Where to Eat in the Hudson Valley
Foodies of all types have discovered the Valley and its wide variety of top-flight restaurants. One chef even predicts we’ll soon be vying with California’s Napa Valley as a dining destination. Find out what all the buzz is about with these profiles of local eateries
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Chef Mark Strausman in the kitchen at Agriturismo during dinner service
A City Chef Comes to Farm Country
On weekdays, chef Mark Strausman caters to the size two, Prada-Manolo crowd at Fred’s, the chic eatery at Barney’s in Manhattan. On weekends, he heads to Agriturismo, his recently opened restaurant in Pine Plains, where heartier eaters can tuck into the rustic Italian fare he was known for at Sapore de Mare in the Hamptons, at Coco Pazzo on New York’s Upper East Side, and — more recently — at Compagna, his own raved-about restaurant in the Flatiron District.
What’s a man with a string of swanky addresses behind him doing in the middle of Dutchess County? Strausman, who looks like central casting’s idea of a jolly chef, says it’s simple: He wanted to open a restaurant surrounded by farms that could provide good, wholesome produce. “It’s a chef’s dream — like being in Europe, where all the great little restaurants are in the country,” he replies.
Strausman has a lot to say about the pitfalls of agribusiness. “For the first time, our fresh food is contaminated — it never happened before with fruits and vegetables. It was unheard of for people to sit down for a raw spinach salad and end up dead,” he says. “We need to know who’s growing our food. That’s the great thing about the Hudson Valley... The young kids are all into farm-to-table, but it’s nothing new — just new to us. We’re late coming to the table, but it’s great that we’re waking up.”
When Strausman began weekending in the Hudson Valley a couple of years ago, he realized its potential for a new venture. “I thought, ‘This is the place to be. It’s on the cusp, it’s about to blossom.’ ” Driving through Pine Plains one day with Susan Littlefield (his ex-wife, good friend, and current business partner all in one), Strausman spotted a small, wood-framed building with a For Rent sign. “I screamed, ‘Stop the car! This is it! All we need is to give it a paint job and get some furniture.’ ”
After the paint job and a few other preparations, Agriturismo (the Italian term for farm vacation) opened last September. The growing season for fresh vegetables was winding down, but Strausman made connections with surrounding farms for other produce. He gets dairy products from Ronnybrook and Hudson Valley Fresh; eggs from Feather Ridge; cheeses from Coach and the Amazing Real Live Food Co.; pasture-raised meats from Northwind, Josef Meiller, Herondale, and Sugar Hill. “We’re hooking up with Sol Flower Farms and Sky Farms for produce. I’m so excited about spring. We’ll have asparagus then, and it will all start.”
One of Strausman’s starters combines sautéed octopus, calamari, and littleneck clams with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes
Agriturismo’s short and changing dinner menu runs from Tuscan chicken liver pâte and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms for starters, to main courses like chicken under a brick, pan sautéed rabbit, and braised lamb — all from local sources. Suckling pig in port wine sauce is a big favorite, and also shows up in the form of hash on the hearty Farm Breakfast menu.
“The first year is the learning curve,” Strausman says. “As a chef, for the first time in many years, I’m using parts of my repertoire that I haven’t used in a long time, and it’s invigorating. I’ve been buying lambs, so there’s always ground lamb in the freezer. I say, ‘What am I going to do with this? Okay, lamb meatballs.’ They sold out.”
Strausman, 54, grew up in Queens in a housing project. “I was a pudgy little Jewish boy, because I loved corned beef and pastrami, bagels and lox,” he says. “I grew up among Jewish, Irish, Italian — it’s all about food in those households, and that got me started. I never did well at school and I always liked to cook.” When Strausman was 14, his father died, and his mother had to work, which left little time for preparing food. “I said to her, ‘I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll do the cooking, you do the cleaning.’ She kind of laughed, and I said, ‘I’ll do the shopping, too.’ I’d go to the produce department and ask questions. The guys are going, ‘Who’s this kid?’ I learned how to cook from the butcher. And I watched Julia Child — it was fascinating. I learned technique, and realized I was pretty good.”
At Queens College, where he went to study communications, Strausman worked at the college pub, making bacon burgers and cheeseburgers. (“Right, let’s take a hamburger and put 75,000 more calories on top,” he says, laughing at the memory.) Studying, which Strausman struggled with anyway, took a back seat. “The chancellor called me in and said, ‘We love you, but if you’re not going to go to class, we may have to expel you.’ Then I found out there were schools in hotel management — and one at New York City Tech.” Strausman transferred, earned a degree, then went to Germany for three months as part of an exchange program for culinary students. A chef helped him land a position in Montreux, Switzerland, despite his limited experience. “I said, ‘How will I get a job?’ The chef said, ‘Do you have two hands? Do you have two feet? In the middle of the season that’s about all they look for.’ They had to teach me and I had to learn fast.”
Strausman ended up staying in Europe for four years, working his way up in the kitchens of hotels in Germany, Switzerland, and Amsterdam — “all five-star,” he says. “It was like going to Harvard... Language was only a handicap until they realized I was a hard worker; then the chefs loved me. All I said was, ‘Yes chef, no problem.’ I was there to work, not have a good time. But with my personality I had a good time anyway.”
When Strausman returned to the U.S. in the mid-’80s, Italian cuisine was eclipsing French food in popularity. In 1988, he teamed up with restaurateur Pino Luongo to open Sapore de Mare. With “nothing Italian in my bloodstream,” he took a seven-week sojourn in Italy to experience the food firsthand. Sapore soon became a Hamptons hot spot. Coco Pazzo came next, and in 1994, a hot spot of his own, Compagna.
Now, Agriturismo is “Compagna in the compagna,” as he likes to say. The setting is casual and countrified, but it’s a bright, polished country. A lavender wall jazzes up the otherwise white space, with its traditional black and white checkerboard floor and dark wood chairs and tables. Ex-wife-best-friend Susan Littlefield works the front of the house. “She’s great at it. It’s important karma for the restaurant,” Strausman says.
“I think in the next 10 years the Hudson Valley will be the second most popular destination for foodies, after California. People will come for foodie vacations. I don’t think we’ll eclipse the Napa Valley yet.” He pauses to reconsider. “But then Northern California doesn’t have the beef, lamb, chicken, pork... We have a lot more farms people can visit.”
2938 Church St., Pine Plains 518-398-1000
» Where to eat next: Basement Bistro in Earlton