Depuy Canal House

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

business.

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

his prices.

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

of nowhere.

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

utterly unimaginative.

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.

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5 Responses to Depuy Canal House

  1. David says:

    Not to work your small farmer: factory farm, U.S. farmers: global farmers parallel too hard, but I don’t see anybody from Monsanto committing suicide on police barricades.

  2. Michelle says:

    I think you’re a European snob. If the cheese came from France, you’d be like, “oh, its delicious and expensive french cheese” and not post a blog making the point. But because it’s from the Hudson Valley, which is struggling to maintain it’s original farmland and market itself to New Yorkers as it’s way to survive, you think they’re ripping you off and laughing all the way to the bank.

    It has to be a more complex issue. $20 a pound cheese is not so unusual in Dean and Deluca, and when you’re handing the money to a local farmer instead, you ARE helping to support a farming community. I think the yuppy-hippies just put you off. They annoy the hell out of me, but I still enjoy really fresh produce and cooking with items just picked that morning. And shopping at grocery stores in Manhattan sucks, period – nothing is fresh and nothing keeps for long, so it’s great to head off to the farmer’s market in Union Square and pick up food that will last and tastes really amazing. In New York City, you do actually have to pay for good quality when it comes to food shopping.

  3. geoff says:

    i can’t dispute that the food was good, not having tasted it…

    but the pretense sounds unbearable.

    “Underglass is a unique product patented by the executive chef John Novi”…

    someone actually put that on the menu?!

    how about ‘house specialty’? i could even tolerate ‘a John Novi signature dish’.

    but ‘a unique product patented…’! and ‘executive chef?’ like attention had to be drawn to him as the executive chef… just in case i confuse him the john novi saucier in the same kitchen?

    didn’t george forman develop a unique and patented cooking process?

    if john novi wants to take credit for doing salmon souffle underglass as a dish- great! although I can’t think of a more pretentiously tasteless way to put it.

    if john novi wants to take credit for cooking ‘underglass’ with the properties it imparts to a dish… then someone should pull his pompously tall hat down to his ankles and roll him down the cellar stairs.

    ‘underglass’ is a old (at least 20′- 30′s… perhaps edwardian) method of cooking dishes- most notably pheasent under glass.

    it’s people like that, who can really ruin a dining experience… any experience for that matter.

  4. sy klopps says:

    Felix, I agree 20 buck a pound goat cheese sounds expensive. I myself have never made cheese, maybe it contains mothers milk. The upstate experience is best when one can cook for themselves, say in a backyard with bears looming and wine flowing.

  5. David says:

    I have dined at the Canal House numerous times and have always find the service very freindly and as you have stated the food is excellent. I do find your article a little strange that a person (felix) who admits they stumbled into a restaurant for the first time would attack a chef that they have not meet and a menu you read once. Chef Novi does Not like to cite references to himself others in the restaurant industry have named him with various quotes like the father of …. Look at the web site above and view the menu and about the chef and restaurant. Also, in reference to the Underglass product this is not cooking pheasent underglass. This is a cooking “product” that is sold. I am sure you are aware of other chefs that have cooking products on the market.

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