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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Fresh From the Farm

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Local 111

111 Main St., Philmont, 672-7801. Serving dinner 5-9 Wed-Thu, 5-9:30 Fri-Sat, 5-9 Sun; brunch 8:30-2 Sat-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: creative American

Entrée price range: $17 (risotto) to $29 (grilled grass-fed sirloin)

Ambiance: casual and intimate

The art of a great chef is limited only by the ingredients at hand, and those ingredients have never been more plentiful. But how good are they? We hear more and more about the drawbacks of concentrated animal feedlot operations and pesticide-infused vegetable farms, and we’ve tasted the horrible things passing for peaches sold in our supermarkets.

When chef Josephine Proul plans a menu, she’s already been talking to the suppliers whose meat and fruit and vegetables will form the core of it. “I want to be able to tell my customers exactly where the lamb came from, where the squash was grown.”

The latest menu for Local 111 doesn’t feature lamb because there’s no guarantee it won’t be sold out on a given night. But Proul will tell you that it comes from Ry-Ky Ranch, right down the road in Philmont, and she has a standing order for a whole lamb every other week. When we visited the restaurant on a recent Saturday, roasted leg of lamb with braised lamb stuffing ($28) was offered as a special, “but we only have one order left,” our server said.

“Reserve it for us,” we told her. We were a party of five, two of whom knew the restaurant well and had urged me to check it out. So that lamb was snapped up with the wisdom of a regular, and the entrée proved to be as richly satisfying as the anticipation boded. It spoke for itself, revealing flavors unique to meat that’s fresh and local, from an animal kept free of toxic technology.

Local 111, which has been open for three years, is owned by Linda Gattner and her husband, Max Dennis. Manhattanites who became part-time Columbia Countians, they attended an upstate talk on downtown revitalization and saw Philmont as a place in which to invest “because the village has so many disparate people,” says Gattner. “We heard that this service station in town was available, and knew that it wouldn’t work as the same thing again. So we asked ourselves, ‘What do you do with this? Open a retail shop?’ I know it’s almost a joke that everybody wants to have a restaurant, but that’s what made the most sense to us.”

Gattner is an architect who designed the refurbishment; Dennis spent two years doing the actual work, during which time their mission became more focused. “More and more people are getting excited about artisinal food,” she says, “and we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we’re in a working agricultural landscape.”

Proul was the sous chef until she took over the helm last fall. She’s spent 10 of her 24 years in the business, finding time amid a variety of restaurant jobs to get a bachelor’s degree from the New England Culinary Institute. Her energy and enthusiasm are inspiring. She speaks of farms and food with the breathless energy of the love-stricken.

“I’ve been cooking since I was child,” she says. “I grew up with a single mom who was a saleswoman, so I spent a lot of time in the house alone, but she always left me something to make for myself. But I’m from a Sicilian family and was able to cook with my grandfather a lot, so I learned the basics from him.”

Her small, two-page menu offers snacks, sandwiches, pasta and grains, first courses, main courses and sides, adding up to fewer than three dozen items. Snacks include house-cured olives ($2), anchovies with blue cheese and pecans ($5) and a selection of local cheeses. The $11 sandwiches are built around braised pork, fried haddock and Grazin’ Angus ground beef.

I started with a half-order of risotto ($12, $17 for a full order), a creamy mixture that featured bacon, celeriac and savory, with melted pecorino defining the flavor. Other pasta selections are conchiglie (seashells) with sheep’s milk ricotta and spinach ($11/$17), orechhiette with sausage and leeks ($13/$18) and the always-popular rigatoni Bolognese ($13/$18). The most arresting aspect of the potato cake appetizer ($9) was its crown of shaved watermelon radish slices, each with a starburst of pink in the center. But this isn’t to take anything away from the savory cake, nicely paired with a béarnaise-ish tarragon cream. Fresh Nantucket Bay scallops speak for themselves, so they’re lightly seared in their appetizer setting ($12), served with white beans atop a white bean purée with caramelized onions. And, thanks to a stint Proul spent in a French restaurant specializing in charcuterie, she offers homemade chorizo that exemplifies the wonderfulness of the sausagemaker’s art ($12).

She insists that her entrée list, at six items, is too long. In addition to the unlisted lamb, we tasted four of them, each as spectacular as the last. The vegetarian dish is roasted squash ($20), which is hollowed, quartered, and served with seasonal greens (in this case, Swiss chard), white beans and pecorino, and turns out to be unexpectedly rich.

Not much needs be said about grass-fed sirloin ($29). We’re so surrounded by corn-fed everything that the flavor may at first seem unusual, and then it makes more sense. Set off by fennel and garlic, served alongside roasted potatoes, it’s what beef is really about. The beef for that dish comes from Grazin’ Angus Acres in Ghent. The beef in the ragout is supplied by Hardwick Beef, a Northeast consortium of farmers who raise grass-fed, antibiotic-free cattle. And the ragout ($24) has an intense flavor from its long cooking time, served with an unusual topping of crisped rutabaga.

That roasted pear served alongside the roasted chicken breast ($24) complements the look of the meat; the sweetness of the fruit also complements the sweetness of the meat, which comes from Punsit Valley Farms in Chatham. It’s difficult contemplating going back to the supermarket butcher bin after a superb meal like this.


A Change of Cultures

Former tech worker starts afresh in the world of artisinal cheese

By Amy Halloran

Sean O’Connor was only seeking diversion when he studied culinary arts at the University of California-Los Angeles. The Troy native was fully immersed in a career in computer sales in Southern California, and learning to cook seemed a good distraction.

“I had no thought of using it professionally,” he says. “I never even considered cooking as a job.”

Not even when his instructor, the executive chef at the Playboy Mansion, offered him a job in the kitchen. This seems ironic in Hollywood proportions now that O’Connor is the sole proprietor of R & G Cheesemakers in Cohoes.

His transition from computers to cheesemaking began when he moved back to the Capital Region six years ago. He met his wife, who is from New York City, during his 12-year stint in California, and both wanted to be closer to family once they had a child. Plus, the “tech wreck,” as O’Connor dubbed it, convinced him to look for work beyond his field. He started looking for a food industry job that was not in a restaurant, and Old Chatham Sheepherding was advertising for a cheesemaker. He worked there for a year and a half, learning French cheeses. At Capiello’s in Schenectady he learned Italian cheeses, and made their mozzarella for a few years. Next he worked with a Greek goat farmer. Two years ago, he began to consider opening his own business, and that began his journey to Cohoes.

The small creamery sits at the back of a restaurant in progress. Both enterprises are part of Harmony House Marketplace, a multiphase project undertaken by Diane Conroy-LaCivita and Jane LaCivita Clemente. The complicated operation involves renovating three storefronts and outfitting the 12,000 square feet of space these buildings cluster. In the end, three kitchens will be under the shared roof: the bakery’s, the creamery’s, and a separate kitchen for a tapas restaurant that will open in the spring. The New York State Wine Seller was the first retail venue to open, and then the Bake Shop. O’Connor’s creamery was set to open in late April of this year, but finishing the area took five months longer than anticipated. The delay forced him to find a licensed creamery to use for the summer, so he could make cheese to sell at area farmers’ markets.

“It was, and is, difficult to set up,” he says, eyes wide and a little tired. O’Connor wasn’t looking for a cakewalk, but it is obvious that his expectations of what the business would ask of him were, like the reality of having a child, unimaginable to the uninitiated.

Though getting the creamery up and running was a challenge, O’Connor is happy in his work. The state approved his creamery in September, and he had an official opening Oct. 16, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and steady stream of visitors. He works every day of the week, and some of them are long, but his commute is short. He lives in Troy with his wife and their two sons, Ryan and Gavin, for whom the business is named. Gavin, at four, is a bit young to hang around and help, but 7-year-old Ryan spent Election Day at the creamery and helped his father make chevres and mozzarellas.

The creamery is the size of a small office, and thinly populated with stuff. The tools of the craft are few: There’s a sink, a few coolers (one is high humidity to aid in the aging process), a vacuum sealer and some shelves. Fetas sit brining, and soft cheeses drain in baskets. Everything seems subtle, muted and clean, like the set from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Mike TV shrinks. The catchiest-looking object is a vat pasteurizer that stands on three legs. This is where all the magic begins, and happens, where the raw milk is slowly heated to 145 degrees and held there for half an hour. This vat then serves, for the most part, as the place to mix in cultures, too. Different cultures turn the milk into fetas, yogurts, chevres, mozzarellas, and the firm cheeses he’s now making.

“There is a certain romantic value to raw milk, but we decided that for our purposes we could do without the romance,” O’Connor says. “If you do a gentle vat pasteurization you don’t lose so much flavor as larger operations do.” Cheese factories quickly heat milk in a tube to a higher temperature, which leeches subtleties from the final product.

He uses mostly goat milk for his cheeses, for two reasons. The niche market is a good one to try to fill, and also, cow dairies generally run on a larger scale these days.

“Not a lot of dairy farmers want someone who only needs 30 gallons at a time,” he says. “They’re looking for places that need a tanker.”

Still, O’Connor found a farmer, and he uses cow’s milk for his mozzarella, which he sells in small balls graced with basil or prosciutto, or full pounds smoked. These, and the chevres, he sells at farmers markets and wholesales to gourmet retail venues in the Capital Region and the Berkshires. A distributor whose focus is bringing Hudson Valley Cheeses to restaurants has just picked up his chevres, and his ash-ripened goat cheese will reach outlets through another distributor. Still, most of his marketing is retail, and very seasonal, at farmers markets, where his mother helps him.

Currently, he sells at the Wednesday market at the Empire State Plaza, and the Delmar farmers market. The Bake Shop at Harmony House Marketplace retails his cheeses on a day-to-day basis, and on Saturdays, now that the local outdoor markets are closed for the season, he drives to the Syracuse Regional Market. There, he is one of a few cheesemakers in a vast market that includes large-scale cheese distributors. While business is good, he misses the community feel of the markets he’s just finished. Shoppers likely miss R & G’s cheeses too, not only for their taste and texture, but also for their affordability.

“We’d like to do an artisanal cheese that’s still price-competitive with what the supermarkets have,” O’Connor says. “And for the most part, aside from specials, we’re there.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

It’s Beaujolais time, and the folks at Provence (Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) invite you to join them for their 10th anniversary celebration with the 2009 release of George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau. A three-course menu will be offered tonight (Thursday, Nov. 19) through Saturday (Nov. 21). For starters, choose mussels Marseilles, pumpkin-sage bisque or duck confit salad. Entrées include braised black Angus short ribs, rotisserie-roasted stuffed heritage hog pork loin, pan-seared fillet of salmon with zucchini-wild mushroom sautée, and boneless quail stuffed with tart cherry bread pudding. Dinner includes a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau, and there’s a choice of dessert. It’s $37.95 per person, and you can make a reservation by calling 689-7777 (provence-restaurant.net). . . . Maestro’s (371 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) continues its Five Dollar/Five O’Clock entrée special through Nov. 25, giving you a choice of four entrées that are $5 apiece. The catch? Your entire party must be seated by 5 PM—not one minute later! Reservations are highly suggested, so call 580-0312 (saratogamaestros.com). . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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