A Quiet Table for Two
Most of the Valley's top chefs will be slaving away in their kitchen on Valentine's Day. But if they could get the night off, here's wherre six of them would spend the year's most romantic holiday.
A Quiet Table for Two
Most of these illustrious Valley chefs will be spending Valentine’s Day in the kitchen, whipping up romantic meals for others. But if they could get the night off, here’s how they’d celebrate
by Jan Greenberg
If you haven’t called Xaviar’s to make your Valentine’s reservation yet, you’re probably out of luck (although, says owner Peter Kelly, you may be fortunate and snag a last-minute cancellation). With only 11 elegantly appointed tables, this romantic dining room has been described as a “Parisian jewel box of a white-glove restaurant.”
Kelly’s less formal (although no less lauded) Rockland County establishments, the Freelance Café & Wine Bar and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar, will be joined this summer by Xaviar’s At the Hudson, a 250-seat restaurant on the banks of the river in Yonkers. The new establishment will be housed in what is now a decaying turn-of-the-century steel structure that sits on the city’s historic pier. It will be accessible by land, sea, and rail. “It’s a block from the Yonkers railroad station,” says Kelly. “There will be parking and, most exciting, the ferry from New York City will land right at the restaurant.”
The beginning of the Kelly restaurant saga is one that only an eternal optimist would believe could end well. After studying business at Marist College, Kelly, who has always loved food, traveled extensively in France. In 1982, while working in New York City as a captain at Laurent Restaurant and living in Cold Spring, he heard of a potential restaurant space on an estate in nearby Garrison. “Why not?” he thought, and opened Xaviar’s at Garrison, putting himself at the stove and his brother Ned in front serving the tables.
“I don’t think you could do it this way now,” says Kelly, “but from my travels and work I knew what I wanted to do. From the beginning we kept things very small, just five choices for each course. With me doing the cooking, there was someone who felt responsible for every piece of food that touched our customers’ plates. We also started doing food that no one else was doing. There was what we called an escargot sandwich, which was a miniature bun made out of puff pastry stuffed with escargot, cherry tomato, and drizzled with herb butter. When the New York Times called it a ‘little Big Mac,’ it became a big hit. We also did breast of duck served rare. No one was doing that yet and I remember that the critic from the Poughkeepsie Journal came and asked us whether we should be serving rare poultry.”
This first venture was the beginning of the formula that makes all the Kelly restaurants both unique and predictable at the same time. Even though he is no longer behind the stove, Kelly is back and forth among the locations, often several times a day. “I consider each place a work in progress,” he says. “Each has its own chef, but I set the standard in how things should be done and then empower the kitchen staff, from the salad guy on up, to take ownership of the plates they serve.”
For Valentine’s Day, all three restaurants will feature special menus highlighting aphrodisiac foods such as oysters, passion fruit, champagne, and chocolate. And for Kelly and his wife of 12 years, Rica, whom he acknowledges he doesn’t see enough: “What are the options?” he says. “I try to steal in a night here and there and sometimes an afternoon. This isn’t only a job, it’s a passion.”
For a romantic evening near home, they might go to La Panetière in Rye, which “sets the standard for suburban dining,” says Kelly. Located on a bluff near Long Island Sound, the restaurant’s celebratory selections include a bison ribeye with small cannelloni of fresh porcini with Périgueux sauce, or foie gras ravioli in a tasty duck broth.
But in his heart, Kelly will be on a plane en route to Paris, where he would stay at his favorite Left Bank hotel and dine at Le Grand Vefour. There, surrounded by the spirits of former patrons such as Colette, Georges Sand, and Frederic Chopin, he and Rica would share a meal prepared by the Michelin three-star chef Guy Martin.
Those who recently braved the winding winter roads between Woodstock and Saugerties (Ulster) to Blue Mountain Bistro will have found the rustic 18th-century building boarded up. Richard and Mary Anne Erickson ushered in the New Year with their usual festivities, and are now renovating the space in preparation for a new venture: a catering and event facility, which will open in May. “We sensed a need in the area,” says Erickson. “Each year, we found ourselves turning down more and more catering opportunities. We knew that we couldn’t do two different things well at the same time, and certainly didn’t want to compromise the attention our customers deserve.”
The new kitchen will continue to produce Mediterranean-style fare, such as a selection of tapas that might include Tuscan duck liver pate, polpettini (small Sicilian meatballs), and salads of grilled eggplant and chickpeas. There will be selections of lamb “ras al hanout,” which is a grilled tenderloin and braised lamb served with a saffron couscous, tagine vegetables, and mint chutney; and grilled chicken with chickpea frites and tomato jam. “We certainly want to do birthday parties and weddings,” says Erickson. “But I’m really looking forward to being able to host and sponsor events of our own choosing for the causes that we support.”
For Erickson, food and social issues are intertwined, and he is hoping to have time to give more support to the organizations that represent the foundation upon which his cooking is based. Among these are the Chefs’ Collaborative, the national organization of chefs committed to sustainable cuisine; and Slow Food, the international group that supports artisanal and small-scale food production. “There are a lot of really fun events that we haven’t been able to do, like last year’s anti-Atkins diet celebration of World Pasta Day, a big international pasta cook-off that highlighted pasta’s health benefits.”
This Valentine’s will be one of the first at home for Richard and Mary Anne. And most likely, that is where they will be. “We are a family, and in this business you don’t get a lot of family time. If we do mark the day at home, it is with the traditional luxury foods like caviar, chilled oysters, foie gras, and champagne.” But if he and Mary Anne were to celebrate a deux, it would be at the Deer Mountain Inn in Tannersville. There they would ensconce themselves in a cozy room with a fireplace and eat a decidedly un-Mediterranean dinner that might include smoked mackerel or raw vegetables with Polish sausage to start. For the main course, Richard might choose between veal scallopini à la chateau (sautéed veal over egg noodles with leeks, mushrooms, artichokes, prosciutto, and cream), or filet of sole St. James, with a shrimp stuffing and lemon-caper sauce. “It’s an absolutely lovely place,” says Erickson. “We’d have a lovely meal and then retire to a wonderful room. It’s only 30 minutes away from where we live, but when we’re there, it’s like we’ve gone hours away.”
No one has it all, not even David Lawson, chef-owner of Aubergine, a quietly elegant restaurant and inn located at the crossroads of the Columbia County town of Hillsdale. But Lawson has created what so many chefs and restaurateurs talk about but never achieve. Lawson runs what he calls a “French-inspired family restaurant” in the historic 1783 building; he has a kitchen garden in back, and lives with his wife, Stacy, and their children just up the hill.
For a Valentine’s assignation, it doesn’t get much better than this, particularly for those fortunate enough to book one of the four comfortable rooms upstairs. No need for a designated driver here!
Originally from Minneapolis and trained mostly in England and France, Lawson serves country-inspired dishes that have earned Aubergine a Zagat special distinction designation and a AAA four-diamond award. There are appetizers of pan-seared scallops and golden beet bourride served with hand-cut russet potato chips, as well as crispy veal sweetbreads, and chicken livers with pancetta and shallots. Main entrées include a grilled ribeye with caramelized onions and aligote purée potatoes served in a rich red wine beef sauce. There is also a Hudson Valley raised rabbit with sautéed apples and crispy potato galette.
“The prize goes to the stubborn,” says Lawson. He owns a 200-year-old building that constantly needs work. He must endure cold winter weekends when few people venture out. Conversely, there are the summer weeks when everyone wants an 8 p.m. Saturday reservation. “I love the well-roundedness of this,” he says. “It’s sort of comparable to a family dairy farm. Something always needs doing, either in the kitchen, on the grounds, or the building. My kids are nearby; I can get to their hockey games; and we are near enough to other places like Quebec City and Montreal to travel, which is fun for us all but also gives me inspiration.”
On Thursdays, from March through June, Lawson offers cooking lessons on topics as diverse as duck tutorials and French regional cuisine. Like many chefs, much time is spent working out new dishes and improvising. But he also cooks the family meals, often including those of his Minneapolis past. “I am dedicated to this notion of cooking for my kids. I can’t put dishes like stuffed peppers or meat loaf on the restaurant menu, but I want them to have a sense of our food history and past.”
When the family does go out, they often go south to Rhinebeck and eat at Gigi’s Trattoria. “They don’t know us there,” Lawson says. “And we kind of like that. But they have a really nice staff and they’re very casual.”
When Stacy and he do get away — and it’s never Valentine’s weekend — they head to Dover Plains and the Old Drovers Inn. The traditional and not-so-traditional menu features old favorites like the “Famous” Cheddar Cheese Soup and entrées of Old Drovers’ “Legendary” Browned Turkey Hash with mustard sauce, and roasted Stone Church Pekin duck breast and braised duck leg with a yam purée and grilled pineapple.
“We book the Meeting Room,” says Lawson. “It’s the warmest and coziest of the inn’s rooms and has a great fireplace. Until 1864, it was the actual site of the Dover Plains town meetings. We pick one of the wines that owner Alice Pitcher has chosen for her wine list, sit down, and have a great dinner.”
In a 2003 interview, chef Benjamin Mauk, then executive chef at the gone-but-not-forgotten Rhinebeck restaurant Cripple Creek, said: “One day I would like to open a restaurant with my wife.”
With Cripple Creek’s closing, the opportunity came sooner than he had anticipated. About a year after the interview, Mauk and his wife, Ellen Henneberry, became the owners of Twist Restaurant, located on Route 9 in Hyde Park (Dutchess) in the easy-to-miss site of a former pizza parlor. “We wanted to create a casual neighborhood-type place, one that people would be comfortable coming to for any occasion on any night of the week,” says Mauk. “But we also wanted a menu that would appeal to those who know me from the work we did at Cripple Creek.”
Mauk, who grew up in Minneapolis, met Ellen in North Carolina, and their son was born in Oregon. Before deciding to attend the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, he cooked in kitchens throughout the nation, in settings that ranged from institutional to fine dining. This is a guy who’s so enthusiastic about food, he says if someone made a cologne out of parsnip, he would wear it. “People don’t think of it as anything but a thick white carrot,” he says, “but there is nothing like the aroma of a cooking parsnip. It’s just an amazing smell.”
At the Culinary, Mauk excelled. He received an associate degree in 2000 and a bachelor’s degree in 2002, graduating first in his class in both programs. He worked at Cripple Creek while at school, assuming the position of executive chef when chef David Bruno left. When Cripple Creek closed, he had many job offers, including several from notable Valley restaurants. “In the end,” says Mauk, “it was difficult to think about going to work for someone else because I had such freedom to explore and play at Cripple Creek. We also enjoy living in the community and, let’s face it, the commute to New York City just wasn’t very appealing.”
This Valentine’s Day marks the first for Twist and the first in which Mauk and Ellen will be together in their own restaurant. At press time, their menu for the day wasn’t set, but it will be prix fixe with three to five courses featuring foods that are aphrodisiacs. Romantic fare on the regular menu includes steaks and a filet mignon with accompaniments of truffled mashed potatoes or polenta, and a variety of sauces including salsa fresca, ancho chili butter, or peppercorn. The seafood bar is stocked with shrimp, littlenecks, mussels, and oysters. And there is a vibrant beet ravioli.
To truly celebrate Valentine’s with Ellen, though, Mauk would recreate the multicourse Indian feast they prepared for their wedding. Dishes of yellow split pea dhal; a cucumber and yogurt raita; crab and pea samosas with dried pomegranate seeds accompanied by a tamarind chutney and bright yellow turmeric oil; and a turmeric-seared Arctic char with a parsnip purée would all be served. “This is a totally sensual cuisine,” Mauk says. “The prep time is long, like a courtship. These are exotic spices and you are surrounded by the aromas that come from toasting, grinding, and sweating them. Just the ingredients — ginger, cilantro, hot ghee, cumin seeds, mango, chutneys — are so romantic.”
“Other than New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s is our busiest day,” says George Seitz, chef-owner for the past 25 years of The Arch in Brewster (Putnam). With his wife, Deirdre, greeting guests at the door and Seitz in the kitchen, The Arch continues to garner accolades, including a near-perfect food rating from the Zagat Survey and an “Excellent” from the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote: “Expect the delicious unexpected.”
This is one of the most romantic spots in the area, a reflection of the Seitz’s happy collaboration. The rooms are intimate, bathed in candlelight and the glow of fireplaces. The artfully arranged floral displays are Deirdre’s handiwork. “We’ve been together for 15 years,” says Deirdre, “but only been married for four. We love working together.”
The set-price menu includes appetizers of foie gras with apples, raspberries, and cassis; tuna, scallop, and shrimp served with an assortment of salads and a horseradish mousse; and the incredibly rich Gruyère and cheddar cheese soufflé, topped with Parmesan sauce and chopped chives, for which Seitz is renowned.
Among the main dishes are roast baby pheasant with pistachios and dried cherries served atop a wild rice pancake; crisp sweetbreads with caper berries and shallots; and grilled antelope medallions over wild mushrooms and lingonberry mousse. Antelope is one of the leanest meats available, and one of Seitz’s few concessions to dietary concerns.
“Our clients come for very specific dishes,” he says. “So we don’t change the main menu very much. But we do stay with the times — for instance, using more olive oil than we used to — although there’s no substitute for butter. I feel that when you come to The Arch, you should forget about whatever diet you’re on and just enjoy your meal. This is not the place to worry about what you’re eating.”
After service, the couple always sits down together at home for a meal: appetizer, entrée, and dessert, says Deirdre. Reflecting Seitz’s German heritage, there are often dishes like choucroute garni, an assortment of sausages with red cabbage and fresh sliced apples and sauerkraut; or one of Deirdre’s favorites, lightly sautéed veal medallions topped with Westphalian ham and a lemon juice–based sauce. “I love what he cooks for me,” says Deirdre. “Anything he cooks, I eat, which is why I’m always gaining weight and I’m always sending him to the gym.”
If they were to go out locally for Valentine’s Day, it would be to Capriccio Restaurant, where their neighbor, Bruno Crosnier (“a fabulous chef,” says Seitz), prepares a menu of Italian-inspired dishes in a beautiful stone house overlooking the East Branch reservoir.
But Deirdre says she wouldn’t mind traveling this year. “What I really want for Valentine’s Day is to go to Anguilla and stay at Cap Juluca. We saw it once while we were on a cruise and made a promise to ourselves that one day we would go back and stay.” George, please take note.
If any restaurant in the Valley is an institution, it’s Jack’s Oyster House in Albany. Owned and operated since 1913 by three generations of the Rosenstein family, Jack’s is open 365 days a year. This is where state politicos can shed their differences and even share a good meal. One might see U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton enjoying her favorite Cobb salad of delicate greens, turkey, tomato, grilled chicken breast, crisp bacon, and crumbled blue cheese, or State Senator Joseph Bruno spearing briny blue point oysters on the half shell.
The man responsible for maintaining the culinary tradition while making sure that the restaurant remains current is one of the Hudson Valley’s best-trained chefs, Dale Miller. Miller was born to be a chef. He grew up in Tribes Hill, a small town west of Albany, and by the age of 11 he was running a cake-decorating business out of his house. “I never realized that cooking schools existed,” he says, “until one day my aunt happened to find an article that mentioned the Culinary Institute of America, calling it ‘the harvest of haute cuisine.’ ‘You should go there,’ she said.” And he did, graduating in 1979 and becoming one of only 59 certified master chefs (CMC) in the nation. Qualifying as a CMC is a 10-day ordeal with an 80 percent failure rate. The final, pass/fail assignment is to prepare a meal from a basket of mystery ingredients. “My basket contained, among other things, a skate wing, chicken, tomatoes, bacon, cranberry beans, and fiddlehead ferns,” Miller says. “I just stared at it for a while and then skinned the tomato and stuffed it with a smoked seafood mixture. Then I caramelized the skate wing and made a salad of mixed greens and apples with a warm apple-bacon dressing.”
Miller’s creativity came in handy when he took over the kitchen at Jack’s. Owner Brad Rosenstein, says Miller, “was adamant about wanting to change but also adamant about keeping things the same. It was a challenge.”
Miller decided to create two menus. A “new” 1913 dinner menu features classic items from that era like lobster Newburg and chopped sirloin steak. A contemporary menu offers seasonally driven entrées such as a vegetable tagine with a Moroccan couscous cake and a braised pork osso buco with an oregano and garlic–scented Chianti reduction.
For Valentine’s Day, Miller stays with the tried, true, and traditional. Specials include a Châteaubriand and a rich seafood bake of lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, and fish. For dessert, there are strawberries with chocolate dipping sauces served with palmier cookies, and a heart-shaped cake for two filled with chocolate mousse. In the unlikely event that Miller was able to get away for Valentine’s, he would go to one of two Albany eateries: his friend Jim Rua’s “little Italian restaurant,” Café Capriccio, for house-made pappardelle with duck confit and roasted pumpkin sherry cream sauce; or to McGuire’s, the small bistro where Andy Plummer might be offering Vermont-raised pork tenderloin with a blackberry and whole grain demi-glace.
“What I would really like, though,” says Miller, “is to pack a gourmet picnic basket of food that I make myself. I’d find a beautiful, quiet wooded area, light a fire, and bundle up in blankets.... I’d probably have lobster bisque and a Châteaubriand. Maybe we’d roast potatoes in the fire. There would be champagne and some wine. Good linen and crystal, of course.” And if that isn’t enough, the certified master chef has a tip: “Take some Fruit Roll-Ups, cut them into heart shapes, and paste them on your body.” ■