What's not to love about fall? Autumn is the season of crisp apples and warm cider; of roasted chestnuts and glowing jack o'lanterns; of the incomparable smells of evening hayrides and fallen leaves.
And so, when I came across an article in Food & Wine magazine announcing that a number New York City's best chefs had decamped to Hudson, New York, a quaint little town 2.5 hours north of Manhattan, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday weekend: Taking in the fall foliage, picking apples and pumpkins, and eating everything these chefs could, er, dish out.
The Hudson River runs more or less north to south down the eastern edge of New York state, beginning at the confluence of Indian Pass Brook and Calamity Brook (yee-haw!) and flowing south to New York City, where it serves the vital function of protecting separating New York from New Jersey. The Hudson River Valley, nestled between the Catskills and the Berkshires, is renowned for its rolling hills, breathtaking vistas, and grand riverfront estates built by early industrialists like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
Our first stop on the drive up to Hudson was in Hyde Park, home to the famed Culinary Institute of America. Getting into one of the restaurants at the CIA is only somewhat easier than getting into the building at that other CIA, in that they required my birth certificate, first pet's name, and a promise written in blood that I would dress appropriately, all before I was instructed to turn over my credit card, which was then charged ahead of time just in case I didn't show up. Like I would ever skip a meal.
Of the CIA's four restaurants, we chose American Bounty for its dedication to traditional American ingredients. Well, that and I saw Minnesota wild rice soup on the menu.
Years ago the federal judge I was interning for in Manhattan brought me along to a circuit sitting in St. Paul, MN. I couldn't tell you what the cases were about, or where we stayed, or whether the temperature ever got above freezing . . . but I can tell you anything you care to know about the pride of Minnesota, wild rice soup.
The recipe for wild rice soup is deceptively simple: Start with diced onions sauteed in butter and flour, then add cooked wild rice, carrots, almonds, ham, and chicken stock.
Oh, and as much heavy cream as you can fit into the pot without overflowing it.
Although ham (or sometimes chicken) is the traditional protein in wild rice soup, American Bounty did that one better by using bacon instead. You know how bacon is always upstaging all the other meats.
Angel went with the mussels in a creamy coconut-curry broth, which was so good that I slurped up the leftovers with a spoon. You can dress me up, but you can't take me out.
All of the food is prepared by CIA students, who spend 3 weeks in the kitchen and 3 weeks in the front-of-house right before graduation. But if any of these students had Senioritis, you'd never know it: This was high-end gourmet cuisine that left us wishing these kids would hurry up and open their own restaurants already. Preferably in our neighborhood.
In an odd turn of events, Angel ordered one of my go-to dishes, short ribs braised in red wine sauce. I'd just had short ribs the previous Saturday, though, so I decided to go with the seared scallops with peas, artichokes, mushrooms, and baby arugula in a citrus vinaigrette instead.
I'm so glad Angel ordered those short ribs, because they turned out to be not only the best thing we ate during our lunch (which is saying a lot when there's wild rice soup to be had), but they were also better than the version I'd had at the trendy downtown restaurant the week before.
We'd originally planned to have dessert at the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe at the CIA, but it happened to be graduation day (which occurs every 3 weeks), so the halls were crowded with graduates and their families. The line at the bakery was out the door as a result, so we stayed put at American Bounty, where we had the passionfruit, raspberry, and coconut sorbets in an almond-brittle basket.
I love a dessert where I can eat the bowl when I'm done, instead of just licking it.
It had rained most of the way up to Hyde Park, and the rain hadn't let up by the time we finished lunch, so I snapped a few quick photos, then cleaned out the campus bookstore of all its CIA gear and admired the world's fanciest student dining hall.
Back on the road, we soon found ourselves in downtown Hudson, whose main drag, Warren Street, is lined with home design stores, antique shops, restaurants, and still more home design stores. If we ever manage to own more than 650 square feet of real estate in this lifetime, I'll know just where to go for my decorating needs.
We decided to stay at the Country Squire Bed and Breakfast, which was built in 1900 as a rectory and later served as a convent for the sisters of nearby St. Mary's Academy. Despite the risk that the spirits of these prior residents might not appreciate a heathen like me bedding down under their roof, the Country Squire sold me with a line from their web site, which stated that the inn was designed to "eliminate the clutter and visual excessiveness expected of museum-like Victorian interiors." In other words, we might have ghosts, but we most definitely do not have doilies . . . and the latter is way scarier.
In addition, nearly all of the original detail that had been removed from the home over the years had been stored away in the basement, including the doors, woodwork, moldings, and leaded glass panels, allowing the current innkeeper to restore the house, piece-by-piece, to its original tchotchke-free grandeur.
Our room was done up in black and white toile and featured this fantastic cowhide rug, which had no business being anywhere near a toile pattern, yet still somehow worked. And that is why we should leave the interior design to fabulous gay men people with taste.
Eventually the weather cleared up and we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so we decided to walk over to Warren Street to do some exploring, which is code for "Angel needs a beer." American Glory BBQ looked like just the place to find a seasonal brew on tap, so we settled in at the bar.
Tempting as it was, we decided to pass on the pickle-flavored tequila. I suspect that ironically, the only people who might appreciate this aren't supposed to drink for nine months.
While I figured that a BBQ joint would have a decent beer selection, I did not expect that they'd have over a dozen autumn-inspired cocktails, too, including a S'mores martini, Pumpkin Pie martini, Spiced Cinnamon Cider, a Maple-tini, and a Candy Corn-tini. I decided on an off-the-menu special, the Angry Caramel Apple, which is carefully constructed by drizzling American Glory's homemade caramel sauce inside the glass, adding butterscotch schnapps, Angry Orchard hard cider, and apple vodka that's been steeped with that same house caramel sauce, then topping the whole thing with a generous dusting of cinnamon.
Despite the name, however, the only thing angry about it was me . . . because something that good should be served in a much larger glass.
Later that evening, we walked the short distance over to Swoon Kitchenbar, a hip new Warren Street spot where the chef cooked in Newport, RI; the South of France; and Nantucket before setting up shop in Hudson. Poor guy's really been roughing it.
The menu at Swoon changes daily, and they must have known I was coming, because not only was there bacon . . . there was house-made bacon. I went with the creamy leek tart with goat cheese and the aforementioned bacon, while Angel tried to compete with a fig & herb salad with pickled fennel, candied pecans, and the close runner-up for Best Food Ever, crispy speck.
I'd call it a draw.
Next up, Point Judith weakfish with new potatoes, green beans, and a balsamic glaze for Angel, and dayboat blackfish with spiced carrot puree, local chard, and citrus vinaigrette for me.
I'm picky about fish and don't often order it, but the blackfish, with its crackly skin and moist flesh, was terrific, and it allowed me to save some room for dessert: Crispy shoestring fries with spicy dijon aoili.
The next day we decided to make the scenic drive over to Copake Lake to have lunch at Greens, the restaurant at the Copake Country Club.
Although a country club probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of great food, we chose Greens because their menu lists more than a dozen local farms where they source their ingredients, and why not? They're surrounded by 'em.
The country club sits on Copake Lake, which is surrounded by expensive weekend homes, each with its own small dock.
Inside, Greens restaurant is a model of good interior design: Evocative of a chic mountain lodge, the warms space is done up in crisp whites and luscious chocolate shades, with nary a stuffed jackalope or mounted deer head in sight.
The outside ain't bad, either.
The waitress told us they had cream of mushroom soup on special, which sounded perfect on a fall day, so Angel and I both ordered a bowl. When it came, however, the mushrooms seemed oddly chewy, so I decided to take a closer look.
That is a mussel. Which sounds a little like mushroom, and looks somewhat like a mushroom, and can also kill you like a mushroom if you happen to be allergic. Thankfully neither of us is, but we quietly alerted the waitress to the mix-up to avoid marring Greens' stylish decor with an incident of anaphylactic shock.
Next up, we decided to share two entrees, the pesto pizza with shrimp and asiago, and the slow-braised pulled pork sandwich with Chef Glenn's homemade BBQ sauce.
The pizza was good, but that BBQ sauce was such a perfect combination of sticky, sweet, and heat that I am hereby appealing to Chef Glenn to start bottling it . . . and shipping it directly to my house.
After lunch we made the short drive over to Taconic State Park in order to check out the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, a 15-mile-long walking and biking trail on an abandoned portion of the New York and Harlem Railroad. The railroad opened for business in 1832, making it one of the oldest railroads in the country. Or at least it was, until they paved over it.
The section of the trail that we had access to was 8 miles roundtrip, so we decided to bike it rather than walk. Bash Bish Bikes is the only game in town, and they call the shots . . .
. . . which includes forcing all of their renters to wear helmets. Oh, how I hated that helmet. It squashed my ears. It was too tight under my chin. It looked ridiculous. And it was completely unnecessary.
You see, over the years, Angel and I have spent many a long weekend biking the crowded streets of Cape May. We have spent countless days biking the narrow streets of Key West. And not once have we ever worn helmets, or seen anyone who wasn't on training wheels wearing one.
On the Rail Trail, however -- where cars are not permitted, and we saw maybe a dozen other people over the 8-mile stretch -- we had to wear helmets. The end result? My head was still intact, but my hair looked like a mushroom cloud. Mushroom.
Just past the Depot Deli was the entrance to the trail.
The deeper in we rode, the more postcard-y the scenery became.
Every so often the trail opened up and was surrounded by local farmland. The farms were beautiful but miles from civilization, and all I could think was, Good thing they can grow their own food. Priorities!
At the end of the trail we were high-fiving each other for successfully biking 4 miles without collapsing when we saw these people, who were following state route 22 . . . which is 340 miles long.
Like I always say: Nobody likes a show-off.
On our way up to Hudson the previous day, we'd passed through the tiny town of Red Hook (population: 1,964), where we had dinner reservations at Mercato Osteria & Enoteca for the following evening. We drove through the town, such as it was, passing a dozen or so Colonial homes in various states of haunting/hoarding, before coming upon Mercato.
"Whoa," said citified Tracey.
"Whoa," echoed urban Angel.
And we might not have returned, except for the fact that the chef at Mercato is Francesco Buitoni, a seventh-generation member of the Buitoni pasta-making (and Perugina Chocolate) family. Francesco learned to cook from his grandmother in Italy, and was a sommelier for Mario Batali for a number of years, all of which means exactly one thing: I married the wrong guy.
The best way to sum up the food at Mercato is with the exchange we had with the folks seated behind us. I'd spent a good part of our meal photographing the food, and in the small dining room that didn't go unnoticed. Finally, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked hopefully, "Are you taking photos so you can try and recreate the recipes?" As soon as I stopped laughing, I explained that I was actually taking the photos for a travel blog, at which point she leaned in and confided, "Well, we're from Manhattan, and I have to tell you: This is Manhattan-quality food!"
"Manhattan quality," agreed her city-slicker husband. "In this tiny little town!" he marveled.
But was this just a bunch of NYC food snobs amazed that someone outside of the city could actually cook, or was the food really that good? Judge for yourself. We had . . .
Coach Farm goat cheese gnudi with a vibrant green lacinata kale pesto . . .
Crispy prosciutto-wrapped figs and arugula dressed with a five-year-old balsamic and topped with a fist-sized hunk of fresh mozzarella . . .
Homemade tagliatelle with authentic Bolognese sauce, meaning heavy on the veal, pork, and beef, and light on the tomatoes . . .
And the homemake squid-ink pasta fra diavolo with fresh mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops.
Oh, and the apple crisp made with local apples.
And photos don't lie, particularly this one: That's the near-empty bowl my gnudi came in. Which I refused to give up until I got some bread to mop up that remaining blob of pesto.
On our last morning we took one final walk over to Warren Street, where the gorgeous architecture and unique doors almost distracted me from my main goal: More food.
We decided on brunch at the Crimson Sparrow, where the chefs hail from New York's temple of molecular gastronomy, WD-50, which is known for such far-out menu items as deep-fried Hollandaise sauce, onion "soil," and bagel-flavored ice cream.
At brunch, however, the only nod to the offbeat is the menu organization, which allows you to choose four small brunch components for a set price.
Cutting-edge or no, mimosas at brunch are mandatory.
Outside, Crimson Sparrow has a gorgeous garden. Unfortunately it was too chilly to sit outside on this morning, though unlimited mimosas might have helped with that.
For my four brunch items, I settled on (creamy, just-loose-enough) scrambled eggs; (cheesy, just-thick-enough) polenta with oregano and asiago cheese; (adorable) mini-biscuits with (thick, rich, over-the-top delicious) sausage, sage, and pepper gravy; and the (tangy, thick) Greek yogurt with granola and fresh berries.
Angel ordered much the same, swapping (crisp, salty) potatoes for polenta and French toast with a (foamy, tart) apple cider dipping sauce.
Everything was delicious, but next time I'd just ask for 4 orders of those biscuits with the sausage gravy, and then I'd make Angel do the same, and then I'd eat all of mine . . . and half of his, too.
After brunch, a little more exploring on Warren Street was in order to loosen up the ol' arteries.
Next time, we'll work in visits to Hudson's taco trucks and pizza joints. I mean, we'll have to eat breakfast somewhere on the days we're not scarfing down biscuits and gravy.
We'll also spend more time in Hudson's unique shops. I hear that they've got the goods.
Later that afternoon we paid a visit to Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie, NY (population: 1,805), a short drive from Hudson.
I chose Golden Harvest because they make their own apple cider, fruit pies, cider donuts, and packaged goods such as honey and maple syrup.
And they have their own distillery. That's moonshine, y'all!
That Pillsbury Doughboy is there as a reminder of owner Derek Grout's former life as a designer, whose claim to fame was the viral Internet game in which poking the Doughboy's belly resulted not in his signature giggle . . . but in a fart. Hey, we can't all be Rhodes scholars.
Using fruit from the orchards that Derek's grandfather bought from a descendant of Martin Van Buren, Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery makes regular and black raspberry Core vodkas, along with several interesting brandies (Applejack, Peach, Rare Pear) and flavored grappa, all of which are available for tasting.
Derek experiments with all sorts of flavors and spirits, including apple bitters, green herbs, and fennel seed.
Oh, and eye of newt and wing of bat.
We happened to arrive right as the tasting-room crowd thinned out and Derek was working on his latest batch o' bootleg.
We got to talking, and Derek kindly offered us a taste of his latest concoction: Pear brandy mixed with a not-yet-on-the-market rosemary hooch, which resulted in a subtly fruity, herbaceous gin-like flavor.
After stocking up on Northern Spy and Honeycrisp apples, a few big carving pumpkins, and a box of pumpkin spice pancake mix, we headed back to Hudson and the punctuation-happy (p.m.) Wine Bar for a glass of wine and some snacks before heading back to the city.
It wasn't quite 5:00, but it was p.m., so we figured it was o.k.
Soon it was time to leave, and we departed Hudson with fond memories, but also with hopes of ending our Hudson Valley weekend in a blaze of glory. The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, that is.
The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze is a pyromaniacal spectacle of over 5,000 jack o’lanterns hand-carved by staff, volunteers, and local artisans — everything from your standard triangle-eyed, gap-toothed pumpkins to elaborate Spirograph-worthy designs — lit up throughout the nine acres of Van Cortlandt Manor in the village of Croton-on-Hudson. We'd purchased tickets ahead of time and arrived right on time for our 7pm pumpkin promenade.
Blaze uses a combination of real and "art" pumpkins, which are said to be harder to carve than the real thing because they are less pliable. Carving begins in June and real pumpkins -- 100,000 pounds' worth -- continue to be carved throughout the event's run into early November.
Blaze also features theme areas, which this year included Jurassic Park, Undersea Aquarium, and Buzzing Beehive.
Scarier motifs include witches, scarecrows, skulls, and Angel's personal nightmare . . . sunflowers. You know how terrifying they can be.
Each area is set to an eerie soundtrack, the best being the plaintive cries of "MEOW! MEOOOOW!" punctuating the spooky Halloween music at the cat-themed area.
Near the end of the Blaze, people-sized jack-in-the-boxes made of pumpkins scared the living crap out of surprised visitors when an extra-large jack o'lantern unexpectedly popped out of the top.
Every time we thought we'd reached the end, there were more pumpkins just around the bend, each display more creative and whimsical than the next. Yet somehow Blaze still managed to save the best for last: A display of intricately carved, impossibly beautiful pumpkins whose gorgeous patterns cast glowing light and soft shadows in all directions.
By the end of the Blaze, the air had grown chilly and our feet weary, and our weekend masquerading as country mice had finally come to an end.
As the Manhattan skyline came into view and rolling fields and quaint villages gave way to blaring horns and snarled traffic, our nerves began to fray, and suddenly I realized: We city dwellers need Angry Caramel Apples and vodka distilleries way more than those country folk do. Some biscuits 'n' gravy wouldn't hurt, either.
Next up, we're off to Key West for turtle races, drag queen bingo, six-toed cats, and all the beer, bacon, burgers, and bourbon we can consume in ten days. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we end up exiled to Cuba!