Onwards with the Californification of the Hudson Valley! Last weekend, I visited
a small out-of-the-way food fair there, but still the local cheeses were $20
a pound, and you really don’t want to know how much the goat sausages cost.
I also managed to catch most of a speech on community
supported agriculture – which, as far as I can make out, is basically
a bunch of arriviste yuppies paying a large sum of money to a local farmer in
the hope that he will return their largesse with some nice fresh food at some
point later on in the year. Of course the local farmer will have seen where
the money is, and will be growing organic produce, which means that he gets
to treble or quadruple his prices and the arriviste yuppies have to make do
with a couple of heirloom tomatoes and an artisanal apple or two.
CSA is a bit like the global agricultural system writ small. The small Hudson
Valley organic farmers stand to large US agribusiness in much the same way as
large US agribusiness stands to global agriculture: much more expensive, and
looking for subsidies. On a national scale those subsidies come directly from
the federal government, while on the local scale they come in the form of free
risk capital from guilt-ridden liberals who would never admit to buying groceries
at a supermarket. It’s a great scheme: if the crop fails, the farmer gets to
keep the money, while the investors end up having to spend extra at the supermarket
to make up for the veggies that weren’t delivered. And the big usnpoken rule
is that no one, ever, even thinks about saying that prices might be
a little steep. After all, we’re Supporting Our Communities here: do you really
need that extra few bucks more than the farmer down the road?
So prices continue their steady climb, and Hudson Valley apples will soon be
like California wine: perfectly good, to be sure, but insanely expensive. This
is what happens when everybody tells you how wonderful you are: you start believing
your own clippings, and pretty soon ego becomes the driving force behind local
Who has the biggest ego in the Hudson Valley? It’s a tough call, but John Novi
has to be high up the list. An extraordinariliy talented chef who has run the
Depuy Canal House in High Falls
since 1969, he likes to cite references to himself as "the Father of New
American Cooking," and is well known in the region for both his ego and
I turned up at the Depuy Canal House on Saturday night, completely oblivious
of its reputation: I simply happened to be staying in the town, and needed somewhere
to eat. I’ve stumbled in a similar manner across great
restaurants in the past, and it’s a fabulous experience: you automatically
wildly exceed your expectations, if only because your expectations were so low
to start with.
But looking at the menu, which changes daily, was certainly eyebrow-raising.
Under the appetizers, for instance, the was something called a SCALLOP and SALMON
SOUFFLE UNDERGLASS with MANCHEGO CHEESE (yes, all that weird capitalisation
and italicisation was on the menu) which helpfully added that "Underglass
is a unique product patented by the executive chef John Novi". (Yes,
those quotation marks were on the menu, too.) Turns out that Underglass is not
much more than baking your soufflé in glass rather than china, although
the dish was very good.
The dish was also $18, for a starter, which gives you an idea of the prices
involved. The model
menu on the website doesn’t have a single main course for less than $32,
and even the soups – the cheapest thing you can get – are $14 each.
The restaurant also is less than transparent when it comes to pricing: the four
course prix fixe for $60 turns out to be equivalent toordering a starter, main
course and $10 dessert a la carte, along with and some fruit, bread and salad.
Even with $16 starters and $32 mains, you’re not saving any money. The seven-course
menu for $75 is no bargain either.
Astonishingly, going by anecdote, these prices are actually significantly lower
than they were not so long ago, when the prix fixe ranged into the triple digits,
and Novi would charge for everything, even bread and butter. But we’re still
talking high-end Manhattan prices for a restaurant in a tiny town in the middle
To be fair, you do get high-end Manhattan food. My duck confit was divine,
even if it didn’t go particularly well with the calves liver it was paired with,
and most of the other dishes were very good. Still, there were weak points:
the hors d’oeuvres, which you get automatically as an amuse-bouche if you order
a main course, looked great, but tasted a little bland. And the desserts were
And then there was the service. The waitstaff is basically students from the
State University of New York working their way through college: professional
waiters these are not. They’re cocky, and while I’ll take friendliness over
stuffiness any day, these guys were overly familiar, and didn’t provide particularly
good service. It would have been fine at a $25-a-head restaurant, but when you
can drop that much on a foie gras appetizer, you want a notch or two better.
Twice our waiter complained about other diners, which I really didn’t appreciate,
and at the end of the meal he hovered over me as I worked out how much of a
tip to leave. Just in the past week, I’ve had infinitely better service right
here on Rivington Street, both at Schiller’s
and at ‘inoteca.
All that said, Depuy Canal House is a wonderful place to have a blow-out dinner
in a beautiful old setting: not only is the 1797 building lovely, but the town
of High Falls is gorgeous as well. Afterwards, rather than drive for three hours
back to Manhattan, any self-respecting hedonist, high on great food, should
retire to a suite at the Mohonk Mountain House,
just a few minutes’ drive away. I can guarantee you that the food at the hotel
can’t hold a candle to the stuff here.