I wouldn’t have taken the detour on our journey south if I didn’t think that it was going to be good, but I didn’t realize how good it was actually going to be. Hudson, NY is a generally sleepy, but lovely town along the Hudson River Valley south of Albany, NY. It isn’t found along any of the major north-south routes from NYC northward, though it isn’t terribly far from either of the main arteries. It is an area that has become known for its top flight farms, craft food producers and recently as a restaurant destination too with several high profile restaurants having settled in. As a dining destination, The Crimson Sparrow and Hudson Fish and Game have been on my radar for a while. The problem has been that it is too far to go for an evening and it hadn’t been enough of a priority to make a weekend out of it. This time, though, driving south with my wife and son to take him to Newark airport the next morning, we left too late to do anything in NYC, but at the perfect time to take a little detour east of the Northway. Alcohol and time would be limited, but it was otherwise as good a time as any to veer east and try The Crimson Sparrow.
The restaurant is located on a typical upstate NY quaint street, upgraded by brilliant flower boxes and gardens dotting the sidewalk. The restaurant’s facade is a pretty, but unassuming storefront identified by a small sign at the door. From the outside it looked as if it would be comfortable and generally nice, but nothing extraordinary.
Once through the front door, however, the initial sense of ordinary quickly dissipated. The front room housed a beautifully appointed bar that was simple, but elegant and well stocked. It was not crowded at this relatively early time on a Friday evening, but there were a few people tippling and dining from the restaurant’s bar menu. There was a dining room located behind the bar room. We were led to and then past that out into a an additional dining area in a fabulous, open and leafy courtyard.
It was a perfect evening for dining al fresco and this was a perfect spot for it. The courtyard was quiet except for a nice selection of music filling the silence at a reasonable volume. There was plenty of stone and wood and greenery to make the scene serene and idyllic. On the far side of the courtyard was a connected building with a large plate window opening into the spacious, active kitchen. On the roof above the kitchen existed an herb and edible flower garden, where the staff freshly picked items for the evening’s menu.
There are three options available to a table of diners – the a la carte, tasting and Chef’s tasting menus with the last being the grandest in terms of scope, luxury and length. We had a bit of a time challenge as we still had two hours to go on our journey south and we explained that to the chef, John McCarthy, who wound up serving us what amounted to the Chef’s Tasting Menu in an abbreviated time frame. Despite the pressure for time, the only casualty was alcohol, as my wife and I refrained from over-indulging in that department given our driving needs. We wound up spending a bit more time than intended, but it was ultimately well worth it.
I did have to try one cocktail. Our waiter recommended the Lillet Blossom with Lillet, Core Vodka, Sake, Grapefruit and Ginger. It proved to be light, refreshing, well balanced and delicious. I would have loved to try more or done the pairings, but that will have to wait until the next time.
Squash blossoms are light and delicate, easy to overwhelm, but when done with finesse, they can be sublime. Such was the case with the lightly battered and unstuffed tempura squash blossoms at The Crimson Sparrow. Its light, airy and non-greasy texture was balanced by the well-defined pops of the lightly smoked and blackened masago roe. The roe, prepared in house, is usually orange, but the smoking process blackened it (along with perhaps a bit of squid ink?), which provided a beautiful visual contrast as well as the flavor and textural contrasts. We were off to a start filled with finesse.
Chef McCarthy’s cuisine is heavily influenced by Asia, especially the cooking of Japan and Korea, which he combines with western technique in very original ways. The flavors of the next dish were not particularly Asian, but the style was. Mussels had been steamed and then lightly pickled and placed on top of diced cucumber and under cucumber blossoms. The dish was fortified by a sabayon made with mussels and cucumber. Once again, the dish was delightfully light and airy, but full of exquisite flavor and textural balance.
I like eel, but don’t usually go out of my way to eat it. McCarthy’s presentation was outstanding. The eel was barbecued and firm, treated much like Japanese unagi, but the undercurrent of creamy corn made it something more unique and special, while the greens added earthy flavors and additional contrasting textural elements.
Lovage and celery are very similar flavors and quite distinctive in and of themselves. They were ideal accompaniments to the lovely piece of hamachi, while the peanuts once again added textural contrast and flavor balance. This was not a complex dish on the palate, but it was rich and totally delicious.
As for complex dishes, this one built around raw squid and cauliflower with Thai flavors was the definition of a complex dish. Each and every bite was different from the others. The variety of flavors, textures and even temperatures evolved tremendously within a brief period of time. It was a fascinating display of culinary legerdemain. Some bites were tremendously delicious, while others were less so. That added to the mystique of the dish. What would the next bite be? This was by far the most intellectually stimulating dish of the night and one of the most that I’ve had in some time. It wasn’t my favorite, though, or the most satisfying in the end. The latter statement had more to do with how delicious other dishes were than with any drawbacks of this dish.
This dish brought out in papillote and constructed table-side by the chef and his kitchen staff, was almost as intellectually stimulating as the squid and cauliflower dish, but had a greater consistency in bite to bite deliciousness. The chanterelles and shiitakes had been roasted with foie gras within the steam-sealing parchment. As if that would not be enough umami, a rich broth and razor-thin slivers of crispy kelp were added to the dish at the table contributing even more umami flavor characteristics to this rich dish.
A new supply of fresh Ibérico pork is now available in the US and Chef McCarthy got his hands on some loin. Here, he cooked it to an appropriate medium-rare, and with an homage to Spain, the land of mar y montaña, he gave it the surf & turf treatment by pairing it with clams and mussels. This was a dish that worked on a number of levels with fennel adding yet another layer of flavor. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my penchant for Spanish style and flavors, this proved to be my favorite dish of the evening.
The only choice within the tasting menu was for the main course, for which we had two options. My wife chose the Alaskan sockeye salmon with a Japanese influenced preparation. It was a beautiful piece of fish that was treated with an appropriate level of Zen-like asceticism and minimalism that let its qualities shine forth brightly.
Our son and I chose the duck as our main course. The combination of ingredients and the flavors were truly outstanding, but the one true flaw (to me) of the entire meal was that the duck skin lacked crispness. The dish was certainly delicious regardless, but I happen to really enjoy a nicely crisped skin and was surprised that this one had not received that treatment. The plate was not without its crisp elements, however. The Asian pear was crisp and flavorful without being cloying, and the broccoli rabe had a nice crunch whilst adding some balancing bitterness. While I would have preferred the skin to have been crisped, I still wouldn’t hesitate to order it again – the flavors were that good!
Essentially a pre-dessert, this beautiful compilation of ingredients proved to be right up my alley and my favorite dessert. It had all the elements and a restrained sweetness along with delicious flavors to make me crave it even as I write this.
Four Fat Fowl is a cheese from the Hudson Valley that has caught on in a big way. It is a delicious cheese that I have bought frequently for home consumption. I didn’t mind seeing it here in the least. It was pleasantly paired with apricots, some herbs. I could have happily and easily stopped right there.
This was a very well balanced dessert that combined the tropical flavors of pineapple and passion fruit with the relatively mundane elements of zucchini and basil. It worked and the element that brought everything together was the smoke of the pineapple.
This was a nice dessert, but despite the inclusion of pine, perhaps the most ordinary course of the evening. I might have found it less ordinary if the availability of great berries wasn’t something that I can take for granted at this time of year.
The meal finished with some nice mignardises. The pastries were good, but not the reason to visit The Crimson Sparrow. That would fall squarely on the savories, the environment and despite, my limited sampling, the liquid accompaniments to the meal. That said, the desserts are good and worth having and the pre-dessert – the “Milk and Honey” showed the great potential existent for dessert at The Crimson Sparrow.
I was thoroughly enamored of this place. It is a serious restaurant serving serious food and drink, all in a relaxed and very lovely setting. It was actually easier to get to than I had thought and in a location that has a number of other attractions besides this restaurant, as attractive as it is just by itself. This time may have been a detour, but next time, it will be the destination itself.