Critic Robert Sietsema takes a look at Brookyn bistro-inspired restaurants in upstate New York.
A year ago I predicted the appearance of hickster restaurants in rural areas upstate, started by folks who, fleeing high rents and other annoyances of urban life, would decamp the city permanently for small towns and villages, especially in the picturesque Catskill Mountains. Finding none of the sorts of eating establishments they’d adored back in the city, a few of these plucky individuals would start their own places, with menus uncannily like those of Brooklyn bistros.
At the time I uncovered one such restaurant, Table on Ten in Bloomville, New York, a three-hour drive from the city in the rolling green hills of the northwestern Catskills. Located in a teetering house in a hamlet with a population of 213, it turned out fancy baked goods, open-faced luncheon toasts, and exotically flavored sodas during the week, but on weekends fired up a pizza oven that had been improvised into a chimney and started peddling Neapolitan pizzas at New York City prices. When I visited on a Saturday evening, the jammed-up dirt parking lot told the story of its success.
Further cementing its hickster status, Table on Ten’s dessert pies were imported from Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, turning its back on the pie-making talents native to the region for two centuries and more. My piece, which appeared in Eater NY, elicited mixed reactions. The nastier ones suggested I had no right to critique this sort of remote and determined rural establishment, as if I had intentionally crushed a fragile flower under the heel of my boot.
But other commenters responded more helpfully, suggesting other obscurely located restaurants that fit the hickster paradigm. And so it was I lit out for the mountains once again this month like a reawakened Rip Van Winkle, finding much about this region I’d grown to love wonderfully and bewilderingly changed.
My first stop was Woodstock, once a hippie enclave that — but for a last-minute decision by the town elders — nearly became host to the world’s most famous music festival in 1969. Ten years ago your restaurant choices would have been largely limited to steaks and chops and red-sauced Italian fare, though burritos were just beginning to gain a foothold. Now, driving along the town’s twisting main drag, I could see it had gone decidedly upscale, including several newfangled eating establishments. But did any belong in the hickster category?
I picked Shindig, and hit pay dirt. This tiny eight-month-old café situated right in the center of town sported a logo featuring a VW Minibus with a table inside, on which sat a bud vase, a conga drum, a glass of wine, and a guitar. Inside, a few tables lay along a pair of picture windows that furnished panoramic views of a flower-bedecked village square, with further seating in handsome wooden booths. The menu listed its suppliers on the back, including Soho-based Sir Kensington’s condiments and Brooklyn Brewery products. Stylish sparkling cider was on tap behind a bar faced in Rococo cerulean tiles.
The menu mainly featured luncheon fare that, if you were in Brooklyn, would have seemed entirely familiar: truffled mac and cheese, lamb burgers, grain salads, veggie melts, and plenty of other fresh-vegetable options. Served in a shallow bowl, a watermelon gazpacho ($8) was thick, sweet, and tomatoey, with ripe melon furnishing a bright and summery flavor note. True to its type, the top came squiggled with concentrated balsamic and green herb oil, and heaped with micro-greens and crumbled feta. The soup was appealing, in spite of its compulsory busyness.
The lamb burger, though nicely mounted on brioche and smeared with aged goat cheese, was a little thin and overcooked. It was one of four burgers available, including a veggie burger called Byrdhouse, made with a brown rice-and-beet patty flooded with garlic-and-chive yogurt. I’m sure Brooks Headley would have approved. But the best thing we tried was a lobster roll ($20) as good as anything you can get in the city, made with a luxuriant quantity of meat and just the right amount of mayo. The name of the chef, Austin Diaz, was listed at the foot of the menu.
My traveling companion and I once again stayed with friends in the town of Jefferson, just north of Stamford, NY, where the only tourist trap is the Maple Syrup Museum, and the only two restaurants are called Heartbreak Hotel and Breakfast Club, serving conventional bar food and brunch menus, respectively. But we’d done our due diligence and discovered a half-dozen restaurants that might merit the hickster designation within a 50-mile range. The one that caught our eye was located 23 miles south in a town with the curious name of Bovina Center, halfway between Bovina and Delhi (pronounced "Dell High").
While parts of the northwestern Catskills are economically challenged with sad towns and empty ruined storefronts, our route lay through prosperous dairy country, with picture-perfect farms and villages. After driving through Hobart along the West Branch of the Delaware River, we crossed the rocky tributary in South Kortright, a village famous for its annual art festival. We motored further west along River Road until we hit County 5, which would wind its way along Brush Brook between Bramley and Mill mountains, through high pastures dotted with cud-munching Holsteins and the occasional field of corn or kale.
We eventually reached Bovina Center, situated on a bend in the Little Delaware River, another tributary of the mighty Delaware. The town was basically a single street, with rows of pretty white houses on either side, interspersed with storefronts, churches, and an auto repair garage or two. As we arrived, a Presbyterian church picnic was ongoing in the adjacent churchyard.
Our destination was Brushland Eating House, occupying a two-story frame structure with two storefronts on the ground floor and apartments upstairs. As with Table on Ten there is little signage; you have to know it’s there. Inside we found a handsome dining room, with tables arranged along a long wooden bench that might have been a church pew, over which hung black shelves that contained a modest number of objets d’art and junk shop finds in an agrarian vein. There’s a bar that looks like it was made from a bowling alley. Curiously, there are no bar stools along it, suggesting that maybe a drinking crowd is not what Brushland seeks to attract. A giant open kitchen is visible through a mortise at the far end of the room, wherein three cooks — two bearded — were engaged in prep work as we arrived around 6 p.m. The only other diners were a couple of families with children, looking very much like city folks up for the weekend.
Opened just one year and three months, Brushland Eating House is the joint project of Sohail Zandi and girlfriend Sara Elbert, both New York City ex-pats. Zandi moved to Bovina Center from Brooklyn (where he’d worked at Prime Meats and the Grocery), and together he and Elbert bought a building, built a restaurant, and hired a chef. That chef is Jordan Terry, himself a city refugee who previously worked at Dear Bushwick, Pulino’s, and Frankie’s.
It's improvisational seasonal cooking at its best
If any place fit my theory, this was it. Three former city dwellers had picked one of the most gorgeous and remote towns in the Catskills, and recreated an authentic New American bistro there. And the food proved to be as good — or maybe better — than much currently available at a similar price level in Bushwick, Prospect Heights, or Carroll Gardens. We began with a collection of toasts ($10), wafer-thin crostini topped, in one case, with prosciutto, honey, and aged gouda. Delicious! Another deployed chopped green olives on goat cheese, while a third featured mushrooms and pecorino.
A chalkboard added a handful of dishes to the regular roster of five appetizers and six mains. From it we picked a roasted vegetable salad ($9), tumbling seasonal specimens in a sweet-and-tart agrodolce glaze. The entrées made for some difficult choices. Reflecting the German heritage of the area, a plate-flopping pork schnitzel ($15) was cut thinner and had been pounded more extensively than usual, and thus was tenderer. It was delightfully sided with a salad of barely poached summer squash and onions dressed mainly with tart buttermilk. This is improvisational seasonal cooking at its best. We looked up as a farm truck loaded with bales of hay clattered by.
A vegetarian bucatini with plenty of chanterelles was our other entree, and a good one. Our only regret was not ordering the cheeseburger, described on the menu as "one flip," topped with "fancy sauce" and American cheese. As we sat, a guy came across the street from the volunteer fire company and ordered one, as had two kids at the adjacent table. The fries looked great. I later asked the affable chef if the burger was aimed at local year-round residents. "It partly is," he replied. "I just had to include it, even though, at $10, I take a loss on every one."
The wine list is brief, mainly French and Italian, with glasses of most available in the $8 to $14 range. There are a couple of locavoric selections from the Eminence Farm Road Winery, in Long Eddy, NY, a few miles due south of Delhi. The cabernet franc and Gewurztraminer produced there are not notable for their delicacy, but for local plonk, they're as distinctive as anything you might find in Italy or France. We finished up with a couple of excellent desserts, including a berry-smeared pavlova and a special doughnut sandwich ($6), consisting of a split homemade doughnut with fresh peaches, mascarpone, and a maple syrup glaze.
Our dinner came to about $125, including tax and tip. As we hopped in the rental car and drove straight up the side of a mountain into a brilliant red sunset, my dining companion exclaimed, "Well, except for the scenery, we might as well have eaten in Brooklyn!" This is hickster dining at its apex.