Every summer, my family and I go up to Dutchess county for a few weeks. For me, it is pure bliss. Besides the obvious appeal of escaping the everyday stresses for relaxation and late-night scrabble games, the Hudson Valley offers a smorgasbord of restaurants with unique concepts and genuine chefs.
Take Gigi's Trattoria in Rhinebeck. The restaurant exemplifies the philosophy of using local ingredients. The owner Laura Pensiero's menu changes seasonally, and whenever produce from local farms is used in dishes (which is quite often), she notes in the menu what farms the food comes from. She then takes these fresh ingredients and turns them into Mediterranean inspired meals. Seriously, the food is amazing.
This past summer, I got the Bianca "Skizza," an incredibly thin crust pizza that is really all about the toppings: fig jam, chevre goat cheese, mozzarella, thin pear slices, topped with arugula and a drizzle of truffle oil. I was a little skeptical but intrigued, and the taste pairings of the sweet fruit, creamy and tangy cheese, and crunchy arugula with the pungent hint of the truffle oil proved sensational.
Another restaurant that I can't wait to go back to is Poppy's Burgers, in Beacon. A tiny place, it literally only serves burgers and fries, and with good reason. It is honestly the best burger I have ever had. They are juicy, moist (but not greasy), perfectly cooked to medium, and have an amazing flavor that I'm sure originates with their grass-fed, organic beef from Kiernan Farms in Gardiner, NY. Also, the cheese on my burger was so oozey and tangy and delicious, I was convinced it was some locally engineered cheese i had never tasted before...I asked, and was shocked to discover it was cheddar! All I know is that I've never gotten that result from melting Sargento cheddar. And next time I go, I'm definitely opting for the fried egg, one of their topping choices.
A restaurant that I can't go without mentioning is Twisted Soul in Poughkeepsie, near Vassar College. Owned and run by a Culinary Institute of America grad, the restaurant's concept fuses ethnic foods together to make delicious combinations, like savory goat cheese and corn empanadas, and surprisingly airy chickpea fries (pictured below). The joint is small and intimate, and it is obvious that each dish is made to order by the few chefs that are taking orders at the register, preparing the food, and serving. You're crazy if you don't get three or four to share (for two people), in order to sample the eclectic collection of recipes. The fries were definitely my favorite: crispy and light, and incredibly flavorful, since chickpeas have such an earthy substantial flavor that puts plain old potatoes to shame.
Ok almost done with this never-ending post, I promise! But one of the true highlights of my time spent in the Hudson Valley this past summer was attending the Iron Grad Competition, held at the Rhinecliff Hotel. Never heard of such an event? Probably because this was the first one to be held, but very likely to be repeated. Similar in style to Iron Chef, there were four rounds throughout the summer during which recent culinary school grads competed for the title of "Iron Grad."
I attended the final round, and the whole event was extremely enjoyable and done in very good taste. There were about one hundred very enthusiastic and supportive guests, and three local seasoned chefs who were the judges (including Laura Pensiero from the aforementioned Gigi's, to my delight). All three courses were accompanied by wine pairings, and all dishes were very inspired and delicious! Although the judges did offer some constructive criticism, it was not nearly as critical and harsh as that on Iron Chef (or Top Chef, which I'm personally more familiar with).
The event was clearly meant to support rising local chefs first and foremost, who were challenged to incorporate local farm ingredients into their courses. It definitely succeeded in bringing together the Hudson Valley foodie community to recognize the young chefs. Below is the first course that was served, a delicious beggar's purse of crispy phyllo dough enveloping heart-meltingly creamy Old Chathom camembert, worthy of all the awards it has won over the years. A subtly sweet corn puree and ripe tomato jam accompanied the pastry, embodying the summer flavors that dreams are made of. I think they are getting ready to hold another Iron Grad Competition this Fall, and if you find yourself in the area, it is most definitely worth looking into. For a four-course meal with wine pairings, it was $35 per person, extremely reasonable.
I could honestly continue on illuminating all the great meals I had this summer in the Hudson Valley, but I will stop, just ending on the note of Mario's Brick Oven Breads, tucked away in a shopping center in Hopewell Junction (845 226-3782). Besides their loyal following, Mario's is honestly the best kept secret of Hudson Valley, and possibly all of New York. Their fresh breads and homemade pastas (and zeppoles, available on the weekends!!) are truly what I most look forward to. It is the first and last stop my family makes during our vacations. And I should stop talking about it, because it is making me really miss eating that first piece of a fresh ciabatta, with its delectable crust, and an inside so moist and chewy that no condiment is needed. Hudson Valley, I have only respect for you.
Thanks for reading!