Blueberry Hill Café: Stealth Sophistication in Humble Pie
There are loudly-ballyhooed, celebrity-chef-driven restaurant openings, and then there are restaurants that slip quietly into town, barely making a ripple until customers notice that something special is going on. “This is the best burger I ever ate.” Such was the reaction of one recent diner at Blueberry Hill Market & Café in New Lebanon, NY, a breakfast and lunch place that opened without fanfare at the town’s busiest intersection on Memorial Day weekend. What made the Blueberry Hill burger “best,” in addition to its superior grass-fed beef, according to owner Melanie Hunt, were the toppings. “He said, ‘It’s got things on it I would have never thought of.’” Things like a smear of pesto, a thick slice of heirloom tomato, and melted fresh mozzarella cheese ($8.25). Horizons thus widened, the same customer, “a construction worker,” Hunt says, on a later visit took a flier on the frittata (served on salad, $6.99), the only “foreign” item on the menu most days.
When Hunt, right, who grew up in Old Chatham on Blueberry Hill Road, bought the building last December, she had this type of customer in mind. She also hoped the market would attract folks on their way home from work and that both the café and market would suit the needs of those just passing through. Situated on the busy stretch of two-lane blacktop where north-south Route 22 and east-west Route 20 briefly join, the former gift shop’s ample charm is challenged by a milieu that has seen better days. “It used to be called the Million Dollar Mile,” says Hunt with an embarrassed giggle. Today, it’s an ill-defined jumble of buildings, one of which, an Off-Track Betting parlor, casts a vaguely shady pall over all. “When I was in high school, there were a lot more stores here,” Hunt recalls. Today, as she aptly puts it, “There is no feeling of ‘Main Street’ left. This area needs something.”
Hunt’s contribution to filling that void, a charming market and café, is a step in the right direction, potentially even the tipping point. Here customers who live nearby can pick up “nice things without driving 15 miles,” and those who are just passing through can get “a taste of Columbia County” to consume on the spot at one of the vintage-clothed kitchen tables in the bright, airy dining rooms, or later “at home”—perhaps a weekend rental at near-by Jiminy Peak.
Among those “nice things” are Berkshire Mountain Bakery breads, burgers made from Kinderhook Farm’s grass-fed beef, from-scratch lemonade and iced tea served in-house in quart jars, coffee roasted a couple of miles up the road at Liquid Assets, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy butter and yogurt, and fruits and vegetables from Abode Farm, a CSA “right up that hill,” says Hunt, pointing to a nearby rise where a Shaker community once thrived. Today, farmer Evan Thaler-Null tills the soil there Shaker-style with a horse-drawn plow.
Like Hunt, the menu at Blueberry Hill is unpretentious. Breakfasts, which are served until 1 p.m., range from scrambled eggs and toast ($2.99) to a cider-bacon-stuffed waffle with maple-cinnamon butter ($7.99). For lunch, in addition to the grass-fed burger, there’s a less expensive one made from Angus beef ($4.50) and the usual range of sandwiches—tuna and chicken salad, pulled pork and chicken, assorted meat-and-cheese combos. The excitement starts when the plates arrive at table—generous portions, including the fresh-fruit garnish, artfully arranged on old-fashioned willowware. Everything looks beautiful and tastes even better, thanks to superior ingredients and astute execution. Among the desserts, housemade “slab pies” (one recent day, a choice of apple-raspberry or peach-blueberry, for $3.00) stand out. Though flatter than the usual slice of pie, these double-crusted squares burst with fresh, high-quality fruit. “The guys call them ‘pop-tarts on steroids,’” Hunt laughs. Which guys? “Regulars, the mailman, the coffee guy.”
Hunt’s plans for the future include acquiring a wine and beer license with an eye to serving dinner eventually. Meanwhile, within a week or two, Fred Cashmere of Liquid Assets, aka “the coffee guy,” will be out front on weekends with his vintage roaster making the air all around—for a mile, at least—smell like a million. It’s a start. —Marilyn Bethany
Blueberry Hill Market & Café
515 State Route 20
Wednesday - Monday, 6 a.m. - 6 p.m.