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Friday, August 02, 2019

Setting the Table

AFTER THE DELUGE, IT WAS THE RESTAURANT. When the Mohawk Valley village of Fort Plain was hit by flooding in the summer of 2013 – four years to the day after a similar horror – nearly 90 businesses told the town’s mayor that they couldn’t afford to reopen. Aaron Katovitch had only recently opened his restaurant, The Table at Fort Plain, and he, too, faced a scene of devastation. The restaurant’s basement flooded, wiring was destroyed, and his wine collection was lost, among other damages.

Aaron’s family rallied to his side; they rebuilt the restaurant in a scant four weeks. By the time I made my first visit there, six months later, the attractive eatery was humming with good business and great food.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Five and a half years later, he’s still going strong. He is defying the odds. As much as New York’s Montgomery County likes to promote its villages, Fort Plain is not a tourist destination. If a single restaurant could make it so, then Katovitch’s cooking ought to be enough. 

The menu changes as often as new ingredients demand, and summer is a time when there’s fresh, local produce a-plenty to liven a dish. The chef has set himself a challenging mission: the window for fresh and local opens for a few fleeting months, but when it’s open there’s a considerable bounty.

“I get a lot of my produce from a nearby farm,” he says. “They have a hothouse, so I’m able to get cucumbers and tomatoes early on. And people know I’m looking for produce. I just had some Swiss chard arrive at my back door, too late to put on today’s menu, but I’ll see what I can do with it for tomorrow.”

He also attends the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction, run by the Amish twice a week at the western end of Fort Plain, and the farmers market at Little Falls. And there’s his own backyard, which yielded the basil and nasturtium greens he’s using tonight.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A fiddlehead decorates the one-page menu, which sports starters like chorizo & poblano soup ($6), crispy fried duck wings (with spicy gojugang and honey, $8), and strip steak tacos with tomatillo sauce ($10). There’s an arugula salad with apple, bacon, and smoked almonds ($8) and a traditional Caesar salad ($8). Upon learning that the foccacia had just emerged from the oven, we insisted on serving ($6), and were delighted to find it well characterized by that peculiar quality, unique to this type of loaf, of being spongy while seeming dense. And it’s topped with the traditional sprinkling of coarse salt and rosemary leaves, served with soufflé cup of olive oil – and a handful of mixed olives, making this taste of Italy complete.

“I can’t take the caramelized onion and brie appetizer off the menu,” Katovitch later told us with a laugh, and it’s no wonder. The incredibly tasty $8 compote almost defies description. A long crouton bed is topped with those browned onions (is there anything more richly sweet?) and slices of soft brie, with bacon and scallions adding color and flavor.

You don’t often see watermelon defined as steak, so we ordered the $8 appetizer salad that also promised arugula and feta. The red triangles that arrived were an intense version of the melon meat, achieved by putting the chunks under pressure to squeeze out a lot of the moisture. The watermelon gets an intensity of flavor matched by the arugula’s spiciness, softened by feta’s salty smile. And the minty sparkle of a fresh basil chiffonade teased all the other flavors into unexpected directions.

Nine appetizers, seven entrées. It’s the ideal size for a menu in a place like this, where, no matter what you order, personal attention will be the order of the day. Eavesdropping, you’ll understand, is part of my job, which is why I can report overhearing our server help one party work out a vegetarian order, and talk another party out of ordering a steak medium-well. “The filet has so little fat on it,” she advised him, “that it gets much too dry when you cook it that long.” He acceded to medium – and certainly seemed to enjoy what he was served.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The server in question is Becca Winters, who is a part-owner of the business and works on both sides of the kitchen door. She brings an elegant surety to her work, encouraging you to feel at home with her ability to make you feel as if tonight’s dinner had been planned with only you in mind. And she has the skilled server’s knack of making you feel that your menu choices show exceptional taste and wisdom.

As I agonized over an entrée choice, she noted that Aaron is known for his seafood cookery. That was all the encouragement I needed to order the –

“I’ll have the haddock,” my wife said cheerfully. So much for that. I chose the capellini with local tomatoes and zucchini ($25), which turned out to be a hefty helping of thin spaghetti – almost as thin as angel hair – tossed with the abovementioned vegetables alongside pearls of mozzarella and more of that aromatic basil. The zucchini slices were thick enough to lull me into thinking I’d speared a shrimp but, let’s face it, even zucchini has more flavor than those over-farmed crustaceans. Fresh vegetables burst in the mouth, and pasta is a reliable vehicle for them.

We saw a pitcher of ale go by as we were enjoying our appetizers, and correctly surmised it was bound for the haddock. Sackett’s Harbor Red Ale, to be exact, is the basis of the batter, and what emerges is the fish-and-chips of your dreams. A huge, steaming piece of fish. A crunchy-as-can-be crust. A bed of pommes gaufrette (known around here as waffle fries). And, sure, what’s also alongside is described as a mustard-caper remoulade, but that works out to a tangy tartar sauce substitute. Even the cole slaw is outstanding, for which Becca took enviable credit. A bargain at $21.

Other entrées that evening included a grilled pork chop with apples and honey and buttermilk mashed potatoes ($25), a ribeye with two garlic appearances: in a demi-glaze and a side of scapes ($31), salmon with a horseradish-dill butter sauce ($25), and pan-roasted duck breast with rhubarb conserve ($25), all served with some manner of potato and vegetable.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The downtown has the faded look of valley villages past their prime, but inside the restaurant is a comfortable array of bare-wood tables and a bar area off to one side. There’s a well-chosen wine selection, reasonably priced, and the beer list comprises only New York breweries, from which I chose a Seven Valley Stout from the Cortland Beer Company.

We finished with a coconut-mango parfait, another of Winters’ creations, which presented a pair of frozen wedges of sweet, airy goodness served with whipped cream and a mango sauce. It was such a delightful note on which to end the meal that we didn’t bother with any hot beverages.

In truth, we had them before dinner, or I did. I enjoyed a well-crafted latte; my wife had a spicy Bruce Cost Ginger Ale. Katovitch and Winters have opened a coffeehouse two doors down from the restaurant, and Highwheeler Coffee celebrates artisinal coffee and well-chosen tea in a casual and friendly space (with a penny-farthing in the front window) where you can enjoy sandwiches, other snacks, and desserts, with the food originating from the nearby restaurant. It’s a good place to relax, to get some writing done – or to take a break from your bicycle journey, as the Erie Canalway bike path is but two blocks away.

So you have two reasons to visit this neighborhood, and with the NYS Thruway and any number of cultural events and locations nearby, it’s worth the culinary detour.

The Table at Fort Plain, 70 Canal Street, Fort Plain, NY, 518-993-8065, Serving dinner Wed-Fri 5-8:30, Sat 5-9.

Highwheeler Coffee, 84 Canal Street, Fort Plain, NY, 518-620-0828, Open Mon 7-3, Tue-Fri 7-7, Sat 8-7, Sun 8-3.

–, 29 July 2019

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