Every summer, a friend and I drive up to the Catskills to scour the countryside for new hickster restaurants. What’s a hickster restaurant? Usually run by city expats who’ve moved to the country to escape high rents and harried lifestyles, these restaurants resemble bistros found in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Gowanus, and Fort Greene. While the traditional Catskill eatery is a greasy spoon diner or an archaic southern Italian restaurant, these places are serving up avocado toasts, kale salads, and little wood-oven pizzas topped with squash blossoms and arugula.
This phenomenon has its humorous side, as the newly minted mountain men and women struggle to live in a locale with few Rite Aids and no Shake Shacks. But the proximity to actual working farms, elimination of costs attributable to distributors and wholesalers, and very, very cheap rents create an atmosphere in which establishments devoted to sustainability and locavorism can hold their heads high and thrive.
Yes, you can find dozens of hickster restaurants in gateway cities like Hudson, Kingston, and Woodstock. But we motored over the mountains, through picturesque valleys and past burbling streams, to the more remote western and northwestern part of the range, a three- to four-hour drive from the city. There in the village of Delhi (pronounced “Dell-High”), we found Goldenrod, located at 53 Main St.
Situated on the main drag of a village larger and more prosperous than most, due to a SUNY branch on its outskirts and a lovely location on the West Branch Delaware River, Goldenrod occupies a three-story frame structure, shared with a cooperative grocery store. Goldenrod — named after a brightly colored weed and not a villain in a James Bond movie — has replaced former tenant Quarter Moon Café, at least temporarily.
Here’s a first for a hickster restaurant: Goldenrod is operating as a summer pop-up, having debuted in early June and scheduled to close “sometime in October,” according to owner Carver Farrell. It’s also open Thursday through Sunday. The restaurant strives to only use products from surrounding Delaware County, which is weather dependent. “When late October rolls around, all we’ll have to serve is meat and pickles,” he says.
Concentrating on local products is something hickster restaurants can readily do. That same evening, the mozzarella came from a farm in neighboring Bovina, where Farrell grew up. Before launching Goldenrod, he ran the lauded American restaurant the Pines in Gowanus, which mounted a comparable menu but closed last year. That’s another hickster first: Goldenrod represents a restaurant that was pretty much transplanted from Brooklyn, lock, stock, and barrel of cider. The chefs, Joe Aponte and Stephanie Hirsch, came from the Pines, too.
The baker and pastry chef is Katie Phelan. She’s responsible for one of the most memorable dishes on the menu, warm wedges of crusty rye sourdough, served with cultured butter sprinkled with sumac ($5). Charging for bread might seem like just another citified flourish, but a serious restaurant here is compelled to bake its own bread. Bread served in most Catskills restaurants is a spongy white nightmare.
Like most hickster menus in the Catskills, the document here is comparatively brief, limited to 13 dishes in the categories Start, Pasta, Meat, Fish, and Dessert. There’s a kale salad, of course, a plate of crudité with aioli, and a cucumber salad ($12) featuring local goat feta, pea shoots, and purslane that might have been gathered on the banks of the nearby river.
We’re fond of eating vegetables in city restaurants that were probably picked only days before, but eating a cucumber that was picked only hours before is amazing: juicier and crunchier. I’m still dreaming of that cucumber salad.
Goats are big among local farmers for the delicious goat cheese they provide. The meat doesn’t go to waste, either: At Goldenrod, a goat ragu presents itself on thick sheets of “handkerchief” pasta with a jiggly egg on top. It was good but a bit oily. On the vegetarian side of the two-item pasta menu also find a malfatti dressed with walnuts, a mixed-herb pesto, and garlic.
Putting on French airs, poussin ($25) was an almost grown-up baby chicken expertly roasted and presented on a bed of rye berries and puréed beans. A friend sitting at the bar was enjoying a steak with salsa verde, and there’s a $12 burger with fries, too, which is de rigueur for the ambitious new crop of Catskill restaurants. The more affordable price attracts village residents, according to a waiter at Brushland Eating House, upriver in Bovina.
The best thing we ate was a plate of sweet grilled scallops of medium size plunged in tomato water and heaped with shredded kohlrabi, answering the perpetual question, what the hell do you do with kohlrabi? I joshed Farrell by asking, “Did you pull the scallops out of the Delaware River?” He laughed and replied, “No, but we have a friend from Montauk who drives them here on the days we serve them.”