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Friday, July 11, 2014

Back in Time

From the Hotel Vault Dept.: This week’s Metroland features my review of Saltsman’s Hotel, a restaurant in Ephratah, NY. I’ll post it here this weekend; meanwhile, here are accounts of my two earlier visits.


YOU WON'T FIND OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS at Saltsman's – rooms haven’t been available since the 1940s – but the menu still boasts many of the recipes used by the Saltsman family. Several generations of them owned and ran the hotel, which was built in 1813 and has been in continuous operation; Jim Subik bought the place in 1979 and maintains the old-fashioned traditions.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
One of which is an anticipated advertisement that appears at this time each spring. In the Gloversville paper it appears as a single, capitalized word – MILKWEED – surrounded by a shaded box. That means it’s the season for picking the baby milkweed plants which then become a featured vegetable at the hotel.

Let’s get the milkweed over with first thing. No, you’re not dealing with the pods readily associated with the plant – only small, leafy shoots have developed at this point. It has an asparagus-like aroma and a flavor reminiscent of spinach. At least when the kitchen at Saltsman’s gets through with it.

Attentive preparation is required to rid the stalks and leaves of bitterness, and the result is an impressive side dish, held plateside by your server as you dig in for whatever quantity you’re prepared to handle.

There was a little hesitance at my table, but portion sizes also are a factor. A first-time visitor will be surprised by that and a number of Saltsman’s characteristics. Here’s how a dinner visit works:

First there’s the approach. Route 10 in Ephratah takes a winding path through the hills that overlook the Mohawk River in Fulton County. Saltsman’s dominates the tiny crossroads that constitutes the town center. Like so much of this area, it is a once-active town (mills, trading) that quietly went to sleep as the face of industry changed.

Inside is a mixture of old-fashioned graciousness and the just plain old-fashioned. It’s not, and probably never was, an elegant hotel. It was intended to offer comfort without rich-folk frills. Nevertheless, it was good enough for then-governor Franklin Roosevelt to enjoy a stay here, and you’ll see his guest-book signature in an antique display case over in a corner of the charming parlor.

The bar is dominated by a television set; ignore it. Enjoy the woodwork, plain for its day, now fancy-looking compared to the drabness of mass construction. The menu hangs on a wall here; a nearby blackboard lists the specials. Steaks, chops and chicken are at the core of the fare. Give your order to the hostess before you’re seated.

Your table is prepped with a relish tray, something I’ve come to otherwise miss. Appetizers – included in the dinner price – are recited by your server. Again, an old-fashioned approach.

Susan took a glass of tomato juice – remember when that was an appetizer? I chose what was described simply as “seafood” (our server’s crib sheet didn’t include any more detail). It turned out to be a small serving of shredded crab meat on a bed of lettuce, topped with cocktail sauce.

The dining room has a row of tables along each long wall. The faint of heart (or opponent of meat) should be warned that there is a profusion of stuffed animal heads on the walls above the tables. Decor is really a collision of styles: the old, carefully-stripped woodwork that divides the room into smaller dining areas contrasts with the newer knotty pine mouldings around the windows.

Around us were couples, families, friends: all ages. “We’ve had a younger crowd coming in during the last few years,” says Subik. “They appreciate the family feeling we have. We’re one of a kind. Years ago, this was a stagecoach stop, just one of lots of little places around the countryside. Now the others are gone.”

Subik is also the chef, and ensures that the same spirit prevails in the kitchen. “Everything is cooked to order. It’s a system that works, and it’s worked for years. Five generations of Saltsmans followed it, so I didn’t see any reason to make sweeping changes.”

That sense of continuity was confirmed by our dinner companion, Catherine, an area native who has paid man visits to the restaurant and found it to be consistent. Reliable. Good.

 Nothing nouvelle here, but some nice surprises. After the appetizers were cleared we each got a small dish of corn fritters and maple syrup. Now that’s a tasty intermezzo!

Susan’s fried chicken had a light layer of breading and was finished to a rich gold. She ordered a side of chicken livers, which turned out to be a huge portion with some other gizzards as well, batter dipped and finished in the fryer. Even with a lot of round-the-table passing there was plenty to take home.

Cathy’s order of barbecued ribs was finished with an appealing sauce that offered flavor support without, as is too often the case, actually drowning the meat. My lamb chops were cooked exactly as I ordered – I like ‘em rarer than what’s judged as the norm – and skilful butchering left me with four meaty chops.

The side dishes, as I mentioned, are passed; besides milkweed we had creamed onions and creamed potatoes.

A table d’hote menu, implemented like this one, makes ordering much less onerous. One price gets you all your courses, coffee and dessert included, and Saltsman’s also offers a brief list of homemade pies and pastries from which we sampled good lemon meringue pie and a chocolate marbled cheesecake. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it was made the old-fashioned way.

Metroland Magazine, 13 June 1991


PRESERVED UNDER GLASS in the parlor of Saltsman’s Hotel is an old room register in which Franklin D. Roosevelt’s faded signature is apparent. But consider the rest of the room. Tin walls and ceilings, overstuffed sofa and chairs; the comfortable clutter of a time before television told us how our houses and hotels should appear.

A time, in fact, when the small cities along the Mohawk River were important to each other and the surrounding communities; when stage service between Little Falls and Amsterdam included a stop in Ephratah, and possibly dinner and a stay-over at the comfortable hotel.

Nobody now can remember when the last room was rented. But dinner service continues, much in the manner that it’s been carried on all this century. “I’ve got people who come in for Sunday dinner, people in their 80s,” says chef-owner Jim Subik, “and they remember coming here with their grandparents, and they like the fact that we keep it the same.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Back in the stagecoach days you were likely to partake of whatever happened to be the daily bill of fare. Menu choices were a product of this century. Still, Subik keeps the menu simple. Fried chicken (a specialty) for $8.95. Same price for a ham steak. Grilled pork chops are $10.95. And there are selections of beef and lamb and seafood.

My Manhattan-based friend John submitted to another dining foray with me, and we drove through the gorgeous hills of Palatine and Stone Arabia on a recent Thursday evening, passing an Amish carriage en route to the restaurant. A sign on Route 10 just beyond Saltsman’s warns “Populated Area.” John found this very amusing.

We were expected, although a little early for our reservation. We had more time, then, to study the menu (brief though it is). You can order even before you’re seated, and you only order an entrée. The rest is up to the kitchen. I find this a delightful policy.

As the regulars know, Saltsman’s is famous for milkweed. Although we recognize it, if we recognize it at all, in its mature, pod-bearing form, it’s a delicious vegetable when picked and prepared young. During its brief season, Subik puts a small ad in the local newspapers. The ad is one word long: “Milkweed.” It’s the only reminder the locals need.

We were too late in the season for that vegetable (it was broccoli, instead), but just in time for a warm, easygoing evening. Seated next to a window, we started our dinner with an order of “bloomers,” which turns out to be a huge onion sliced into fingers, batter dipped and deep fried, served with a honey-mustard sauce (but it’s advertised, amusingly, with a drawing of a lady’s bloomer-covered lower limb). This is great bar food, something you want to eat while it’s still hot, preferably shared with friends. Be wary, however, if you’re starting off a Saltsman’s meal, because there’s much more to come.

First is the cole slaw/pickles/crackers/jelly/bread/sliced tomato assortment that’s waiting when you’re seated. Next is the first course, a choice of four items from which John picked chicken soup – “Mainstream stuff. Just what the doctor ordered. No surprise.” And I had the fruit cup, which came out of a jar but which wasn’t the overly sweet commercial stuff.

Next – oh yes, there’s more – are corn fritters. Served with real maple syrup. Don’t eat ‘em both, or you’re doomed when the entrée arrives. And that’s next, the meat or fish of your choice with a presentation of family-style side dishes. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the chicken livers I ordered. Actually, I ordered them for John, who was having the fried chicken entrée, and therefore seemed to be craving a total poultry experience. He spurned the side dish, however, and left me to tackle the crispy fried gizzards.

The fried chicken is a signature dish, and it’s prepared very nicely: a half bird with a tasty breading. I ordered the lamp chops; four loin cuts are served, and they were grilled perfectly. Served, as you might expect, with a side of mint jelly, an old, old custom that unfortunately hangs on.

But old custom is the watchword here. Side dishes – broccoli with cheese sauce, creamed onions, and gratinéed potatoes – arrived in large serving bowls, and portions are dished onto the plate until you cry, “Enough!” Don’t look for gourmet innovations here, and don’t look for health-conscious cookery. Subik is preserving an old tradition, and you do best to accept this as a time-travel event. We finished with desserts, both of them homemade. John had a good old fudge parfait; I had chocolate cream pie. I don’t know where we put it.

The restaurant will be open until the end of October, and the final day, Hallowe’en, is traditionally a costume party. After that we’ll have to wait until April for the Saltsman’s season to start again.

Metroland Magazine, 8 September 1994

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