Shopping at Walmart for a bargain feels pretty good at first. The experience, though, can cause a trip that not only carries guilt, but shifts money out of your community. For locavores, spending $29.95 on a three-course dinner or $20.95 on a three-course lunch sounds like a sitdown at the Olive Garden that you feel like you shouldn't mention in casual conversation. Fear not! These deals represent the price points of Hudson Valley Restaurant Week's prix-fixe meals, available at almost 200 restaurants in a region that is cementing its reputation as one of the nation's premier culinary destinations.
Running for two weeks across seven counties, March 11 to 24, Hudson Valley Restaurant Week was started seven years ago by Valley Table magazine. The event puts diners' good taste in line with Valley Table's mission to promote the local food and farm economy. This means not only the restaurants, but also the farmers who supply them and the surrounding businesses that benefit from increased neighborhood traffic. Though Restaurant Week celebrates the proximate attention, the intent isn't just to be hyper-local. "It's also encouraging diners to hop across the river, down county or up valley, and once they've discovered a new restaurant, maybe they'll come back for another occasion," says Janet Crawshaw, publisher of Valley Table.
Participating restaurants include well-known establishments, like the Ship Lantern Inn in Milton, as well as new additions to the Hudson Valley cuisine scene, like Elaine's Tap & Table in Poughkeepsie. At La Puerta Azul in Salt Point, start with a crispy tortilla, crema fresca, or a house ensalada. Surrendering your salad fork, move to the next course of paella, arroz con pollo, or portobella mushroom fajitas. Churros and chocolate or fried ice cream can only take you home happy. Mahoney's Irish Pub in Poughkeepsie also has their specific menu items set for the celebratory week. Pan-seared crab cakes or corned beef Reuben poppers precede the second act. Then, Irish shepherd's pie, blackened New York strip steak, sesame-crusted Ahi tuna, braised pork, or linguini tossed with olive oil. Hopefully you'll leave enough room for Bailey's Irish cream pie, crème brulee, or Belgium chocolate mousse before the curtain falls.
The inclination to explore also engenders new connections in the Hudson Valley farm-to-table food chain. "It introduces restaurants to local purveyors," says Crawshaw, and business simply takes its course. Restaurant Week has made a strong connection of its own this year with its co-sponsor, the Culinary Institute of America. "Our partnership with the CIA gives us national standing," says Crawshaw.
Restaurant Week's emphasis on local products makes establishing these connections with neighboring farms and businesses even more likely. Nathan Snow of A Tavola not only seeks out local products, but depends on them for the integrity of his meals. "Something that's on a truck all the way from Chile tastes a lot different than when it comes from one of our farms," says the New Paltz proprietor and chef. Serving rustic Italian, he follows the local model diligently, which must create a challenge when season limitations come into play. "It's not so much a challenge as it is fun, because basically whatever you can get your hands on, is what you center your menu around," says Snow.
The focus on local isn't limited to the kitchen, either. "There's always been a cross pollination of local wineries who get restaurants featuring their products, and they don't just buy that week. They have an ongoing relationship," says Crawshaw. The farm-to-table ethos is a point of pride for restaurateurs, according to Crawshaw. That's no surprise when they're featuring award-winning, internationally recognized products, like cheeses from Sprout Creek Farm or spirits from Tuthilltown. "A lot of the restaurants put the names of the farms on their menu," says Crawshaw. She concedes that it doesn't send customers straight to the farmers markets, but the constant reminder and positive reinforcement pays off when the farm's name appears on the shelves at Adams Fair Acre Farms or Whole Foods. Crawshaw believes that the eventual outcome of exposing people to local vendors is, "Let me give that a try."
Brian Gantz of Armonk is already there and loves how Restaurant Week helps fuel the local food movement and economy. "Keeping my money here is important and supporting New York farmers means healthy eating is available to all," he says. Gina Fox of the Rhinebeck Town Board, while very engaged in the local food movement, chose to summarize the positives in a purely indulgent manner. "It's a great opportunity to spend two weeks eating out three times a day," she says. Well actually two times a day, but there's an idea the Hudson Valley could get behind: three-course prix-fixe breakfast as a start to the culinary joys of Restaurant Week.
For a full list of participating restaurants, visit Hudsonvalleyrestaurantweek.com.