local farms, is ground fresh every day and the superior quality is apparent. My 12-year-old was delighted by the Reuben sandwich ($10) that came piled with corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss on grilled Berkshire Mountain Bakery bread with a side of fries that she deemed, “salty and super good.” An extra side of the aioli, for dipping, made us both happy.

My 9-year-old daughter opted for The Mini Meat ($9), a quarter-pound grass-fed beef burger with cheddar, pickles and aioli on a potato roll with a side of hand-cut fries. It was good, and she enjoyed the chance to order a smaller version of “the best Burger in America.” In retrospect, I should have directed her to the kids’ menu, an entity I usually deplore but now understand is taken very seriously at Camp Fire. One choice from each of three categories — all for $9 — sprang from Stanton and Lee’s collective experience that eating out with kids often equates to “paying way too much for buttered noodles and having to feed [your kids] when you get home.”

At Camp Fire, the thought put into building a square meal for kids is evident: first, choose a hot dog, cheeseburger, crispy chicken fingers, grilled steak or grilled cheese; couple that with a side of hand-cut fries, mac-n-cheese or buttered noodles and add either fruit, veggies or a green salad to round out the meal. In short, it’s a kids’ menu that’s not only palatable and full of whole foods, but also offers variety.

In many ways, Camp Fire has chosen to go against the grain. Rather than define what an individual’s experience will be, Lee has relaxed into the kitchen and is letting the customers define their own experience. The constant, according to Lee, is “affordable, delicious food that makes you feel good.” He likens eating at Camp Fire to grocery shopping at the Co-Op Market, also in Great Barrington. Sure, you might spend a little more, but you leave knowing that you have chosen good, wholesome food. In the end, the tradeoff is invaluable.

Camp Fire
389 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington, MA
Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Breakfast menu is available on weekends until noon.
(413) 644-5559

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/10/16 at 04:08 PM • Permalink

The Farmer’s Wife Opens A New Kitchen In Millbrook

By Don Rosendale

For decades, the rustic Mabbetsville Market on Route 44 outside of Millbrook, New York was where Millbrook residents enjoyed their morning coffee and flank steak takeout. I’d shared a table with the local farrier, a captain of industry and a guy scribbling notebook pages on what later turned out to be a best seller. Then five or six years back, it closed under murky circumstances. The only sign of life was an occasional paragraph in the local paper about the local planning board demand for improvements before it could reopen.

Job Yacubian and Emilie Sommerhoff in the kitchen of The Farmer’s Wife — the Ancramdale location.

Then, September midweek, a sign, “The Farmer’s Wife” sprouted, and when the doors opened on a Saturday with no advance notice, the tennis court-sized parking lot was overflowing onto the highway.

There’s no farmer’s wife here — just the farmer’s son-in-law — and the near-Millbrook location is a satellite of the successful café of the same name in Ancramdale, 20 miles up Route 82. The hand at the range is Job Yacubian, who with his wife. Emilie, runs the café.

Yacubian attended UMass Amherst aiming at a business career. He was lounging on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard when he received an emergency telephone call from a restaurant-owning friend. “He’d fired his entire staff and to get over there immediately,” Yacubian recalls. Though he’d never held a whisk before, he had immersion training as a restaurant chef. That led to his “staging” — he pronounces it with a hard “G” and explains it is French restaurant patois for interning at restaurants to see if they like you — in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Rocco DiSpirito in New York City.

And then, a decade ago, he packed his utensils and headed for Ancramdale, where four years earlier Emilie’s stepmother Dorcas Sommerhoff had opened the original Farmer’s Wife. Romance blossomed over the carrot and ginger soup and Job and Emilie wed seven years later, eventually taking over the restaurant.

They spotted the vacant café in Mabbetsville in February but it took six months to navigate through the red tape minefield.

Gone is the rustic Cracker Barrel atmosphere of the old Mabbetsville Market, replaced by floor-to-ceiling white tiles, whitewashed walls and a sea of stainless cooking appliances. The one Yacubian is most proud of is a vertical rotisserie, which, he explains, allows him to grill two different meats at once without the juice from the upper dripping onto the one below.

While the Ancramdale café  is renowned for its sophisticated soups and sandwiches, the Mabbetsville menu is even more sophisticated than that of the mother ship. On opening day, I savored porchetta, an Italian recipe of pork loin and herbs roasted in a pork belly, served with roasted leeks (under $10) — Boulud quality.

My next two visits were for breakfast and a newspaper. The blueberry muffin ($2.50) was ethereal, but the similarly priced almond croissant had too much croissant and not enough almost for me taste. I took some home, though, and was outvoted.

One of Yacubian’s specialties is Korean-style barbecued salmon (with fried brown rice, $13), a dish he learned from Asian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He promised that the sauce would not be a cloyingly sweet BBQ sauce and it’s not. At first it has a hint of soy sauce and then a tingle sets in. The verdict: I ate every morsel.

Just as in Ancramdale, the produce is from local farms. The café’s squash, zucchini, beets and radishes are fresh from Rock Steady Farm in Millerton. A few steps outside the front door is the Tomato Shack, with picked-that-day produce from Longfield Farm in Amenia. Right now, it is proud of the 22 kinds of tomatoes it grows, with the county fair blue ribbons earned by them on display. Those tomatoes come fried with the Maine crab salad, ($13).

For now, the the latest the café is open is 6 p.m., but Yacubian thinks there is a market for a dinner menu of the kind of rustic-but-urbane cooking he offers. If we’re lucky, those 24 tables will be filled in the evening.

The Farmer’s Wife
3809 Route 44, Millbrook, NY
(845) 605-1595
Open Sunday, Monday & Wednesday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/02/16 at 10:29 PM • Permalink

Review: Blue Plate Revisited, And Happily

By Jamie Larson

It’s worth catching dinner at the Blue Plate in Chatham New York, on the early side, while there’s still some light in the sky. You’ll be surrounded by big beautiful windows, as evening light filters through the trees onto the butcher-paper tabletops. Then, by the time you’re drinking coffee and devouring a piece of rich chocolate bourbon espresso cake ($8) or smooth green tea cheesecake ($7), the night lights of Chatham will shine down around you.

Blue Plate is owned by Chatham’s patron saint of small town culture, Judy Grunberg, and it exudes her personal mixture of good taste, generosity and laid-back nature. The vibe is unpretentious class. Since 2014, the kitchen has been run by Dominic Giuliano, a CIA grad who opened the Choza Taqueria kiosks in the city before moving to the Hudson Valley.

Grunberg recently expanded her humble empire, opening Prepared, a novel takeout bistro on Main Street, which specializes in hot dishes made from what local farms have in season, with the offerings overseen by Chef Giuliano. They’ve coined the novel phrase “Farm to Takeout.”

But back at the always-friendly Blue Plate, there’s a well-regarded wine list and signature cocktails that are complex and vibrant. The pineapple chili margarita ($11) isn’t that all-too-common oversweetened fruit punch but well restrained and balanced, highlighting the tangy notes in pineapple with a kick from the chili-lined rim. The bourbon ginger julep ($11) was also easy on the syrup and refreshing, with enough whiskey to make itself known.

The small plates work well as appetizers or mains and often give Chef Giuliano an opportunity to highlight the quality of local produce. The spinach-potato pancakes ($8), full of bright flavor, were soft on the inside and well crisped on the outside. Similarly, the roasted “Rock City” mushrooms ($11) were given a welcome high-heat treatment, so they were seared on the outside but retained their interior firmness. 

There are always mussels on the menu, in a classic broth or sometimes something more adventurous on the specials list, which is a good place to experience the Blue Plate’s slogan, “The American Bistro with International Implications.” Mussels, especially when done right, as they are here with the classic white wine garlic and parsley ($12), are one of those dishes that transcend seasons, reminiscent of summer beaches and warming on the coldest night. Other small plates include the grilled lamb sliders ($14) and the flatbread with four cheeses, pesto and spinach ($11).

The Blue Plate’s entrees feature dishes from across the globe as well as homestyle comfort food. From a curried chickpea stew ($15) and vegetable pad thai ($17) to cavatelli pasta in a pork sausage ragout ($21) and the restaurant’s signature meatloaf ($15), the menu is wide ranging yet unintimidating.

The grilled brook trout ($23) is a standout, as head on whole fish usually is. Impressively, the delicate fish, looking fully intact, is expertly deboned. Over brown rice pilaf and drizzled with a lemon glaze, the flesh was perfectly cooked, soft and not the least bit dry. The sauce and rice were classic but well executed enough to be fondly nostalgic rather than tired.

Overall, we love the Blue Plate like family. It’s been there for us forever, yet finds delicious new ways to surprise us. It’s a huge, charitable part of the community and frankly, Chatham wouldn’t be what it is today without it. If you haven’t been, do yourself a favor and go. Enjoy the food and the view. (There’s also live jazz downstairs at the bar every Wednesday from 6:15 - 9 p.m.)

Blue Plate
1 Kinderhook Street, Chatham, NY
(518) 392-7711
Tuesday - Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Sunday, 5-9 p.m.

Prepared NY
20 Main Street, Chatham, NY
(518) 392-3200
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 09/26/16 at 10:00 AM • Permalink

Vong’s Thai Restaurant Hits The Sweet Spot in Pittsfield

By Regina Burgio

With the arrival of Vong’s, the long wait for a Thai restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass. is officially over, and its owner, restaurateur Jae Chung, has definitely hit the sweet spot. While his eponymous Jae’s Asian Bistro in Lenox (which will soon be moving to Pittsfield, as well) is an eclectic mix of Pan-Asian cuisines, Vong’s is primarily Thai with a sprinkling of Vietnamese dishes.

“I’ve always loved Thai food and wanted to do something authentic, relaxed and at a good value,” Chung says.

Just a stone’s throw from historic Wahconah Park and kitty-corner to Berkshire Medical Center, Vong’s has taken over the former location of Paul’s Greek Restaurant. The Thai place has been especially well received by the medical staff and hospital visitors who appreciate the all-day, continuous hours and quick service.

With the new renovation, Asian-inspired Buddhas of various shapes and sizes mix seamlessly with elephant tapestries in one compact room that’s casually inviting. The undersized dining room includes a 10-seat full bar with three silent TVs that only add to the chilled vibe. Outdoor tables with umbrellas help to extend the 50-person seating capacity.

The night my friend Kim and I were there, the place was packed. A full cocktail menu of 20 Thai-inspired libations ($9-$10) made our decision difficult. A Blue Thai Mojito for her and a Thai-style Bourbon for me turned out to be perfect choices. Sweet, tangy and refreshing, the fragrant citrus of the kaffir lime and the piquant ginger beer with the bourbon were a homerun combination — it went down way too easily. Other ingredients like Thai chili pepper, lemongrass, Thai tea and coffee, and cucumber syrup and basil make ordering off the cocktail menu a must. (And yes, there is a scorpion bowl.)

In addition to a large assortment of appetizers ($5.95-$14.95), the specialty of the house is Vong’s Wing, ($8.95) a deep-fried chicken wing stuffed with glass noodles and vegetables, served with a sweet chili sauce.

Yaya, the dining manager, says the dish is very old school. “The younger generation of Thai cooks don’t even know how to make that. We try to serve Thai food like my grandmother would make.”

We did not try any of the eight salads on the menu but the Green Papaya ($8.95), mango salad ($9.95) and Yum Nua with grilled beef ($8.95), looked delicious when served to our neighbors.

They say we eat with our eyes first and this is definitely true at Vong’s. Entrees are presented beautifully but without pretense. I ordered my favorite, the Panang Curry with shrimp ($13.95). The contrast of vibrant red and green peppers, verdant string beans, and bright carrots against the white plate was striking as the vegetables and shrimp floated in the fiery curry sauce. The somewhat soupy consistency of the dish is what I loved most. It’s served with a spoon so you can properly savor the aromatic broth.

Kim, who had never tried the pho before, ordered their signature dish, the Dac Biet Xe Lua ($13.95). Steak, beef, meatball, brisket, flank, tendon, shrimp and rice noodles floated in a huge bowl of rich, savory broth. The staff seemed very amenable to making any adjustments to our order and didn’t bat an eye when she asked them to hold the tripe.

Chef Steven Vong

There’s a large assortment of entrees featuring seafood, noodles, fried rice, curries, vegetarian options, house specialties and a back page for Vietnamese dishes, starting at $12.95 and topping out at $15.95 with Vong’s Duck.

So now to address the real elephant in the room. Where does the name Vong’s come from? It’s the surname of Jae’s longtime friend and the head chef at the restaurant. Originally from Laos, Steven Vong spent seven years as a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Thailand before honing his skills at the first Jae’s Restaurant in the south end of Boston in 1990.

Open daily with continuous hours from 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Vong’s serves lunch until 3 p.m. but customers can order off the dinner menu all day. “That’s the way we do things,” says Jae. “I’m Asian. We never close.”

Vong’s Thai & Vietnamese Restaurant
157 Seymour Street, Pittsfield MA
(413) 442-6000


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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/12/16 at 10:37 AM • Permalink

Bartlett House: Newly Reborn As Kitchen, Bakery & Cafe

Photos courtesy of Bartlett House.

By Hannah Van Sickle Barrett

After 11 years of standing dormant, the three-story square Italianate-style brick building on Route 66 in Ghent, New York has been revived by a trio of entrepreneurs keen on curating a neighborhood destination known for its hospitality and old-world charm. Unyielding devotion to authenticity, craftsmanship and hospitality permeate the newly reborn Bartlett House Kitchen, Bakery & Cafe.

Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg have spent the past 25 years cultivating their passion for transforming everyday routines into sensorial rituals; the founders of the iconic oval-shaped Fresh soaps, in a new collaboration with partner Damien Janowicz, have their sights set on coffee, pastry and hospitality in an often overlooked corner of the Hudson Valley. For this trio, inspiration comes from 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s sentiment, “Nothing is lost, everything is transformed,” beginning with the very building in which they have set up shop. “A destination that you actually name is one thing; a destination that already has a name is a whole other thing” remarks Roytberg of the historic railroad hotel built in 1870 and resuscitated over the past year. 

In this case the destination, on an unassuming stretch of Route 66, is well worth the drive. Upon crossing a full-width front porch, and spilling through a pair of original mahogany swinging doors, “individuals are greeted as if they are coming into [our] home not into [our] business” says Janowicz. This old-world sense of hospitality is quickly nourishing the community. 

The flour-laden surfaces visible through windows on the ground floor reiterate that this place is, first and foremost, a bakery. “As long as I’ve known Lev, he’s been dreaming of baking bread,” says Roytberg. This 26-year dream came to fruition in the waning days of August. Head Baker Craig Escalante’s ovens are turning out myriad offerings from traditional baguette and pain de mie pullman, to multigrain pullman, country sourdough and apricot currant walnut sourdough loaves. The bakery menu is punctuated by croissants — classic ($3.75), dark chocolate ($4) and twice-baked pistachio ($4) — as well as muffins ($3.75), running the gamut from a traditional whole wheat buttermilk blueberry to the seasonal zucchini and the exotic pear rosewater. Cherry cornmeal scones ($4) are a staple, along with dark chocolate chip cookies and candied lemon zest shortbread ($2.50). The sleek coffee bar serves up exceptional coffee sourced from Sightglass, a San Francisco-based company specializing in sustainable harvests, as well as a carefully curated selection of fine organic teas from Divinitea.

Executive Chef Amy Stonionis has a penchant for creating menus around local farms and artisan producers. Her breakfast menu includes yogurt, house-made granola and berries ($8), a farmer’s breakfast consisting of two farm eggs, breakfast potatoes, toast, choice of bacon, house sausage or vegetable ($9) and French toast served with strawberries, balsamic reduction pistachio, creme fraiche and mint ($11).

For lunch, the local bounty is transformed into Grains and Greens ($7) featuring kale, quinoa, radish with shallot dijon vinaigrette; burrata, basil, pea greens, olive oil and sea salt ($12); the more substantial chicken salad available as a sandwich or a plate ($9/10) made with creme fraiche, radish, dill and scallions; and the house-cured salmon ($12) served with horseradish, creme fraiche, cucumber, radish, dill, scallions and multigrain. For the more traditional palate, there is the Bartlett House burger ($14) served with aioli and fries, as well as a fried chicken sandwich ($10) that comes with red cabbage slaw, sweet pickles, chipotle aioli, on a house-made sesame bun. Bartlett House also offers a cold deli case with daily prepared specials for quick pickup.

The collective passion among Roytberg, Glazman and Janowicz translates as palpable energy; what ensues is a veritable hub of culinary creation, inspired by the area’s rich harvest. The convergence of these three is nothing short of “kismet,” a word they use to describe the fate of their meeting. “People are always drawn to authenticity” says Glazman and this sentiment, echoed by his partners, is what has allowed for them to simultaneously build a dream while nourishing the community in a place firmly rooted in the history of the Hudson Valley.

Bartlett House Kitchen, Bakery & Cafe
2258 Route 66, Ghent, NY
(518) 392-7787
Thursday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/06/16 at 11:03 AM • Permalink

Traghaven Whiskey Pub Brings West Cork To Tivoli

One of the delicious burgers at Traghaven.

By Jamie Larson

Traghaven Whiskey Pub & Co. in Tivoli, New York has some magic to it. The pub is transportive, seemingly pulled from another time and place (namely West Cork, Ireland). It’s beautiful in a way pubs can be and the care that owner Gerard Hurley puts into the atmosphere, food and drinks make it feel like a community pub in the truest sense.

“It’s the essential West Cork pub experience,” says Hurley, who hails from Ireland’s largest county. “There are no shamrocks on the wall. You come in and it’s just the real deal. Traditionally a pub serves a community in more than one way.”

You may be wondering if that place used to be that lovable yet problematic dive called The Black Swan. Well, yes — but a lot has changed, aside from the cozy layout and the old black and white photographs that include portraits of President Kennedy and Noam Chomsky.

Gerard Hurley

Hurley immigrated to the U.S. alone at age 17 and bounced around the country working odd jobs, acting, writing and pushing his first screenplay. When the production of his story fell through at the eleventh hour, he moved to Tivoli and figured he’d open a pub, a comfortable place that felt like home, where he could play chess, read a book, drink and socialize. He ran the Black Swan from 2001 to 2004. He then went back to Ireland to make the films The Pier and The Pride. While he was away the Swan was run by a tenant and became notorious as a fun, loud and increasingly grimy place to drink and party. In 2012 the state shut the place down for its, shall we say, liberal ID policy. Hurley had to leave his Irish projects behind to come back to the States and save his business, literally cleaning house.

“If I didn’t come back I would have lost my home and my connection to this place,” Hurley says. “I like and have a lot of respect for the other business owners in town. The difference with this pub, rather than a restaurant, is you can just hang out for a couple hours.”

A regular haunt for locals, travelers and of-age Bard students, the pub’s new draw is the excellent food, prepared by Chef Christopher Murphy.

The bar menu is straightforward but elevated by great local ingredients. There’s an Irish Burger with Dubliner cheese and stout onions ($15), and the Pig Candy Burger with thick-cut bacon, fried onions and BBQ sauce ($15), but there are also vegetarian options and less ordinary sides like a balsamic marinated portobello sandwich with arugula pesto and sundried tomatoes ($13), and roasted Brussels sprouts with pecans and capers. There are also well-executed pub mains like a half roast chicken ($16) and steak frites ($20). Hurley has a few head of cattle on his small homestead farm nearby and all the beef served at the pub is from his herd (really).

A recent tuna special at Traghaven.

“The food’s really simple. We always source local,” Hurley says. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not, but we also refuse to cook out of a box.”

The bar and dining area are warm and welcoming and there’s a large, attractive patio out back. Drink business can get pretty busy and loud late at night, but there’s a mellow vibe at Traghaven at dinnertime.

But this is a whiskey pub and Hurley says he has the biggest selection of Irish whiskey in the United States. (He’s looked into it and says he doesn’t give a s*** if you don’t believe him.) There are 70 options behind the bar and more in a private reserve he’s not allowed to sell. Hurley knows his stuff and is happy to talk at length about the history and tradition behind Irish whiskey, which is in his blood. His father smuggled whiskey through Ireland in the volatile 70s and 80s and his grandmother owned a distillery in Boston, during prohibition, before returning to Ireland to open a pub.

When the weather turns cold, Traghaven is the perfect spot for a hot toddy.

“If someone wants to talk whiskey, I will,” says Hurley, who has a deep knowledge of the spirit’s history, “but we’re not snobs. I love turning people on to whiskey who don’t know they like it.”

For the uninitiated he usually recommends Greenore for women and Concannon for men. Traghaven uses Clontarf as its main whiskey, though they’ve got Jameson’s if you want it. Hurley also loves pushing his hometown’s own West Cork Whiskey.

And there is beer, too. In the Irish style, it’s kegs and pints rather than bottles, and all the beer is either from Ireland or NY State.

Hurley says that unlike scotch, which has a narrow flavor profile, different kinds of Irish whiskey lend themselves to a wide swath of mixed drinks, and Traghaven has come up with some seriously good cocktail specials and mainstays including the Boulvardier made with Power, Campari and sweet vermouth ($11); the Gingeroo with Devlin whiskey, ginger, ginger beer and crystallized ginger ($10); or the Whiskey-rita with Paddy’s, triple sec, fresh lime and hot sauce ($10).

What’s not on the menu is how the place makes you feel. What Hurley has done with Traghaven is not unremarkable. It’s a gathering place now, a lively, sociable community hub. There’s regular live music, karaoke, quiz night and television for important political and soccer-related events. This is a pub at its best and an elegant merger of what’s good about West Cork Ireland and the Hudson Valley.

Traghaven Whiskey Pub & Co.
66 Broadway, Tivoli, NY
(845) 757-3777
Hours: Tuesday—Sunday, 5 p.m.—1:30 a.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 08/30/16 at 11:39 PM • Permalink

Lil’ Deb’s Oasis: An Ever-Evolving Art And Food “Installation”

By Jamie Larson

Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, in Hudson, New York, is a hard restaurant to define. And that’s enticing. Painted up like a tiki bar, yet still retaining the comfort of a local diner, Oasis feels fresh and relevant in a way you might intellectualize a modern art exhibit. And that’s intentional.

Run for 20 years as Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant, owner Debbie Fiero handed the keys to Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo, who splashed the walls with bright pastel pinks and greens and blues, draping the place in art and texture.

“It’s an overall food experience,” says Black. “It’s an ever-evolving art installation platform. We are creating our own language.”

We could talk design all day, but let’s move on to the specials. Bright, herbaceous, citrusy flavors are the linchpin to the whole experience. The menu board can feature any number of unexpected plates but there is always a ceviche of the day (market price) that tastes as good as it looks. There’s also a whole fried fish. It’s striking visually and there’s just no place else you’re going to see it around here — not regularly anyway — and not at their price point (around $30, depending on market).

“We weren’t sure it was going to work, but it sells out,” Black says.

“It’s emblematic of what we are trying to do,” Perez-Gallardo says. “I’m really happy people have responded.”

The friends often finish each other’s thought, or speak in tandem. “We love warm vivacious flavors,” Black says, followed by Perez-Gallardo. “It’s tropical comfort food — food from warm places. It’s about creating taste pictures.”

They are artists first and their other roles as cooks, community members, friends, bartenders, proud female business owners and role models for some ever-present young girls are all positions informed by that. Their artistic approach to cooking has been attracting a loyal following of locals, weekenders and at least one celebrity.

“This is the only place to eat in the Hudson Valley,” actress Gabby Hoffman said as she grabbed a smoothie and dipped out one recent afternoon.

Perez-Gallardo at the smoothie window.

Oasis is open for dinner from 5-10 p.m. but it also serves fresh smoothies out the front window from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The ladies confess they aren’t morning people so they don’t serve lunch, but since they’re at the restaurant in the afternoon prepping anyway they figured they’d sling tasty, healthy drinks while they do it. It’s such a refreshing, well-executed play you’d think it was the plan from the start.

Black and Perez-Gallardo, a Bard alum who cut her teeth at Panzur, met when Black needed help on the much-loved Catskill Mill Vietnamese-style food truck two years ago. They quickly bonded over their similarities in artistry, travel and taste. Last summer Black and Perez-Gallardo started doing artistically curated catering as Table/Table and did four popups at Debbie’s on Tuesdays (the night when most Hudson restaurants are closed), before getting the offer to take over in January.

“Debbie is this small feisty fireball,” Black begins, and Perez-Gallardo continues. “She’s run the place on her own. She’s inspirational. This feels like a continuation.”

Both women have spent recent stretches of time traveling South America and Mexico, Perez-Gallardo in Ecuador, where she has family, and Black, from Alabama by way of Rhode Island School of Design, working at a Mexican beachfront restaurant. Those are the places where their culinary influence starts but then it’s adapted on the fly. Both women bristle at the ubiquitous descriptor “fusion.” The influencing tradition is there but the dishes are their own.

Not to be outdone by the specials, there’s also a tight menu of staple offerings including mojo chicken with rice, lentils and orange salsa verde ($16), grilled octopus with radicchio and smoked avocado ($18), mussels in a coconut tomato broth ($17) and others. You can also snack on deviled eggs with pickled onion and chili oil ($4), yucca fries ($7) or salt cod fritters with green plantains ($9) as a side or with a glass of wine. The ladies recently received their tavern license and are pretty happy about it, writing poems to describe their wine’s flavors, rather than the traditional old list of nouns and adjectives.

Black and Perez-Gallardo

“We get people interested in the wine instead of wine words,” says Perez-Gallardo.

Lil’ Deb’s Oasis feels relevant. What Perez-Gallardo and Black are doing differently there is delicious in flavor and funky in atmosphere, and a happy addition to Hudson’s culinary neighborhood.

Lil’ Deb’s Oasis
747 Columbia St., Hudson, NY
(518) 828-4307

Open Tuesday-Saturday
Smoothie Window: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Cash only

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 08/14/16 at 01:37 PM • Permalink

Papa’s Best Batch: Outstanding Barbecue With A View

By Jamie Larson

No matter how long we’ve covered the RI region there are just some places so beautifully bucolic they render us speechless. Papa’s Best Batch, a smoked meat sandwich trailer in Red Hook, New York is plunked down in such a place. Since your mouth will be agape, we recommend filling it with something off Jody Apap’s unique menu.

Behind Greig Farm’s big red barn, with a view of the hazy blue Catskills over yellow fields, and shaded under the lazy green branches of two massive weeping willows, sits a cluster of picnic tables and a shiny chrome 1972 Airstream Land Yacht. The trailer’s exterior glitters as sunlight passes through the swaying curtain of leaves. Inside, Apap builds a smoked brisket sandwich with Asian slaw, Swiss cheese and homemade Russian dressing.

The big Yacht houses a roomy kitchen that’s not too hot the afternoon of our visit. The meat is smoked outside in a handmade smoker, a quaint sheet metal tower with a pitched little cottage roof. Apap is busy, working solo, running from outside order counter to kitchen, and he’s smiling.

“My task is to get people here the first time.” Apap says, pulling halved egg whites out of the smoker. “Once they’ve been here, they come back.”

Apap doesn’t rest on the appeal of the location, though: he’s put together a list of offerings that are not only delicious but special.

“I try to make it so it’s stuff people can’t get anywhere else,” he says, filling his smoked deviled eggs from a piping bag. Only the whites are smoked (lightly) and have a slightly chewy, texture reminiscent of a good smoked cheese. The filling includes homemade mustard, and the combined woodsy flavor is well balanced and refined ($4 for 4).

In addition to the bestselling brisket ($11), Apap’s other sandwiches are well worth a try. There’s smoked chicken with pesto, roasted pecans and sweet red peppers ($9); smoked salmon with cream cheese, capers and red onion (10); and an open face smoked hummus sandwich ($7) made by smoking, then re-rehydrating the chickpeas. That one comes with a couple deviled eggs for good measure.

Apap was a Bard student who couldn’t bring himself to leave. He worked in restaurants as a bartender, but not in the kitchen, and later moved on to the world of software. He always loved to cook, and sold his own maple syrup and jerky at the Greig Farm farmers market. Then, two years ago, between projects, he decided to change directions. He bought the trailer online and renovated it himself. He taught himself how to smoke meat and set up shop, making his own food on his own terms.

“I put my daughter on the bus in the morning and I’m home to cook her dinner,” Apap says as a fitting metric of success. “And I like doing it. It’s way better than hanging out by a computer or bartending.”

Another metric is the people who show up right as he opens, like loyal moths to a porch light flicking on. The bread delivery guy pulls up, drops off, then picks himself up a sandwich here, despite the fact he visits many delis a day.

“Even my health inspector can’t stop raving about it,” says Apap. “I think it’s the combination of flavors. I don’t over smoke anything.”

If you were wondering, the name Papa’s Best Batch isn’t a play on Apap’s name backwards or his fatherhood but a family inside joke, where everything that came out of the kitchen was papa’s best batch, no matter what it was. That certainly still holds true here under the willows.

Papa’s is a great place to grab a sandwich on the go, but do yourself a great service: sit at a picnic table and soak in the surroundings. The combination of view and food are calming and quintessential Hudson Valley.

Papa’s Best Batch
Greig Farm, 223 Pitcher Lane, Red Hook, NY
(914) 388-5202
Open Wednesday—Sunday, Noon to 5 p.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 07/18/16 at 09:03 AM • Permalink

Cantina 229: A Convivial Gathering Space In New Marlborough

By Hannah Van Sickle Barrett

Photos courtesy Cantina 229.

Cantina 229 — a nod to both the restaurant’s address and the New Marlborough, Mass. telephone exchange — is less about the menu, neither Mexican nor Italian, but rather the owners’ vision for a space that would be a destination, a proverbial watering hole-turned-gathering place. Josh Irwin and Emily Rachel splashed onto the dining scene last summer in an experimental capacity, opening the gorgeous 1,500-square-foot post-and-beam barn on their country property for Taco Tuesdays. What began as a simple family tradition — Irwin crafting tacos for up to 25 friends and extended family members on any given week — quickly became a South County destination once word got out. Taco Tuesdays will return this summer, to honor the restaurant’s beginnings, but for the rest of the week Cantina 229 will be showcasing world fare made local.

Josh Irwin and Emily Rachel

Last Friday night I reserved two seats at the bar, a deep, L-shaped construction made of exotic Douglas Fir milled from the property. Bartender Austin Rapisarda welcomed me and my friend Dawn, and mixed up a round of refreshing cucumber margaritas ($12), a pleasing combination of tequila, cucumber-lime slush, and Combier. He explained how he had built the bar over the winter out of remnants of beams found in a burn pile out back and fronted it with original barn doors from the property.

The concept for Cantina comes from the couple’s appreciation for top-notch ingredients, a passion for creating fun food and serving it in a way that encourages diners to share, to experiment, to taste and to enjoy. “We’re taking a worldly menu and making food with ingredients we raise ourselves while supporting the farmers around us” says Irwin.

Cantina’s open-concept kitchen is visible from every seat in the house. With Irwin’s penchant for creating food for tasting and sharing in mind, I ordered an array of small plates that would allow us to understand not only his culinary vision but also the dining experience the couple is hoping to cultivate. We started with rillette croquettes ($12), crispy pulled pork piled atop pickles, cilantro aioli and mustard greens followed with beet tartine ($10), a base of Berkshire Mountain Bakery olive bread, roasted red and golden beets, Rawson Brook chevre and black pesto.

It’s clear that Irwin knows his ingredients; what becomes evident, impressive really, is that he knows the farmers just as well. He raised the pork we were served, his greens were from Jan Johnson at Mill River Farm, and he told us that Susan Sellew, of Rawson Brook Farm, had been out of chevre that morning but had whipped up a batch at his request. A visit to Steve Cunningham’s Berkshire Bounty Farm, just down the road, allowed Irwin to “fill up a bucket, and make up the menu.”

We ordered a second round of drinks, this time opting for the Road Runner ($12), a festive mix of bourbon, Campari, hibiscus syrup and lemon balm from the lawn just beyond the bar. What then followed was a showcasing of Irwin’s culinary magic, punctuated by echoes of his varied experience living in India training with a home chef, learning street curries in Thailand, and making soup dumplings in China. Pork and ginger dumplings ($10) were made with more of Irwin’s own pork served with sesame and scallion dipping sauce. Then came pa jun ($8), a crisp leek, scallion and chive pancake. 

Both Dawn and I were treated to our first experience with bibimbap ($15), a melange of crispy rice, marinated vegetables, kimchi, fried egg, crispy shallots, bap hot sauce and bulgogi beef. Perhaps my favorite was a diminutive serving, two gorgeous bites, of the MA striped bass entree ($24) served with a bright green basil spaetzle from the kitchen garden, baby squash and buttered garlic scapes. 

The atmosphere is lively and convivial yet intimate; The bar seats eight, and there is one centrally located community table, a smattering of two-tops and four giant picnic tables outside. Irwin and Rachel are excited to debut this season, serving dinner five nights a week year round. “There are restaurants and there are places you go to eat; we want to be the latter… a place to socialize,” says Irwin. Despite Cantina’s remote feel, it’s a mere seven miles from downtown Great Barrington and well worth the foray into the “wilds” of New Marlborough.

Cantina 229
229 Hartsville New Marlboro Road
New Marlborough, MA
(413) 229-3276
Open nightly (closed Wednesday and Thursday) , 5-9 p.m.
Sunday brunch beginning at 10 a.m.
Reservations suggested.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/12/16 at 12:04 PM • Permalink

20 Railroad Public House: New Kid On The Block Is A Fast Friend

By Hannah Van Sickle Barrett

20 Railroad Public House, the eatery marked by a green and white striped awning on iconic Railroad Street in Great Barrington, Mass., is sporting a new moniker and coming alive just in time for the busy summer season. This collaboration between Great Barrington native Ben Downing and Laura Shack of Firefly in Lenox was born of Downing’s “plotting for years to build something with a sense of community.” Not surprisingly “20,” as locals still call it, is doing just that.

Downing, whose first job was working for Dominic Polumbo at Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield “one summer many years ago,” has made it a point to connect with local food purveyors. His goal? To make locally sourced, farmer direct produce, antibiotic and hormone free meats, and fish driven fresh from the docks in Boston the focus of what “20” is calling “pub food done right.”

The atmosphere inside is decidedly casual yet updated; an entire wall of exposed brick, punctuated by trendy, metal cage wall sconces, defines the bright dining space. Light streams in through a wall of windows that affords diners a view of life unfolding on Railroad Street. On a recent Friday afternoon at 1 p.m., there were just three tables open in the bustling pub-like atmosphere where I had decided to meet a friend for lunch. I was immediately taken by the day’s blackboard specials, and started with potato croquettes ($9); the appetizer arrived on a white oval plate, atop a generous yet artistic puddle of bright romesco sauce, crumbles of Rawson Brook Farm chevre and a sprinkling of parsley. The presentation was striking, and the accompaniments were just the right pairing of cool and smooth to balance the hot and crunchy indulgence.

There were two additional blackboard specials, both indicative of chef Drew Jacobs’ creative flair and passion for local and seasonally inspired foods: a fried chicken sandwich served with remoulade, bread and butter pickled peppers and a side of potato salad ($14) and a lamb sandwich boasting caper raisin puree and garlic yogurt on a brioche bun with mixed greens ($15).

For lunch, I chose the mussels ($12) from the “Starters and Shared” section of the menu; they arrived in a towering heap, bathed in coconut curry, basil, cilantro, mint and scallions, served with toasted focaccia for mopping up the sweet and creamy broth. I was equally interested in the two versions of the French Canadian specialty on this section of the menu; poutine ($8), featuring house-cut potato frites, cheese curds, Guinness gravy and fresh herbs, as well as the Southwestern poutine ($10), which substitutes tomatillo salsa, pulled pork and cilantro for the cheese curds and gravy.

My friend Patti ordered the Reuben ($14) stuffed with housemade pastrami, Hosta Hill sauerkraut, Swiss and mustard aioli on rye bread, served with house-cut potato fries. The sandwich was ample, piled with tender meat, and the fries were exceptional.

Other menu items that caught my eye were the creative salads — from a kale salad ($9) served with roasted grape tomatoes, creamy manchego dressing, Aleppo pepper and manchego tuile to an asparagus salad ($9) marrying shaved asparagus, roasted asparagus tips, local greens, romesco, foccacia crisp and sherry vinaigrette. There was also a Skyview Farm sweet Italian sausage ($12) from nearby Sheffield, a pulled pork sandwich ($13), a house-ground burger ($15) and a black bean burger ($14). Of particular note is the fact that Jacobs grinds, cures, brines and smokes all of the meats in house. 

As we lingered after lunch, the impressive 28-foot mahogany bar from the 1800s began to fill; bar manager Eric Rudgunas, formerly of John Andrews in Egremont, brings a strong focus on craft cocktails to “20,” and as we were leaving a pile of fresh lemons and limes were being put to good use. His creativity was apparent in both the Borracha Fresa ($11) featuring Chinaco blanco, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, strawberry-rhubarb and lemon, as well as in the Stiggins Daiquiri ($11) made from Cana Brava Rum, plantation pineapple, lime and simple syrup.

For the beer enthusiast, “20” offers 10 taps ranging from a 20-ounce Guinness ($7) and Shacksbury Farmhouse Cider ($9) to Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA ($8.50) and Troegs Cultivator Helles Bock ($6). Additionally, Downing and Rudgunas are working on bringing a strong wine presence to the restaurant. 

Whether for a weekday lunch, an intimate dinner for two or drinks after a show at the Mahaiwe, 20 Railroad Public House is sure to be a hit in an iconic locale that has been turning out food and drinks for nearly 40 years.

20 Railroad Public House
20 Railroad Street, Great Barrington, MA
Tuesday - Sunday, 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.; 5 p.m. - 10 p.m. (bar stays open until midnight)
(413) 528-9345

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/27/16 at 08:52 PM • Permalink