Defining an upstate cuisine

apples in bin in orchard at Samascott

Apples, sure. But the bounty of great local products extends far beyond that.

By Daniel B.

With the harvest from this past summer finishing up, and Thanksgiving just ahead, we figured it would be a good time for some thinking and discussion about local food. So, it's Following Food Week here on AOA.

Is there an Upstate New York Cuisine?

Sure, in the Capital Region we have mini hot dogs, foot-long fish fry, and mozzarella with melba -- but that's not quite a cuisine, per se. And we have a strong tavern culture, but regardless of how soul satisfying a cheesy, doughy, saucy, tavern pie may be in the midst of winter, it doesn't provide the flavor of the region.

Many regional cuisines are based on the unique combination of local ingredients that are available in the area. And here, at the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, surrounded by farms, woods, and mountains, we have plenty of raw materials from which to draw inspiration.

So, with that as a starting place, we asked some talented chefs: "What would an Upstate New York Regional Dinner menu look like?"

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This approach was inspired by a little bit of culinary history, as California Cuisine is widely credited to being launched from a single menu.

Ground zero of local, seasonal, sustainable cooking is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Though the restaurant didn't open with the intention of starting a culinary revolution. But in October 1976, chef Jeremiah Tower wrote a menu for the restaurant's Northern California Regional Dinner, and it became the start of something big.

Well, if one chef with one menu could define the cuisine of Northern California, hopefully four chefs with four menus can inspire further conversation on the subject here in Upstate New York.

All of the menus we requested feature preparations that include the bounty from our local farms. But there are other commonalities that may be more surprising. Trout, rabbit, and venison are common proteins to most of these menus. Apples, root vegetables, and mushrooms also play recurring roles. And it shouldn't be surprising that regional cheeses often are given a position of prominence. What might be a bit more surprising are the multiple mentions of sumac, black walnuts, and mustard.

Dominic Colose


Let's begin with the menu from chef Dominic Colose of The Wine Bar of Saratoga in Saratoga Springs

The ingredients are fantastic, and even though this meal is imagined to be nine courses, it does not put on airs. This is simple food, but that doesn't mean it's dumbed-down food. Every dish on the menu is elevated.

Potted meat, a simple salad, and a mushroom soup begin the meal. Then it's a grilled trout, rabbit loin with bacon and cabbage, and beef with potatoes at the heart of the dinner. With a hand melon sorbet, a black walnut tart, and a concord grape pie, chef Dominic closes the experience with beloved ingredients and classic tastes of the region.

Dimitrios Menagias


Next up, is chef Dimitrios Menagias of City Beer Hall in Albany. He came up with a five-course meal paired with New York State beers.

What's special about this menu is how classic Upstate New York flavors are paired with this common set of proteins and vegetables, and he provides sources for just about everything.

Sumac grows everywhere, and that lemony tartness is added to a creme fraiche to complement cured trout. Oats grow great here too, and on this menu they encrust the rack of venison, which has its earthy funk balanced by sweet maple butter. And Old Chatham Sheepherding Co's camembert becomes even more of an upstate classic when paired with a riesling reduction.

Rachel Mabb


Chef Rachel Mabb from The Ruck in Troy also took a beer pairing approach, with a seven-course menu that reflects more of a spring-to-summer dinner.

Just look at all those local producers highlighted on the menu. And again, while every dish on chef Mabb's menu is elevated, it's simple food at heart. Smoked trout is served with salt potatoes, and rabbit sausage gets paired with white beans. Cheese once again is prominently featured in dessert, this time accompanied by fresh berries.

Jasper Alexander


Last, but not least, we got chef Jasper Alexander from Hattie's Restaurant in Saratoga Springs to share his seven-course answer to our question. He brought on Dan Russell from Southern Wine & Spirits to help pair the dishes with New York wines. Because while New York's beer culture is strong, our wines are getting more and more respectable every year, and there are some great ones out there.

Without a doubt, this is a more refined vision of an Upstate New York cuisine, starting with a sweet corn flan, leading into the leek fondue, and all the way through to the pear, honey and maple terrine. But the flavors brought together on this delicious menu paint with the same palette. There is a good focus on local farms, and every dish sounds like a winner.

Perhaps the most intriguing is the "Once Wild Hudson River" Shad Roe, which I've never had but would love to try. It points to a classic regional delicacy, which regrettably not currently available from our local waters. (Shad were fished from the Hudson River for centuries, but the fishery was closed in 2010 because of critically low levels of spawning stock.) But is is indeed a part of Upstate New York's culinary history.

The dinner concludes with a knockout cheese course, featuring three terrific regional selections, accompanied by three classic sweet flavors of the region, and a glass of dessert wine.

The takeaway

Living in of the Capital Region's cities or suburbs and taking major roads and highways to get around from place to place, it's easy to forget how much this area sits in the middle of the wilds. The vision of Upstate New York Cuisine that the chefs have presented is deliciously forestial. They are cooking the woodland creatures and putting them front and center. They are foraging for mushrooms, sumac, and other wild plants. And they are relying on their rivers and streams for trout.

But to make it truly the flavor of the region, these more wild elements are paired with the flavors of cultivated crops that we all clearly associate with home. On the sweeter side with have apples, pears, maple, and honey. Then there are the deep flavors of winter storage crops like cabbage, potatoes, beans, and more. Grains like oats and corn play a role. And of course, New York's fantastic dairy, especially its smaller production cheeses, are a highlight.

Yes, there is wine. But beer and cider may be pulling ahead as the beverage of choice. And it's good enough to pair alongside these remarkable menus

I guess now the next big question is, why don't we see more local restaurants focusing on the amazing flavors of our region? Or maybe, now that these menus are out, it's just a matter of when.

Daniel B. is the proprietor of the FUSSYlittleBLOG, where he'll be sharing more upstate-inspired menus from local chefs later this week.

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WOW. Dimitrios's menu is amazing. His trout dish needs to exist for real.

I fear I'll hyperextend my pinky off of my wine glass while looking at menus like these.

I should not have read this post before lunch.
I want all of it.... now.

Please don't char my Rockhill sourdough.

As I commented over on Facebook, I'd devour any of these menus in a heartbeat, and congratulations to the chefs who created them. But the assignment had me scratching my head a bit, being as how it was based on the example of Jeremiah Tower creating a "California Regional Cuisine" menu at Chez Panisse in 1976.

I went looking for that menu and found it here . It was an instant trip down memory lane for me as I recall that Chez Panisse in those days did themed dinners in its downstairs space and this would have been one of those dinners.

At the time, it was definitely audacious to create a menu entirely of local ingredients and wines (1976 was also the year Napa beat France as the top-rated wine producer) to go alongside their Bordeaux Menu, Tuscany Menu and other riffs on classical, well defined cuisines and charge the grand sum of $20 for it.

But today is different. Chefs everywhere have far better access to and knowledge of specialized ingredients and I would say it's fun and satisfying to think about how you'd use local foodstuffs but that does not in itself define a menu or a theme. Chef Colose in his blog says he first wrote a humorous menu using mini hot dogs, salt potatoes and such but then got serious.

But that might have been the right idea. How about mini hot dogs made from berkshire pork inside locally produced casings, and topped with a Michigan sauce made with local spices such as sumac (which did appear on one of the menus btw, the sumac not the hot dog). How about a poutine made with cheese curds from local goats? I'm riffing here but you get my point, I hope.

A little too much focus on venison for my taste. I don't know anyone who eats it. And vegetarians are SOL.

Do I see another City Beer Hall dinner in the near future using that menu? I can only hope.

Burnt - I absolutely get your point, but there's a difference between a creative chef and someone that takes existing dishes and attempts to make them upscale simply by using better ingredients than the original. We were asked to create a menu, not improve on standard Upstate dishes. It was an enjoyable exercise, and a nice way to look at the great local and regional products we have. There's a great deal of culinary talent here in our area and it would be a waste if our local products were only used to continue our typical tavern fare.

Ellen - I actually sell a lot of venison from my kitchen.

I was so happy to see the Shad Roe included in a menu. Those were the days!

For me, anytime I cook with apples, apple cider vinegar, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, it smells like my backyard. Root vegetables and maple syrup also make me feel like home. I have lived in upstate NY most of my life.

I really loved this, it was nice seeing how local chefs used some underutilized local foods. Yeah for the inclusion of black walnuts and sumac!

I'd really love to try the oat crusted venison - maybe it'll end up as a special at the City Beer Hall.

Other than the locally-sourced ingredients, I have diffficulty seeing anything uniquely "Upstate New York" in the dishes/presentations. This type of cuisine is typical to only a very small demographic in NY - a mostly wealthy, urban demographic. If you pose the question "what is NY food" to the rest of us huddled masses, things like NY Pizza, Buffalo Hot Wings, Binghampton Spiedies, and North Country Michigans are going to be mentioned, as these are dishes that are a daily part of actual NY residents diets, and which originated here and spread throughout the country. Variations of most of the dishes in the listed menus could be found on any menu in any part of the country, and much of the world, their origins being mostly in a style of continental cuisine.

Feel the need to keep it high-brow? Why not upscale a Michigan using a Baguette, a locally sourced (or better still, in-house produced) sausage, a meat sauce produced from ground local lamb (or meat of your choice). Perhaps an alternative cream based (or Dijon to meet the mustard requirement). Finish with fresh local green onion/chive and, although it is not one of the original ingredients, a light grating of one of the many versions of cheese NY has to offer. Granted, finer restaurants don't want people there to be eating a roll sandwich, and putting their elbows on the table. But, serving it open-face style, with the baguette sliced as a base would fix that. As must be obvious, I am not a chef and cook only as a hobby, so I don't claim that I have all the details and balances worked out, but it would seem that something on this order would more closely resemble a true Upstate NY-style dish. The same sort of take could be applied to the other dishes mentioned, and there are probably many other base dishes that are native to the state that could be included. (Poutine was mentioned by another respondent, and though we owe that dish to our neighbors to the north, NY versions are plentiful in the northern tier. And think about the possibilities in a Rochester "Garbage Plate"! )

It's the riffing that is most important, I think. Whether it's fantastical variations on spedies or ramp wrapped cheese doesn't matter.

I hope MANY imaginations are being stirred - not just in the minds of chefs but in the home cooks too. Why leave all the fun to the chefs?

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