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Old School for Real

by B.A. Nilsson on July 10, 2014

Saltsman’s Hotel, Route 10, Ephratah, 993-4412, saltsmans.com. Serving dinner 5-8 Thu-Fri, 5-9 Sat, 12:30-7 Sun. Hours change after Labor Day. The restaurant closes the last day of October and reopens in the following Easter weekend. No credit cards; ATM on premises. Personal checks accepted.

Cuisine: historic

Entrée price range: $15 (baked haddock) to $26 (grilled lamb chops)

Ambiance: even more historic

So little of our area’s rich history peeks through everyday life that we feel more divorced than ever from precedent and tradition, which makes it all the more startling to find a place like Saltsman’s Hotel, which operates in its own time and space.

The building dates from 1813, an era when you might have to make the long trip from Little Falls to Amsterdam and would need a place to stop for the night. Saltsman’s endured even after the motorcar took over the landscape, and a register page from 1925 lists most of the room occupants as hailing from Gloversville, Johnstown, Little Falls and Canajoharie—but there are entries from New York City, Chicago and Madison, Wis.

Nobody now is sure when those rooms stopped being available. When Jim and Tammie Subik bought the place in 1979, it was reckoned that the last guests were accommodated in the ’40s. But they have held fast to the tradition of food service that five generations of the Saltsman family maintained, even to the extent of using some of the old recipes.

The place is museum-like in the sense of the home of an elderly relative where the aging furniture is kept clean but isn’t roped off. Assuming said relative decorated the walls with stuffed animal heads. Tin on the ceilings and walls; creaky old wood on the dining room floor.

But you don’t get into that dining room right away. You made a reservation; you arrived reasonably on time. If your dining companion was caught in the Sunday going-home-after-the-holiday traffic, you can park yourself in the pleasant bar area and enjoy a cocktail or beer, which is why I was finishing a Heinekin dark when my friend Peter finally arrived.

There’s a menu in the bar. The regulars know it by heart and look to the specials list for the occasional alternative. You’re asked to order before you’re seated, and it’ll probably be Tammie wielding the clipboard. All you need to tell her is your main course—and, if you’re insanely hungry, an appetizer. The kitchen does the rest.

Regular items include Saltsman’s famous fried chicken ($16), a half of a bird cut and breaded and fried in such a way that what’s done to the skin functions as a complement to the meat, not a distraction. (We didn’t order it as an entrée, but got a side-dish serving of a couple of small breast portions to sample.) Grilled ham steak is $15, pork chops are $19, veal cutlet is $19 and lamb chops are $26. You can get a sirloin for $21, and a for-two serving of same for $39. Seafood—which Tammie told me is a growing menu component—includes fried shrimp ($17) or scallops ($16) or both ($18). Haddock is fried ($15) or baked ($15); salmon is baked and served with dill sauce ($18).

Keep in mind that you’ll be seated after your starter salad is placed at your table, which meant that a serving of homemade coleslaw with a pineapple slice awaited, with a basket of homemade bread immediately following.

Peter and I ordered an appetizer of fried chicken livers ($9) to start—and they’re the best of the worst-for-you, deep fried and crunchy. Other apps include mozzarella sticks ($7) and a county fair-style blooming onion ($9). Then there’s a choice of soup, fruit, tomato juice or seafood salad—we chose the chicken and rice soup, again homemade, very flavorful but a little thin on ingredients, and a slice of watermelon.

Then comes the part that does you in. A pair of innocent-looking corn fritters drenched in syrup. How can you not dive in? Yet this is what’s going to send you out with a takeout box, the badge of all departing diners.

When your entrée lands, your server will offer a trio of sides. The potatoes stay on the table. They’re cubed and creamed. Man, are they creamed. As are the onions, which are served for you from a casserole dish. The veggies—we were served yellow and green squash—are merely sautéed. If you think all of that is enough, you can get a dinner of side dishes alone for $10. But there’s also a specials board to reckon with, and the day of our visit it boasted a New York strip steak ($25), prime rib ($24/$29), roast pork with dressing ($16) and leg of lamb with dressing ($18).

“Jim always does roasts on Sundays,” says Tammie. “A lot of people come here for the traditional kind of meal they may have had at grandma’s house.”

We heeded grandma’s call. Peter had the pork; I had lamb. Both were sliced not too thin and piled over a traditional bread stuffing; both were topped with thick gravy. I don’t think they teach this at the Culinary Institute. But it’s a style of preparation deeply resonant with many, and we were delighted with both dishes.

Tammie makes all the desserts, which include a variety of cheesecakes and pies, but we had another mission. In the many years I’d been raving about the place, Peter never had been to Wemple & Edick’s ice cream store on route 334 in nearby Sammonsville. Even Tammie saw the necessity of the side trip when I spoke to her later.

You’re served homemade ice cream in an incredible variety of flavors in a nearly 200-year-old country store. Moments after we arrived there was a line out the door. It’s worth it.