Restaurant Revival in Callicoon, NY
A road trip for DVEIGHT Magazine
The one thing Cafe Adella Dori, on Main Street, is serious about is recycling. Other than that, says owner Eva Barnett, “We like to have fun.” Named after her mother and grandmother, respectively, the bright, spacious cafe is furnished with antique chairs from Lee Hartwell Antiques next door and a church pew that Ms. Barnett found and refinished herself. On Sundays, they bring gifts of coffee and snacks to the hardworking people at the farmer’s market and Andy Hahn of Hilly Acres brings them their eggs, bacon and brisket for the Sunday menu. Ms. Barnett gives me a colorful summer salad and, looking at it, says, “I could tell you where every one of those vegetables is from. But I won’t bore you with those details.” It’s the picture of summer: fresh lettuce, shaved carrots, crisp cucumbers and radishes dressed in a good olive oil with salt and pepper. Simple, but delicious, and exactly what happens when a whole community revolves around creating, growing and supporting each other.
The town of Callicoon seems to have a unified ethos of food making: good sources, good people, good food. From the unassuming exterior of the town, it’s not exactly a place where you’d expect to find such a fiercely loyal and diverse community of chefs, farmers, foragers, beekeepers and business owners. “Callicoon is ‘it’ because it’s organic, it’s country and it’s welcoming to everyone,” Dominique Jenkins, co-owner and front of house manager of Matthew’s on Main, insists to me over their Cornish game hen and corn chowder. “[Callicoon] is more of a melange of everything, which is what makes this place special.” Listening to Ms. Jenkins rattle off their list of local sources made my head spin: bits of everything from vegetables and cheese to mushrooms, eggs and meat- even liquor and beer for the bar- comes from a place not too far away, from a farmer they personally know.
Callicoon was once called the “restaurant capital” of Sullivan County. “This was always where everyone came to eat,” says Matthew Lanes, head chef and owner of Matthew’s on Main. For a while this distinction was owed to the few diners and Italian spots that served the area, offering typical American fare and little else. But, for Mr. Lanes, bringing food to the local residents of Callicoon and the surrounding areas was something else entirely. “Nothing comes in here unless it’s an ingredient,” Ms. Jenkins says, “it’s what’s known in the business as a scratch-house: we make everything from scratch.” This goes for everything from their burgers and sauces and soup stocks to their cakes and ice creams and sorbets. Having run Matthew’s on Main since coming to Callicoon full-time in 2003, this is both a success story and a love story. Mr. Lanes and Ms. Jenkins are also high school sweethearts who have been married for 28 years. The menu is a mix of high and low- yummy, everyday comfort foods- including the best burger in town- and fare that’s a little fancier, like the strip steak or sesame crusted salmon, all inspired by what’s available seasonally at the farmer’s market and influenced by Mr. Lanes’ many years of cooking in upscale New York City kitchens.
There is a difference between food as fuel and food as nourishment and the community of Callicoon is very familiar with this distinction. As I make my way through town, I realize there’s a common thread among many of the business owners’ stories- which is that they were living in the city and making it work by working really hard and escaping to Callicoon on the weekends for years and years. Eventually, the benefits of upstate life began to outweigh the benefits (and costs) of city living. The town is full of people who were able to make the jump from weekender to resident as their lives shifted to become more family oriented, connected and creative.
Susan Mendoza of Lazy Fox on Upper Main Street described her life as a voice-over actor with two kids in Park Slope as hectic and full of logistics and scheduling that left little time for creative work or family activities. She and her husband had been bringing their kids to the area for years before finally realizing that Callicoon was where they needed to be. They made the jump two years ago to a spot in Narrowsburg and never looked back. “Once the kids were on board with the move, it was pretty straightforward,” Ms. Mendoza says. Her shop is full of lush fabrics: artisan loungewear, eco-dyed t-shirts, sweet sweatshirts that have characters from the Fantastic Mr. Fox embroidered onto them. In addition to clothing, Ms. Mendoza’s shop also offers tinctures, teas and skincare products made by artisans in the Hudson Valley as well as New York City.
Familiar with providing food for various appetites, DVEIGHT’s own Nhi Mundy opened her renowned Vietnamese take-out shop Ba + Me several years ago after moving upstate with her family in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. For lunch, I eat the five-spice chicken with salad over vermicelli and the summer rolls- full of crisp pickled carrots and sweet hoisin-flavored pork. It’s the best meal to eat on a hot summer day: bright with vinegar dressing and spicy with Sriracha. The meal is followed by a traditional Vietnamese coffee- which I butcher by failing to mix the sweetened condensed milk with the hot coffee before pouring the whole thing over ice- Nhi watches this and cringes: “The milk is going to freeze!” I manage to salvage it by stirring furiously: it’s still the best thing I’ve ever tasted- the perfect remedy for the crash of a sweltering afternoon.
When I first arrived in Callicoon it was a monsoon- thunder, lightning, heavy rain. I couldn’t find my oasis at Nine River Road- a fantastic spot right on the Delaware River run by the owners of The Arnold House and the North Branch Inn- as my GPS was sending me three miles down the road to a campsite. I thought the town was intimidating for some reason- partly because I didn’t have cell phone service, so nothing could save me from being alone in the world. I did find Nine River Road- obviously, sitting right on the edge of town next to the post office. Understated and elegant- I assumed it was just someone’s lovely upstate abode. When I finally got inside, Hosanna, the innkeeper, boiled water for my tea while her sweet pup Jackson laid down on my feet and I was able to wander from room to cozy room, wondering where they got all their artful furnishings.
The longer I stayed in Callicoon- the harder it was to leave- as I met one person after another who was enthusiastic about their community and the things they bring into the world. John Erik Karkula describes his three months in Callicoon as a long time coming- though his business is mostly web-based, making the move has allowed him to focus on his own product design in addition to offering high-end furnishings and curated products for the home in his shop- Karkula, also on Upper Main Street.
For those of you who, like me, might miss the legendary farmer’s market on Sunday’s from 11 - 2 in the park on the river- fear not, because the good people Greg Swartz and Tannis Kowalchuk of Willow Wisp Organic Farms have finally opened a store front on Lower Main Street that will be open on Fridays and Saturdays- full of their colorful flowers and beautiful produce from their new farm, a mile and a half down the road. While they supply many of the restaurants in Callicoon with fresh organic ingredients for their menus, Willow Wisp also has a stand at the Brooklyn Farmer’s Market at Grand Army Plaza and in Union Square during the week.
Before I leave- for real this time- Mike Roberto, master bartender of the historic Western Bar, Inn and Supper Club makes me a Milkglass Mojito: some delectable concoction of rum, lime, honey, orgeat and mint. Of course, the sweet almond orgeat is homemade and the mint is from their organic garden in the backyard. But by that point I wasn’t surprised.
Published in DVEIGHT Magazine, print edition, summer 2017.