Why we’re in no danger of becoming anything like them.

by Hal Rubenstein

It’s become as predictable as swallows returning to Capistrano, or Liam Neeson finding yet another reason to beat up two dozen Middle Eastern males 25 years his junior. Before the start of summer, any number of oh-so-knowing urban based publications such as The New York Times, The Financial Times or Business Insider pose the same question with the intensity of Oedipus facing the riddle of the Sphinx: “Is the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires turning into the Hamptons?” In fact, during the pandemic, such speculation was as ubiquitous as Dr. Deborah Birx’s table-for-four sized scarves.

OK, I admit that when we first bought a home in Columbia County 18 years ago, most of our friends asked, “Where are you going? What the hell’s up there?” Back then, evidently, Millbrook was the end of civilization; since once past its exit on the Taconic, we were about the only car on the road. Well, no more. What those annual articles do have right is the increasingly gushing geyser-like appeal of this region, and how homes for sale in Athens, Accord or Austerlitz—when you can find one—remain on the market for about as long as it takes to flip four burgers on the grill.

But only someone who has just sprinted through a three-day tour of duty between Kingston and Queechy Lake would ever ascribe credibility to such a foolish act of   comparison geography, and it’s not just because good luck finding the nearest beach or clam shack in the Red Rock. Because while we’re no longer the only car on the Taconic at Exit 89, most homes outside of small-town centers are often separated by acres, not feet. It takes three-quarters of an hour to go a mile-and-a-half in the Hamptons because Route 27 is the only option. If it takes equally as long to get to your friend’s home or Lowe’s up here, it’s because everything and/or everyone is about 20 miles away. Nothing is ever round the corner.

But that same lack of proximity is also why there’s no anointed gotta-be-seen “scene” in these parts. True, local restaurants and bars are much busier than you might assume (since everyone, everywhere was denied breaking bread with friends for so long), yet dining out generates no equivalent to the quick-we-have-to-plan-a-month-ahead-and-shit-do-you-have-the-private-number? Hamptonian panic suffered trying to nab a table at Tutto Il Giorno, Le Bilbouquet or 75 Main. And when you remove the nerve-wracking jockeying for position that necessitates a quick run into CVS for some Prilosec, what you gain is the opportunity to enjoy both some really swell and often superior food up in these hills, but also the evident charm that’s served along with it. It’s amazing how much more fun it is to dine out when you can not only relax your shoulders, but not have to waste energy looking over them.

FEAST & FLORET 

The prickly but sagacious restaurateur Keith McNally (Odeon, Balthazar, Pastis) claims that your attitude towards an eatery is determined within the three minutes of your arrival, before you’ve ordered either an appetizer or a cocktail. No wonder Feast & Floret has quickly become for so many of us our happy place. As soon as you walk in, a hey-glad-you’re-here vitality breezes through the room that immediately sets you at ease. It’s also a striking contrast to the reclaimed carriage house’s former tenant, Zak Pelaccio’s Fish & Game, which deservedly won a James Beard Award as best restaurant in the Northeast in 2016. Pelaccio’s room and fare was intense, almost brooding. While meals were often memorable, the atmosphere insisted you focus more on your dinner plate than your dining partners. With the subtlest of shifts of decor, lighting, seating, server training and a wise and unexpectedly sharp menu edit, Pelaccio’s former partner Jason Denton, has brightened and lightened the mood. Dining at Feast & Floret is fun, and yet the kitchen—which is run by Denton though he demurs chef status—isn’t fooling around 

Every restaurant these days that doesn’t have a drive-thru is now farm-to-table, so that isn’t a selling point. But smashing dry rub pork ribs with a crust that crackles and fall off the bone meat sweetened by a walnut-amaro-honey reduction are. It’s the kind of trademark dish you really should share, but you really don’t want to. (The menu changes seasonally, but thankfully ribs seem to be a fixture.) Other dishes are precisely composed, but don’t feel fussed over: fennel brightened by a splash of citrus while contrasted with olives; velvety burrata contrasted with a sumptuously smoky sourdough; a tart, invigorating cluster of clams braced by the briny sweetness of guanciale and tomato jam; an excellent pass around flatbread, gently slathered with honey and ricotta; four noteworthy pastas, especially a brighter take on Bolognese and a black squid ink intriguingly inflamed by chili infused pork.

In addition to those super ribs, choose a tender chili-flecked (the kitchen isn’t afraid of the spice rack) octopus on a bed of potatoes and radicchio. The steelhead trout is a house favorite and Denton’s chicken Milanese may be one of the few times I didn’t wish I was eating veal prepared the same way. My two favorite desserts are a budino to make a chocoholic sigh, and olive oil cake framed by clementines (ask for a scoop of gelato). 

In case you were wondering about the restaurant’s name, there’s a florist shop in the middle of the dining room. The assortment is lovely, but to be honest, I’ve never bought flowers there, but if I did, I’d be sorely tempted to present the bouquet to Denton, as a thank you. In the last seven months, I’ve eaten at Feast & Floret on my anniversary, my birthday and on Valentine’s Day. But I’d be just as eager to eat there because it’s Thursday.

FEAST & FLORET  
13 So. 3rd Street, Hudson
518 822 1500
feastandfloret.com 

FRANKIE’S RISTORANTE BAR ITALIANO

At Feast & Floret, they offer an appetizer that’s a graceful trio of nearly weightless, pecorino-flecked meatballs. You ain’t getting those at Frankie’s. But then, no one comes to this legendary spot near Tanglewood to eat light. Frankie’s is the kind of restaurant that used to make Manhattan’s Little Italy a favorite downtown destination, but now barely exists away from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. This is unapologetic, two-fisted Italian American cuisine, where seeing red is a good thing, and tradition is something to be proud of rather history that needs reinvention.

Truth be told, Frankie’s kitchen is serving up cuisine strikingly similar to the Major Food Group’s brilliantly marketed Carbone, minus the neon sign, at about one-third the tab. (Think I’m exaggerating? Veal parmigiana at Carbone is $89. At Frankie’s, it’s $30). Considering how tough it is to snare a table on Thompson Street, even with the soaring price of gas, it might be cheaper and just as satisfying to shlep up to Lenox, MA. 

First things first. Frankie’s has a supremely excellent bartender. Julia strikes the perfect tone for her domain: friendly without being in your face, as attuned to the menu as her family history, and damn! does she make a killer Old Fashioned, James Bond worthy martini or any of the house specialty drinks such as the blood orange margarita. In fact, the woman is so congenial, the last time we ate there, we were delighted to sit at her bar. 

Proving my point, when Julia says order the fried zucchini, a dish that long ago degenerated at New York’s San Gennaro festival into a pile of pasty, stringy slop, I was stunned to be rewarded with a gloriously tangled cloud of crisp, perfectly salted, gilded green streamers that crackle with each ravenous crunch. The challenge with cooking from a playbook that’s so straightforward is that it leaves no room for error. Carpaccio needs to be expertly shaved, cabochon ruby red, topped by tart fronds arugula and thin layers of just barely bitter parmesan. On a sweet beet and goat cheese salad, the walnuts should be candied, but not Cracker Jack saccharine, and you don’t want orange dressing. You want the bracing acidity of blood oranges. Artichokes should bear the grill marks of a deep char, the contrast of toasted almonds and the brightness of an acid laced vinaigrette. Frankie’s succeeds on all counts. 

The Bolognese featured is grandma’s recipe and good a cook as my grandma was, she was great at Matzoh balls, not this wonderfully hearty red sauce. Even more than parmigiana, I prefer Frankie’s veal sautéed with the heat of slightly wince-inducing roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts in a white wine sauce where there’s no mistaking the profusion of garlic. I wish Frankie’s didn’t make signature famous lasagna with spinach noodles, since they’ve never been a personal favorite, but the house is firm about no substitutions, believing a menu is a roster what a house does best, not a suggestion of what you might like to assemble via whim. So, I managed to suffer through a branzino grilled exactly as I hoped it would be and a ridiculously generous house seafood Fra diavolo whose sauce I sopped up with half a loaf of bread.

Words of caution, however. When you make a reservation, try to avoid either arriving or leaving around the same time as the start and end of a concert at Tanglewood. Should you make the wrong turn, and it’ll be as if you’re in Pasadena on the morning of the Rose Parade. Luckily, Julia and the rest of the staff know their way around town. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask, because unlike the Olive Garden, at Frankie’s, they don’t treat you like family. But they’ll treat you like a welcome guest, whom they want back. 

FRANKIE’S RISTORANTE BAR ITALIANO
80 Main Street, Lenox, MA
413. 637 4455
frankiesitaliano.com

THE OLD MILL 

My first visit to The Old Mill was two weeks after we moved into our first house upstate. Over the past two decades we have probably dined there about 50 times. Having worked in the food industry all my adult life, I’m aware and acknowledge that every restaurant has an off night. The stars don’t align, deliveries don’t arrive, some members of the staff are undergoing breakups, the chef is having a breakdown. I’ve been witness to it. I’ve been part of it. Even Le Bernardin, my favorite restaurant on earth, stumbled once (but only once). But I have never, ever, had a bad meal at The Old Mill. It may be the most consistent restaurant I’ve ever known.

Maybe their strength stems from the sturdiness of the more than 200-year-old grist mill that it inhabits. Maybe it’s because I think I can count on less than two hands the staff changes in the past decade. Perhaps it’s the personal connection that the staff has with a majority of its clientele, almost all of which are residents of the area, not tourists. Or maybe, they’re just darn good at what they do and restrict themselves to exactly that.

The Old Mill doesn’t tout its menu as farm-to-table (though their food sourcing at the bottom of the menu infers that).The kitchen staff isn’t foraging in the hills of South Egremont. I’ve never been served a dish with foam, or heard pig cheeks, uni, ostrich or almond milk pudding recited as specials. They don’t entertain guest chefs, Peruvian bistro week or offer seven-course prix fixe with wine pairings. But chef/owner Terry Moore’s team has nailed down with the confidence and succinctness of the ‘master craftsmen’ on Flea Market Flip the dishes they’re pleased and proud to serve.

Their onion soup is simply perfect. Hot, cheesy, dense and decadent. Steamed mussels are exactly the right size for an appetizer with just enough garlic in their herbed white wine sauce to demand extra bread. Oysters are so fresh. The pâté is just as coarse and the mustard just as spunky you want them to be.

I love calves’ liver. Almost everyone I know hates it. My husband would rather swallow a fork than try a bite. The Old Mill pan sears it briskly with smoked bacon, sweet, caramelized onions and just burned enough fries. The sauce dressing the shrimp and spaghetti can get a little dense, but the shrimp have snap and that counts. Grilled lamb chops are lean and tender, but the surprising bonus is the yummy, dried foot compote along with some neat pommes Anna. Specials such as the wonderfully seared duck breast in cherries, cleanly grilled branzino and wonderfully thick veal chops go quickly, so best get there early if you wish to indulge. 

Speaking of indulgences, most restaurants have twisted themselves into knots trying to be uber inventive with desserts when the reality is most Americans love cakes, cobblers, sundaes and pies. The Old Mill is one of the few places where I look forward to dessert. Nothing is deconstructed, except by the sweep of your fork. If anyone reading this is above apple crisp, peach cobbler, chocolate mousse cake, profiteroles, cookies and two thoroughly guilt producing sundaes—one with coffee ice cream topped by Callebaut chocolate sauce, the other made laced with lemon meringue, then knock yourself out as you chase your next Pavlova around the plate.

And if all those delectable sweets aren’t yummy enough, the staff at the Old Mill are effortlessly convivial, like members of the Family Circle you wish you had. The Old Mill is one of the rare restaurants in our region that doesn’t take reservations (for small parties) where no one seems to mind waiting for a table, just because everyone who works there appears glad you showed up.

The New York Post recently ran a piece about the machinations people are attempting, and the perks and bribes being finagled to secure tables at some of the Hampton’s most coveted outposts. One manager spent the afternoon on a potential patron’s yacht. Another was offered $3000 for a table at the Southampton Social Club. And a retail big shot just bought himself a table for the season at 75 Main Street. When we left The Old Mill the other night, Ginny Filkins, the manager, said, “It’s always such a treat to see you guys. We look forward to seeing you again. I hope it’s real soon, too.” And I don’t even own a kayak. 

THE OLD MILL
53 Main Street, Egremont, MA 01230
413 528 1421
oldmillberkshires.com

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