The Crimson Sparrow’s Soft Opening is Oh-So Savory and Sweet
Two years ago, John McCarthy and his wife Dianna bought a second home in Claverack. Soon Benjamin Freemole, McCarthy’s colleague at Wylie Dufresne’s legendary Manhattan restaurant WD-50, began joining the couple on days off. Both chefs “fell in love with the region,” the charming villages, of course, but especially the scores of surrounding farms, so rife with ingredients. Eventually they bought an iconic building on Warren Street and made plans to transform it into a state-of-the-art restaurant that would serve some of the most sophisticated food in the world, yet would look as if it belongs exactly where it is. Then they went before the planning commission. “In New York City that can be a trying process,” says McCarthy. Here? “We were there for 11 minutes, then everyone applauded.” Why Hudson? “It’s like Soho in the ‘70s,” says McCarthy. Adds Freemole, “There’s a $5500 chair made of yacht string in the window of a store down the street. Nothing makes sense here.” RI’s Marilyn Bethany was at The Crimson Sparrow on opening night, Wednesday, June 20, and reports.
Early last winter, when it came to light that uber-chefs John McCarthy (below left) and Benjamin Freemole, both most recently of Wylie Dufresne’s cutting-edge, Michelin-starred WD-50 in Manhattan, intended to turn the old Keystone buildings on upper Warren Street into a destination restaurant, le tout Hudson was agog. Coming, as this news did, on the heels of artist Marina Abramović’s announcement that world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas would be designing her Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art just across the park, The Crimson Sparrow’s impending arrival seemed to confirm that Hudson had taken yet another step, this time a giant one, up the evolutionary ladder. Given the partners’ topnotch bonafides, the amount they were sinking into a pair of 19th-century storefronts (in the end substantially less, they insist, than the $1.6 million reported in the Register Star), the message seemed clear: Hudson (two square-miles, population 6,832) really is the new Oz. With one important difference: the wizards here are for real, even if their enterprises sometimes seem to come from over the rainbow.
So it was with great expectation tinged with a soupcon of trepidation that our party entered The Crimson Sparrow for dinner on Wednesday evening, June 20th, the first night of its soft opening.
Why trepidation? For nearly half a century, enlightened American chefs have been at one with Mother Nature, eschewing all but the freshest seasonal ingredients, locally grown. Until about a decade ago, that is, when Wylie Dufresne, among others, shook things up by intentionally trying to fool the old girl. Bending food science to oxymoronic effect—deep-fried mayonnaise cubes, edible eggshells—this approach has been dubbed “molecular gastronomy,” and it’s a big hit with the sort of diner who seeks to go where no man has gone before… while his limo waits. To be fair, even those who arrive by subway—critics and other threadbare foodies—are dazzled by Dufresne’s inventiveness. But at $155 for a thirteen-course tasting menu, plus an additional $85 for drink pairings, WD-50 reflects a decidedly NYC state of mind. Given that both of The Crimson Sparrow’s owners worked until recently under Dufresne (McCarthy takes credit for having done the R & D on the edible eggshell*), it was not unreasonable to wonder just how “molecular” the gastronomy at The Crimson Sparrow would be.
The answer: both a little and not at all. One unmistakable sign of just how not like WD-50 The Crimson Sparrow is: a chalkboard behind the bar lists wines by the glass, all between $7 and $9. The dinner menu has four sections: Plates, Cheese, Other, and Large Plates. The least expensive dish is an $8 Other, onion-parmesan soup. The most expensive: two Large Plates, one a Mediterranean sea bass with green tomatoes and miso lentils; the other a Wagyu sirloin butt heart with sunchoke, zucchini, and chanterelles, for $29 each. In other words, the prices are at least comparable, if not a shade lower, than other quality restaurants in the region.
Where WD-50 and The Crimson Sparrow are similar is in the way their menus challenge the diner. On both, the description of each dish lists major components without further ado; it’s up to us to figure out how it all falls together in our mouths. Menu reading is an act of imagination. One studies item by item, looking for something that “sounds good.” That may not happen here. Many of the ingredients and nearly all of the combinations are so unusual, they may not ring any bells. The timid will surely balk, but for those willing to entrust themselves to the talent in the kitchen, The Crimson Sparrow can be an exciting leap into the unknown.
Many restaurants pride themselves on their authenticity—authentic French, authentic Mexican. The last thing modern chefs like Freemole and McCarthy want anyone to say about their food is that it’s “authentic,” except, perhaps, authentically new. A dish of octopus with sweet pea risotto, kimchi romesco, and lime (above) is a veritable UN on a plate—risotto (Italy), kimchi (Korea), romesco (Catalonia). It takes a powerful imagination and experience far greater than the average Joe’s to think of marrying these elements. Yet, the result tastes as inevitable as (though a lot more novel than), say, tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. It’s also a generous and exotic plate of food for $13. A restaurant’s first night is way too early to do a critique, but I will say this dish was a hit with everyone in our party of three.
So were the scallops with Old Bay, corn, yukons, and crab ($28). And I enjoyed my duck with black garlic, white anchovies deep fried into little salty frizzles, and dirty rice ($28, right), though I’d have been happier if I could have seen it better. Same with the chocolate cake with ice cream and whatnot ($11), one of two dessert offerings, this of the sweet and salty school of which I am an enthusiastic proponent.
The plate arrangements at The Crimson Sparrow are more abstract expressionist than standard still life. A spotlight or even a candle on the table would have been a boon to appreciating the complex harmonies on each plate, both visual and flavor.
But all of that will shake out in time. What worked beyond my expectations was the space, which I’d visited twice since construction was completed. McCarthy and Freemole did not do a gut renovation. Though the kitchen is state-of-the art and the furnishings are mostly modern, the rooms show the age of buildings that have housed many businesses since they were constructed in the late 19th-century. Evidence of some of these remain, most notably an enormous brick oven that now serves as one of two more-or-less private dining rooms—great places to give a small party. Lighting fixtures throughout are mostly early industrial, the perfect choice, as is the chipped pale paint on the brick walls of the main dining room. As the evening wore on and the sizzling outdoor temperatures became more tolerable, the modern garden, which all the other spaces, except the bar but including the glass-walled kitchen, overlook, filled up, and we began to see what these two ambitious, worldly chefs have in mind. A lot of restaurants in Hudson have gardens. At no other is the tension between indoors and out so compelling. The Crimson Sparrow is an exciting place to eat and to be.
Next up in Oz? Zak Pelaccio, executive chef at 5 Ninth and Fatty Crab in Greenwich Village, is said to be taking over the lovely brick building on S. 3rd Street that was the original location of the Verdigris Tea Shop. If he builds it, will we come? You betcha. Who can resist the siren call of that yellow brick road?
*It’s not an eggshell any more than a boule de neige is a snowball. An edible white paste is molded over a balloon the size and shape as an egg. Once dry, the mini sculpture is cracked, the balloon removed, and what’s left is a ringer for a broken eggshell from which, on the plate, deliciousness artfully spills. No one is suggesting that we try this at home; it’s the sort of theatrical flourish expensive restaurants use to surprise and delight even those who’ve seen it all. If that’s a vice, it’s hardly a new one. Think: “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened the birds began to sing. Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?” —Marilyn Bethany
The Crimson Sparrow
746 Warren Street, Hudson
Wednesday - Saturday: 5:30 - 10 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Closed Monday & Tuesday