O, glorious winter, season of good cheer and gift giving! It’s getting harder to get excited over you. As the list of occupied American cities grew — and as our torpid economy makes it harder to justify indulgences — my Christmas list dwindled. But Christmas is not cancelled, and I don’t want to be a grinch, so let’s work forward from these premises in the spirit of good cheer.
For food lovers, the default holiday present has always been the fine dining experience, whether by gift certificate or the promise of some meal-ending magic, i.e. the old disappearing check trick. There is no standardized definition of fine dining, but a string of superlatives is the sine qua non: the best food, the best service, the best ambiance, quod erat demonstrandum. And we happen to live 90 minutes away from a city that boasts some of the best of the best in the world — a place where 85 Michelin stars twinkle in diners’ minds like so lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But before pointing your headlights south or alighting from a Metro-North train, carefully consider whether a big night out in the big city is the best use of your $200-$300 … per person.
Many people consider Del Posto a worthy choice. Though it failed to regain its second Michelin star in 2010, that means it once had one to lose. That same year, it received four from recently reassigned New York Times critic Sam Sifton, who loving ladled a béchamel of beneficence over his lengthy review. To Sifton, Del Posto was not “great” but “extraordinary,” an experience so chockablock with sensual delights, brought to you by the Bastianich-Batali coalition, along with a staff so meticulously attentive, they take care of everything but the chewing of Executive Chef Mark Ladner’s modern Italian cuisine. The interior is majestic: marble, leather, linen, mahogany, a regal central staircase to the outstretched arms of the second-floor balcony. They serve oricchiette to the opera crowd. Ladies place their purses on individual, ornate upholstered stools.
The five-course prix fixe menu is $115, and includes antipasto, two tastes of pasta shared by the table, secondo and dolce. The endlessly refreshed bread basket came with golden whipped butter and rosemary lardo that I would have squeezed straight into my mouth, had this not been the classiest of joints. There is a $20 supplement for the rapini-stuffed veal chop. Cocktails are $17 a pop. Everyone else is wearing black and pearls. They’re at a funeral for my paycheck.
The food is fine indeed, but every bite is a reminder that beyond perfection looms a return to vulgarity. Ingredients are bound to earthly demands. You can combine them in different ways, you can float them in supreme sous-vide machines, you can cut them into roses or Rodin’s Thinker — but a tomato is a tomato and a veal chop is a chop. They should — and do — taste of tomatoes and calf’s flesh, whether they’re purposely perfect on fine china in Chelsea or properly prepared by a fortunate home cook.
I had a long time to think about my meal on the way home, in the taxi to Grand Central, on the train to Poughkeepsie and driving home. And I thought about a couple of other expensive Manhattan meals I’ve had since moving back to the Hudson Valley: grilled Sullivan County fois gras for lunch at The Modern; immaculate salmon sushi at Morimoto, washed down with sake poured from a glass orb nestled in a bowl of shaved ice. And then I thought that none was as good as the last dinner I had at Red Devon in Dutchess County’s Bangall.
I’ve mentioned this place once before, but it deserves its own column. Red Devon, Julia and Nigel Widdowson’s farm-to-table temple led by Executive Chef Sara Lukasiewicz, is one of many examples that fine dining exists beyond the confines of the five boroughs. The glassware is delicate, the silverware has heft, the waiters are excellent and the food is natural, local, top-notch soulful American and Continental cuisine. Entrees are in the $24-32 range, and it’s a comparatively modest drive to central Dutchess County. And do I even have to mention that spending your dollars locally is good for our neighbors and our souls?
I do not. You have my verdict: Skip the city, save time and money without forfeiting flavor and dine Hudson Valley this holiday season.
Also highly recommended is Brasserie 292 in Poughkeepsie. Three words: Fanny Bay oysters.