Still hungry: The rhythm (and the amazing food) is gonna get you.

By Hal Rubenstein

I’m really a happily garrulous, agreeably “C’mon, let’s just do it” kind of guy, but I’m starting to feel like The Mountains’ version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Last issue, your favorite magazine chose to do an edition all about love and friendship. So, what do I write? That I don’t like eating out with a lot of people all at the same table. This month, the publication’s big theme is music. How can you hate music? It’s more bizarre than gagging on mountain air, refusing Joel Robuchon’s butter drenched mashed potatoes or putting on Janis Ian albums for laughs. Except I regard eating in a room dominated by a resident DJ, or even a thumb drive, deliberately crafted to take me on a musical “journey” to enhance my victual delight is akin to energy theft, as incompatible as me chomping on an everything bagel heavily laden with lox, carp and capers while sitting third row center at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I offer eternal props to restaurateur Keith McNally for first promoting the pre-Buddha Bar, R&B and TSOP, infused reel-to-reel tapes that he’d play at faintly discernible 25dB levels at his seminal spaces including The Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg which would instigate just enough low-level frisson to eradicate silence and trigger intimate conversation. You couldn’t really hear the song—if you could, you must have been one helluva lousy date—but that rhythmic undercurrent subtly jumpstarted the energy so that conversation was what dominated the room. McNally should’ve taken out a patent on this now ubiquitous technique and then he wouldn’t have to suffer shlepping back-and-forth to his hand-over-fist busy new Pastis in Miami. McNally dining outside under the Miami sun is as incongruous as me tearing into a porterhouse at The Blue Note.

What happens when stars align, and you come upon a spot—a restaurant, mind you—whose ambiance ebbs and flows with a rhythm all its own. It doesn’t announce it, or hand you a tambourine upon arrival so you can join in an upcoming sing-along (check, please!). And yet you can sense instantly by how everyone who works there, from Carla, the greeter/manager who waves hi from across the room to the server stealthily sliding effortlessly through a bar throng with a glistening lacquered mound of fried plantains, that all in residence have adopted the same languid but focused pace. What’s more, you can immediately tell who the regular customers are—and there are a lot of them—because they’ve all adopted the same sultry sway. No one’s playing an instrument. Maybe there’s actual music on. I don’t even remember, and I’ve been there a dozen times. But Lil’ Deb’s Oasis is pure jazz. 

Deb’s completely original alchemy starts with a menu so singular and virtually incapable of duplication because it’s a Rorschach of the staff, unequal parts South American, Caribbean, Southern, macrobiotic, gluten free, and, hey, what about this? The staff is both visually distinct yet interchangeable (will explain later because it’s meant as high praise), all set loose in a room that looks like someone had such a really good day at the kitsch section of the Elephant Trunk Flea Market then had time to stop for some low wattage tree lights from a Walmart holiday closeout, all of which hovers under a rare Brigadoonian cloud that insists that everyone here’s going to get happy, satiated, drunk, fed to the gills or hopefully, all of the above. If Carmen Miranda and Busby Berkeley were to come back from cinema’s beyond to update The Gang’s All Here, they’d have to restage it at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis if only because the joint’s even queerer than I am, which has no bearing on what you order, just how you behave. So, here’s a small directive. This is probably the most joyful and musical restaurant for miles, and I don’t know if anyone there can even carry a tune. 

Because all dishes are served family style, don’t even try to make this a group effort. Instead, choose one of you to be the ‘designated driver’ who’ll work with your savvy server to coordinate a family style meal plan. The staff ain’t there to oversell you, but then there isn’t one item on the menu I wouldn’t recommend. Sorry if that sounds like a cop out but I think part of the fun of Deb’s is being surprised by how deliciously satisfying and surprising the ensuing parade of lentil dosa, scallops in parsnip purée, octopus tambala, passion fruit marinated shrimp, vegetarian empanadas, glazed plantains and provided they have one big enough to satisfy the whole table (their one flaw in portion control), fried porgy in ginger vinaigrette can be.

Earlier I mentioned that the staff was interchangeable. The comment doesn’t have any bearing on their individual personalities, but rather that it seems as if everyone on the floor seems capable of taking over cooking, bartending, dish washing, birthday tributes, troubleshooting or spirit lifting at any moment without a beat drop. If we could only create a queer, nonbinary front this united on a national scale, we could happily scare Lauren Boebert into never eating anywhere but at a McDonald’s ever again.

Could anything make dining at Lil’ Deb’s any better? Yup. Two things, actually. First, walk in with a smile on your face that says you’re as happy to see them as they are to serve you. Second, regardless of the extensive and impressive roster of cocktails and libations available at the spot on the menu, immediately order a massive triangular pitcher of their spicy tequila cocktail called Garden Orgy. Blissful delirium has never had an easier or faster time getting through a straw. Oh, you’ll be ordering a second pitcher. I’m just not pushing it because if you start singing, and you don’t have a designated driver, there are currently bills stalled in Congress that’ll get voted on before you ever find an Uber to come to Hudson. 

747 Columbia Street
Hudson 12534
Open: Thurs – Sunday  5-10pm
Reservations: Resy

Casa Susanna

Yes, there’s music playing at Casa Susanna though Chef Efrén Hernández doesn’t allow any melodies running through his kitchen. It clouds his thinking. And from the look and taste of the results of his creative process, he has a lot going on, and a lot that’s deservedly being noticed. I admit to arriving at Susanna with a positive bias, since Hernández transformed a hastily conceived dining room at the Rivertown Lodge in Hudson and turned it into one of the town’s most enviable dining destinations. In fact, if Rivertown served nothing but Hernández’s sourdough bread and the elixir from its Merlinworthy Frozen Negroni machine (Santa, I know it’s early, but are you listening?) I’d still be a regular.

Hernández earned a solid reputation at Rivertown for pairing local produce in unexpected ways, including pears and foie gras, chanterelles and blueberry mostarda and squid ink cavatelli with red crab. But for his new endeavor, located in Leeds, NY within a handsomely and playfully restored rustic Camptown Lodge right off a less than glamorous stretch of highway on the way to Home Depot, Hernández chose to devote his efforts to not just being inspired by his Mexican roots but by returning to basic techniques that technology had simplified rather than improved. 

Few Mexican restaurants make a big deal over masa anymore because it’s now almost as easy to make as a Duncan Hines Devil’s Food Cake. One bite of Hernández’s daily corn ground gold and red masas and you can’t help but go “How am I eating anything this special in the middle of Leeds?” It’s the first clue that you probably won’t find Mexican food as directive as Hernández’s in many places in Manhattan either. 

According to the young chef, “part of my goal was to share and celebrate the rewarding labor-intensive work from my home that we rarely see in the states, even when it comes to making street food. It’s like how many people discovered how much they loved sourdough bread when they started making it on their own during the pandemic. Grinding your own corn every day is just one way cooking from scratch can make a difference,” he says. 

But Hernández was also adamant that Casa Susanna wasn’t going to be mired in old world techniques with a cornucopia of menu classics including tacos and enchiladas. “There’s so much here that’s special to the Hudson Valley,” says the chef. Guests are surprised when they can’t find guacamole on the menu. “Well, you know what? They don’t grow avocados anywhere around here. What’s the point of not taking advantage of what we do have that’s unique?”

Gorgeous squash blossoms in salsa verde, pears set soaring with a rub of Meyer lemon, Gochujang and a flash of Calabrian chili and someone who finally knows how to treat cauliflower as something other than fake steak in a cloak of hummus with thick pumpkin seed paste fragrant with sikil pak. For those still afraid of the term “blood sausage” get over it and eat it. It’s so good.  

But where you really see the ballsiness of Hernández’s desire and talent are in the selection of six entrees. Only two are anything you might expect anywhere on 28th Street and Park let alone on a lonely road in Greene County–delicious duck confit in fermented black mole and a fine grilled 40oz ribeye. But the other four? You got your seat belts on? Sweetbread tacos, grilled mackerel in red chilies, beef tongue in salsa Macha (chilies, peppers, nuts and oil) and goat birria tatamada. All are common to Hernández’s origins, and he has the skill and bravado to prove why each is worthy of your attention and gestation.

Because bluefish is so meaty and oily, he seasons the fish the way others might do a roast pork. The result is a fish I’ve never cottoned to that now boasts a mysterious new depth and attraction. Hernández thinks sweetbread tacos are like popcorn and don’t bet against him. I haven’t eaten tongue since I was eight. I’ll now happily eat it again. But only if Hernández is cooking it. As for the goat… Honestly, it’s simply the best dish in the house. Like beef stew but with a layer of briny richness, and sinewy succulence no cow could ever pull off. For all you skeptics, the daring quartet are four of the house’s most consistent best sellers. So, please go for it. You won’t be sorry. Just like you’ll believe Susanna’s prickly pear sorbet should be sold at the door hand packed by the pint.

“My family is in México,” says Hernández. “My sister is in Southern California. My wife is from the area, so she’s always comfortable here and I love being with her. But when I get into that kitchen, I go back to my childhood, my roots, my best memories, and it helps me bring out the best part of myself forward. I start to feel closer to who I am.  And that makes me very happy.”

He’s not alone. “Why this goat!  This damn goat!“ cried out one diner. “This is so goddam good it’s worth singing about. Except I can’t think of one nice song with a goat in it.” Actually, T-Pain has a famous positive hip-hop song called “Goat Talk.” But damned if I was gonna tell him.

800 County Road 23
Leeds, NY
Open: (Dinner) Thursday-Saturday 5-11pm Sunday 5-10pm (Lunch) Saturday/Sunday 10am-2pm
Reservations: Resy

Comments are closed.