One Bite at a Time Along the Taconic
It’s an early Saturday afternoon and the Taconic State Parkway is oddly quiet. I expect it to be a tad busier, though I’m not complaining. Perhaps the reason why the Taconic seems lightly traveled on this particularly cloudy day is because the parkway is mostly used on Fridays and Sundays—when upstate visitors are either venturing to or from the New York City area, which is, in part, the reason why many of the businesses on the margins of the parkway exist in the first place. Upstate New York’s economy has relied on downstate visitors since the development of the area, and no stretch of road better captures that reliance than the Taconic. It’s also a road that has history, a soul of sorts that more common roads lack; take the mundane and relatively soulless New York State Thruway—the Taconic’s younger, more popular brother. There was a time when the Taconic was much mightier; that time has undoubtedly passed, but what has remained is the essence of a simpler passage in history, all but fading from view.
The Taconic State Parkway gets its moniker from the mountain range of the same name, which is part of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Appropriately, the word “Taconic” (derived from the Native American Taghkanic or Taughannock) means “in the trees,” a translation that makes perfect sense when cruising down the parkway as the forest seems to engulf the road in multiple spots. The entire length of the parkway, which stretches from the Kensico Dam in Westchester to Chatham in Columbia County, is sometimes harrowingly narrow—unlike the Thruway, there’s no room to pull over, and exits seem to pop up out of the verdant brush with surprise, as do the countless deer who like to cross the road during the latter half of the day. The parkway’s roots (or routes) can be traced back to upstate’s very own Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his love of the quiet life and fresh air of the Catskill Mountain region. Roosevelt, who was then a New York State senator before ultimately becoming a three-term president, was also an admirer of the outdoors and a major champion of the project since it was first envisioned as a way to visit the various state parks—hence the name “State Parkway”—a fact that sheds light on the design of the parkway and the route it takes.
During the booming mid-century heyday of upstate tourism, the Taconic was a hot commodity; however, as downstate visitors slowly began to wane and various resorts and attractions shuttered, the Taconic, in turn, began to slow down as well; evidence of which can be seen on my very quiet Saturday drive. Yet, there’s still something quirky, compelling and special about the Taconic and its rural charm.
A ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Dan Leader knows all about the Taconic and its virtues. He’s the owner and operator of Bread Alone, whose Rhinebeck location is a hop, skip and jump from the Parkway. “The Taconic is one of those magnificently unique parkways, and I don’t know another one in the country that’s like it,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re driving through the English countryside.” Bread Alone, which has been in Rhinebeck for the past 10 years or so, depends heavily on the Taconic and the people that trek it. “The thing about our business is that we attract tons of regulars, as well as tons of tourists and second homeowners,” Leader explains. His freshly baked products and bread are sold in many locations in the New York City area. “When you’re in the city and then get on the Taconic downstate, it’s almost like you’re in a different world. There are no strip malls, no gas stations; it’s its own thing.”
Bread Alone also has retail locations on the east side of the Hudson River in Boiceville and Woodstock and a new HQ and retail space opening in Kingston this fall. Thanks to the distribution of their freshly baked products and bread throughout the lower Hudson Valley and New York City, the parkway is a route Leader says he has driven on “hundreds of times. If I’m in Rhinebeck, I’ll take the Taconic straight into the city.”
While I’m not going all the way down to Manhattan, today I am just seeing where my journey takes me. I have no guide—just a smattering of places I’d like to hit before the end of the day. I feel like Jack Kerouac as I drive down the parkway in Columbia County and pull off at a random exit and start exploring. While traveling down a random road (which I later discover is Route 82), I happen upon an old, large and gloriously hand-painted sign for Taconic Orchards, which seems like a good place to capture the farm essence of the Taconic. I pull into the gravel driveway and walk inside to find the kind of place straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There are homemade pies, cakes and cookies galore, along with an array of fruit and vegetables—many of which are grown right next door. “We’re just a specialty gourmet farm market kind of business,” explains owner Arnold Feller modestly. “We try to find items no one has, and we grow everything here.” The farm itself has been in Feller’s family for over 100 years. Feller proudly points to a plaque given to him by then-Governor Mario Cuomo celebrating the property’s centennial back in 1987. “Farming is in my blood,” he explains. “The store itself has been here for about 40 years, and I’d estimate that 85 percent of the food we sell is either grown or baked here. The rest we use to fill in inventory,” Feller says, explaining that Taconic Orchards’s business usually comes from downstate tourists who trek up the parkway on weekends. “They come up Friday and go back down Sunday night.” Without the Taconic, it’s doubtful Taconic Orchards would be as successful as it is or even have been able to remain open these many decades.
Sure, getting to snack on bread, stone fruit, and pies is always a treat, but sadly it doesn’t make for much of a dinner. My next goal is to find where travelers go when they want to have a meal while on the Taconic. There are dozens and dozens of places within a few miles of the parkway that fit this bill, so I have a lot of options to choose from. Getting back in my car, I drive north a few miles from Taconic Orchards to where lies Ancram’s West Taghkanic Diner, an oldtime diner that serves up heaping helpings of casual American food favorites and has an ardent cult following. With a Native-Americanin- headdress neon sign outside, the spot (which seems right out of the 1950s) is perfect for families looking for a decent meal at a decent price, and harkens back to a simpler time. However, today I wasn’t quite looking for simple—I was looking for special.
As the afternoon chugged on and the miles added up, I found myself a bit further south around Milan on Route 199, in Dutchess County and in the driveway of a place that fits that “special” category perfectly: Another Fork in the Road. The restaurant, which is helmed by chef and owner Jamie Parry, doesn’t look like much of anything on the outside, but once through the doors, the specialness of the operation becomes clear. “Not really having a menu sets us apart,” says Parry, which is an understatement. “We sell whatever’s grown local that week; me and the staff come to the menu by consensus.” It’s exactly how Parry envisioned Another Fork in the Road when he purchased it from its original owner four years ago. “I wanted to cook the food I wanted to cook, and if I failed…I failed,” he notes with a shrug. “Every Tuesday night we discuss what’s in the markets and what farmers are bringing us, and we put it on the menu. Sometimes the dishes work, sometimes they don’t. A few dishes can stay on the menu longer than others.”
It’s for that reason why a particular dish can’t even be recommended, because by the time you read this, the menu will have changed dozens of times to reflect the season as well as the availability of particular items. Speaking for this particular night, the selections are tantalizing: there’s grilled tuna with piquillo pepper, roasted mushrooms and fingerling potatoes; duck breast with turnips and greens; a grilled pork loin with corn bread; and even the extravagantly named ancho-rubbed Cavendish quail with a black bean purée and duck chicharrónes. I order a dish of pickled vegetables and a green salad with salmon, which are both delicious. “This location was originally a diner,” says Parry, whose eatery no doubt rose the ranks to become an exciting, ever-changing place. Special, too.
As my Taconic adventure continues I have another restaurant on my list—altogether different than Another Fork in the Road but special all the same. Pulling up to Jenny’s BBQ, just down the road on Route 199, I know I am in for something unique. Located underneath Milan’s Country Manor Lodge, the small restaurant is owned by husband and wife Ezra and Donna Rand, and inside is just as you’d expect: oak wood booths, oldies playing on the radio and a framed picture of Ezra from his time served in Vietnam doing what he does best—barbecuing.
“I got into it while I was just a kid,” Ezra explains, aproned and fresh from the kitchen. “I think it’s fascinating because it’s such a hard process to perfect. Anybody can grill a steak; you throw it on a fire, and short of cooking it too long and drying it out, it’s hard to mess up. Brisket, on the other hand, is different. It’s much harder…. It’s something people strive to get right.” Ezra, who serves as Jenny’s head chef, has been striving since the business opened in its current form in 2000 and attracts a loyal group of regulars and tourists. “Everyone seems to go crazy over our baby back ribs,” Donna explains of the menu, which features sausage, chicken and pork along with the aforementioned brisket. However, she admits the ribs outsell just about everything. “They’re very juicy and very filling. All of the meat is smoked by my husband beautifully; he spends all day doing it.” “Hours,” interjects Ezra. Still, I opt for the brisket sandwich, but before it arrives Donna comes over and sets down a complimentary dish of freshly baked corn cakes with decadent maple pecan butter.
“The butter came from one of our trips down South,” Donna explains. “We went to a restaurant, and they served something fairly similar, so I thought we should have something like that. I settled on maple and pecan; I think it goes great with the corn bread.” Ezra and Donna are well aware of the South’s fine tradition of barbecue food and try to both emulate it and set their own cuisine apart a bit. During our conversation, I ask Donna and Ezra how the close proximity of the Taconic impacts their business.
“It never used to, but now with GPS we have a lot of people who see our name pop up while driving and decide to give us a try,” says Donna. Oddly enough, when I first walk in I find a family sitting at the front of the restaurant enjoying their food. “We were just on the Taconic!” the father exclaims when I tell him the article I’m putting together. “We found Jenny’s on GPS and figured we’d see if it was good or not.” The family then responds with a brief review: “It’s very, very good.”
As I pull out of Jenny’s, the sun has already set, and I get on the Taconic southbound in the dark of night. I want to visit another place to encapsulate the variety of options off the parkway, so I make my way toward Millbrook and La Puerta Azul, a fine-dining Mexican restaurant less than a mile off the Taconic on Route 44. Owned by Ash Reifler and managed by Danielle Whiteley, La Puerta Azul (translated in English to “the Blue Door”) has garnered various accolades throughout the years, and I want to know what all the fuss was about. “Our motto is that we’re just a quarter of a mile away from the Taconic,” says Linda Selcanin, general manager. “We’ve won awards for many things over the years, including best margarita, which we’re especially proud of.” Their margarita stands out, says Selcanin, thanks to their pledge to only use house-made ingredients; that means instead of lime syrup from a box, they squeeze fresh limes, and instead of bottled simple syrup, they concoct their own. “We have a bar area and a restaurant, both places are equally popular and we have people from all over in here during the weekends. Just today someone came in from Virginia.” Overall, Selcanin says that La Puerta is a draw mainly because of the food and atmosphere. “Every Friday and Saturday we have live music, and that attracts a lot of people. One Sunday every month, a string quartet even comes in to play during brunch.”
As my Taconic trip continues, my next goal is to happen upon another unique establishment that represents the diversity of the Taconic and benefits from it as well. Quattro’s, an Italian grocery store and butcher shop in Pleasant Valley, fits that bill perfectly, and manager Joyce Quattrociocchi explains to me why that is: “Well, we’re a family-run farm store,” she starts off. “My father in-law was a butcher for many years in Poughkeepsie, so our family has been at it for awhile.” However, unlike virtually any other establishment in the area, Quattro’s has the advantage of having a farm right behind their store, making the meat exceptionally local. “The store’s been here since 1972, but my mother-in-law has been farming here since she was four years old. She’s 84 now.”
The uniqueness that sets Quattro’s apart from the rest of the pack is the quality of their meats. “We’re known for our sausages,” says Quattrociocchi proudly. “People mostly come here for our farm products; I think it’s the way we raise them. All of our animals are hand-fed, and we don’t feed them by-products or give them hormones. The key to our freshness is that we butcher once a week, whether it’s our beef, chicken or pork.” Quattro’s also offers a wide variety of Italian groceries, an impressive line of craft beers, and other tasty treats—perfect for a quick Taconic detour. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers are serious foodies. We’re like a quarter of a mile from the parkway, and the road effects us very positively. We get people from all over; every single day we have a new customer in the store.”
Another business benefiting from the Taconic also happens to be the last stop of my trek. Situated a stone’s throw from the parkway (and the Saw Mill, the Taconic’s Westchester County cousin), is MeMe’s Treats Bakery, which has locations in both Shrub Oak and Bedford Hills. MeMe’s, which only opened back in early 2012, has a fervent fan base that has rocketed MeMe’s into a wildly popular bakery selling a variety of freshly made cookies, cakes and even gelato. “We started out in Mount Kisco but moved here because these locations are much bigger,” says Dawn White, who coowns MeMe’s with her husband, Gregory. Twenty years of hustle and bustle in graphic design and working for large companies was enough for White, so she opened MeMe’s, naming it after both her grandmother and mother in-law. “We started out very small with just MeMe’s specialty cookies—dark chocolate, walnut chunk and peanut butter. We branched out from there.” Much like Quattro’s, MeMe’s also depends upon the Taconic for a steady flow of both tourists and visitors. “People stop in for a variety of products, it’s really hard to choose a favorite,” she notes. “Some people love us because of our gelato, some are drawn to our cakes, which aren’t too sweet and made with fresh ingredients the old-fashioned way.”
The old fashioned way—perhaps that’s the perfect phrase to describe the Taconic and the variety of local, privately owned businesses that flank it. Sadly, just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, you can’t eat through all the Taconic has to offer in a day, or even a week for that matter, and this list is just a sampling of the greatness that can be discovered (see sidebar). Much like any great road, whether it is the fabled Route 66, the Sunset Strip, Broadway or the Autobahn, there are an endless array of stories and food to be found along the way, and the trip you take today might be totally different for someone else on the same trek. That’s the beauty of travel, however. Each adventure belongs to you…much like the Taconic belongs to New York and the Hudson Valley.
While the Taconic State Parkway can be a quiet stretch of asphalt, there is no shortage of notable culinary stops just a mile or two off the main road. Here are just a handful of eateries, farms and bakeries that beckon the hungry driver toward the off-ramp (arranged from north to south):
Blue Plate Restaurant
1 Kinderhook Street, Chatham
Chatham’s comfort eatery enters into its 18th year of pleasing the masses with live music and delicious entrées.
Our Daily Bread
Gluten Free Bakery
54 Main Street, Chatham
The gluten-free wing of this minibaking empire provides great eats no matter where you fall on the gluten-tolerant spectrum.
111 Main Street, Philmont
A former garage, cleaned up and elevated to one of the finer restaurants in the area and serving an eclectic menu of fine local ingredients.
591 Route 82, Hudson
Just a hop from Hudson, this farm stand is known for its plenitude of apples in the fall.
West Taghkanic Diner
1016 State Route 82, Ancram
A diner with a neon Indian that beckons you to come in and take a load off.
Another Fork in the Road
1215 Route 199, Milan
A finer diner than anything you could imagine served with an eye on local and seasonal ingredients.
1639 Route 199, Stanfordville
BBQ done with an emphasis on technique and preserving the delicious heritage of the South.
108 Hunns Lake Road, Bangall
A farm-to-table café, restaurant and bar that serves up exemplary Hudson Valley comfort food.
Bangall Whaling Company
97 Hunns Lake Road, Stanfordville
A somewhat nautical-themed stop along the Taconic for a bowl of celebrated clam chowder.
3293 Franklin Avenue, Millbrook
This popular eatery’s scratch cooking is inspired by what’s available from its neighboring farms.
2251 Route 44, Pleasant Valley
An Italian farm store that specializes in local poultry and game meats.
La Puerta Azul
2510 U.S. 44, Salt Point
A grand monument to Mexican cuisine offering up everything from empanadas to sangria margaritas just a mile off the Taconic.
Sprout Creek Farm
34 Lauer Road, Poughkeepsie
A working farm and a creamery with small-batch cow’s milk cheeses that will rock your world.
9 Fishkill Farms Road, Hopewell Junction
Pick up some homemade goods and fresh produce from this century-old family farm. Or, better yet, allow some time to pick your own apples this fall.
1402 East Main Street, Shrub Oak
Butter cookies and rich fondant cakes make this bakery worth pulling off the road.
Peter Pratts Inn
673 Croton Heights Road, Yorktown Heights
Chef and owner Jonathan Pratt turns this converted Westchester colonial home into a shrine for some innovative and supremely satisfying cooking. The lobster ravioli and Moroccan lamburger are high points.
716 Kitchawan Road, Ossining
This Ossining farm offers up yoga classes, flower bouquets and duck eggs for visitors (call ahead).