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Monday, October 08, 2018

Culinary Junction

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was incredible enough to find fine dining in Canajoharie, a rural village where pizza would be the favored fare, and more incredible still that this restaurant pursued its ingredients from nearby purveyors. It was too good to last, and it didn’t. The space is now home to Gino’s, a pizza place.


SEPTEMBER SIGNIFIES HARVEST SEASON, which is the time to think again about the 100-Mile Diet Challenge. Eating locally is about fueling your body with the freshest possible ingredients, but it’s also much more: It’s a way of rebelling against the corporate control of farming; it conserves that temendous amount of energy wasted on food transportation, and it offers the probability that your food hasn’t been genetically debilitated.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben describes the challenge of eating locally throughout a Vermont year, and it can be done with some creative changes of menu – especially during the winter months. But McKibben’s Champlain Valley – like our Mohawk and Hudson Valleys – is an especially bounteous area, offering not only plenty of produce but also a wealth of small farms that specialize in conscientious meat production.

The menu at Church and Main makes a point of listing those purveyors. Free Bird Farm and Hand’s Honey are from the western Montgomery County neighborhood; somewhat farther afield are Highland Farms in Red Hook and Newport’s Sunset Hill Farm. Local co-ops also provide ingredients.

The restaurant, which opened in 2004, wasn’t originally intended to be so inclined. What happened? “I got pregnant while we were renovating the building,” says co-owner Robyn Dousharm, “and that convinced me to start learning more about the food I was eating, and the food my child would eat.” Her husband, Michael Lapi, is the restaurant’s chef, and he embraced this concept right away, developing a menu that re-contextualized his culinary prowess.

The couple met while working together in a restaurant downstate in Red Hook; the return to Lapi’s native city was supposed to give Dousham a chance to pursue a job related to her teaching degree. Then they found the empty building at Church and Main.

It’s a big, old-fashioned space, with wooden floors and high ceilings and a well-chosen array of paintings on the walls. We dined near a front window, giving the servers a skating rink-sized area to traverse from the kitchen.

If you’re using chickens, you’ll have chicken livers on hand. One of the most glorious breakfasts I know is an omelette with plump sautéed livers served within, and I’m a big (too big) fan of butter-laden pâté made from livers poached in milk. So it’s only to be expected that I’d also enjoy the risotto appetizer ($10) made with innards sourced from Free Bird Farm birds. Risotto, which we seem to be sampling week after week, is a creamy rice dish that serves as a palette upon which the colors of other ingredients are mixed. Complementing the liverish flavor were lemon and scallions, which suggest something light and summery – and which therefore made for a deceptively filling starter.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The rest of the chicken was slow-roasted into a $24 entrée that boasts a richer flavor than supermarket hen ever can achieve. Served with its own juices, accompanied by just-right sides of green beans and a salad of quinoa and purple potatoes, it was a tribute to simplicity. Assuming your simple kitchen stocks quinoa.

Free Bird Farm also is the source of salad greens, served in a salad ($8) that also boasted hard-boiled eggs. Sourced elsewhere, no doubt, is mojama, a new-to-me tuna preparaton that’s salt-cured in a Spanish style. Completing the salad were fresh basil, croutons and an aioli dressing.

Living and eating close to the farm means economizing on ingredients. You’ll drink raw milk, which is tastier but still requires a transition of expectation. You’ll eat much offal, which, when it’s prepared correctly, is delicious. Sweetbreads, for instance, the thymus glands of a calf, offered as an $11 appetizer, and which were ordered out from under me by my daughter, who is determined to continue expanding her culinary horizons. Properly cleaned, lightly sautéed, sweetbreads deserve their ironic moniker. A terrific starter.

A recent stay in Cape Cod put me close to Wellfleet and its eponymous oysters. I sampled many. To revisit those good vacation feelings, I ordered an appetizer of caraquette oysters ($14), a smaller, saltier oyster harvested in New Brunswick. They have their own magic, but it’s an allure that tempted nobody else at the table to share in a sample.

Consider the ugly skate, a fish that looks like a squid with wings. Those wings, deboned and sautéed, have a scallops-like consistently and a unique flavor that makes it a delicacy, although one that’s often hard to come by. The classic preparation, with black butter ($26) was expertly done, served with a mix of mahogany rice and lentils alongside sautéed radicchio.

Part of our dining strategy was to order items we wouldn’t ordinarily consume, and so my wife chose the polenta cake ($24) because she’s so rarely satisfied by this simple cornmeal preparation. Lapi seasons it so that it’s tangy without losing the sweetness of corn, and presents it with mushrooms (chanterelles) and braised Swiss chard, two of Susan’s favorites – and the real reason she ordered the dish. Until the polenta proved equally persuasive.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Those side dishes are masterworks in themselves. The pan-roasted cod ($26) came with roasted beets and pattypan squash, while the braised goat shoulder ($35) was presented with fried potatoes and leeks and caramelized baby carrots. A word about that goat meat: it suggested a hint of gaminess, but only in the good sense of being more complex than what we expect from all that chicken we consume.

Dousharm makes the desserts, and we indulged in pannacotta served with (local) honey-drizzled cantaloupe, flourless chocolate cake, blueberry bread pudding with basil sauce and, for me, homemade biscotti with a cappuccino.

I live in Montgomery County, yet I’m still enough of an urban snob to ask, Why Canajoharie? This is the city that Beech-Nut built, and like so many single-corporate-entity area, it fell into decline as the corporation slipped away. Yet Beech-Nut money funded the city’s impressivre library (soon to re-open after flood damage repair) with its astonishing art collection (you’ll see paintings by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt and many others) and the city’s downtown is sparking its own slow revival.

In the beginning, there were paper bags, invented by Canajo native James Arkell; his son Bartlett started Beech-Nut, and the wildly wealthy family went on to establish the Arkell Foundation, which has funded many important area arts-related features, not least of which is the performing arts center at the local high school.

So this is a city with a culturally hip core. But you don’t find it reflected much in the downtown shops. Let’s hope that Church and Main is a harbinger.

Church and Main
, 49 Church St., Canajoharie, 673-xxxx. Serving dinner Thu-Sun from 5. MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 6 September 2007

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