“MY FAMILY HAS BEEN coming here every year for 43 years,” a woman told me. “Back when we started, Mohonk didn’t advertise. But they asked the people who stayed here to recommend others who might like the place. Two friends of my father were stuck in New Paltz one night, and couldn’t find a hotel room in town. Someone suggested they check with Mohonk. A room was available, so they made the trip up the mountain – back then you did the last section in a horse-drawn carriage – and stayed the night. And the next day, when they were asked for those recommendations, they gave my father’s name and address. We’ve been coming here ever since.”
I’ve heard variations on this story several times over, having stayed a few times myself at this venerable property. The 265-room main building is an astonishing feature, as is the mountaintop lake it overlooks. The state-of-the-art spa that recently was installed is so thorough that there’s even underwater music for enhanced pool enjoyment. Hundreds of miles of trails crisscross the thousands of surrounding acres of the Shawangunk Mountains, much of it part of the Mohonk Preserve, even more of it a State Park.
But even more spectacular, to my point of view, is the food. Dinner at Mohonk comes in two varieties: table d’hôte and buffet. Except for Sunday brunch, the buffet is served from June 29 to Sept. 2, as well as on major holidays and during late-in-the-year weekends. I visited the day after Christmas, when the buffet was in full swing, but I’ve been there during other times of the year and ordered off the menu. Either way, you don’t emerge hungry.
Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of duplication. The difference is one of excess. The buffet, as all buffets must, tempts you with a dizzying array of selections crafted to present themselves nicely in a context not known to be benevolent to food.
Let’s take a tour that begins with the main dining area itself, a sweeping ballroom with honey-colored paneling and expansive windows offering a panorama of the Shawangunk Ridge. You’re seated and beveraged, the included quaffs such gentle drinks as iced tea, lemonade, fruit juice and soda. Liquor is a relatively late addition to the resort, but the wine list is impressive and thorough.
Approach the buffet display slowly, avoiding a glance at the desserts. There will be time enough. Sample a couple of the cold selections: ginger-soy pork, or scallops and shrimp with grilled eggplant, or tortellini with stuffed with boursin, ricotta and parmesan. Or carve some slices from the fruit-adorned cheese platter.
Just a taste of each, even if those scallops and shrimp are shrieking for an encore. Because twice you’ve passed the braised lamb shanks, which you know will feature in your next trip through.
As they should. As they must. Keep your Frenched racks and minted chops – for me, a slow-cooked shank is as good as meat-eating gets. Add to your plate a spoon of red quinoa, a couple of gorgeous little pattypan squash, a serving of roasted fingerling potatoes. Groan inwardly when you notice that tenderloin tips are being freshly sautéed nearby. Pace yourself.
The poached sole with fennel ragout can’t compete with the lamb for bigness of presence, but it smiles with its own gentle charm. Only the grilled chicken breast with Guinness Stout reduction was disappointing, and then only because it had succumbed to buffet dryness by the time I forced myself to try a sample.
Recent dinner menus have included other braised meats, among them wild boar and pork shank, and these are complete plates finished with appropriate and seasonal garnish. Roasted monkfish with red pearl onions and Serrano ham, for instance, or Indian-style cauliflower and potatoes with garam masala and mint. The latter is one of the menu’s “sound choice” items, crafted to go easy on the bad stuff (fat, cholesterol, etc.).
Table d’hôte dessert offerings might include caramelized pineapple meringue tart, walnut apple baklava, espresso panna cotta or sugar-free spice cake. When it’s laid out at the buffet, you pause first at the chocolate fountain, daring yourself to dredge anything you can lay your hand on in the swirly goodness. But I also had chocolate mousse, cheesecake, chocolate-caramel tartlettes, strawberry amaretto cake, toffee crunch pie, Black Forest cake and hot cherry crisp to choose from. And ice cream. My table split up the duties, ultimately unable even to taste one another’s selections.
Executive chef Jim Palmeri is a recent addition to the resort’s staff, and is renewing the Mohonk culinary tradition of sustainability, finding local sources of ingredients and designing menus with the season in mind.
Which is only fitting. During its 140-year history, Mohonk has placed ecological consciousness at the forefront. The hotel itself is a National Historic Landmark. You can work off those meals with activities on the 85 miles of hiking trails or with ice skating (there’s a new, handsome pavilion), cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and more.
Enjoy dinner during a day visit that gives you access to the house and grounds, and culminates in spectacular dining. Reservations are mandatory, but you’ll see why when you’re cordially received at the gatehouse and then eased into the relaxation of the place.
But why limit yourself to dinner and the view? Benevolently priced packages abound this time of year. "Winter Weekends," priced at $210 per person, per night (double occupancy) for a two- night stay, include such themed programs as a Taste of Tuscany (Jan 9-11), Mohonk on Ice with Gold Medalist Oksana Baiul and an Oscars celebration Feb 6-8. These rates include three daily meals, afternoon tea and the aforementioned resort activities.
There’s also a midweek special to celebrate the resort’s 140th anniversary that runs through Feb 26, where a rate of $140 per person, per night (double occupancy) gets you dinner, afternoon tea and continental breakfast, as well as all that resort access.
And then, as you make that left turn from the Northway exit to head through New Paltz, you can look at the tower on the hilltop in the distance and happily murmur to yourself, “I’ll be there soon.”
Mohonk Mountain House, 1000 Mountain Rest Rd., New Paltz, 845-255-1000, mohonk.com.
– Metroland Magazine, Jan. 8, 2009