A James Beard award is one of the highest recognitions in the American restaurant industry. On January 25, the 2023 seminfinalists were announced and a few local players are in the mix. The Hudson Valley is no stranger to the awards circuit. In 2016, Zak Pelaccio earned the award for Best Chef: Northeast for his groundbreaking (and now-closed) Hudson restaurant Fish & Game, which paired natural wines with hyperlocally sourced and meticulously crafted fare. The same year Pelaccio took his award home, across town, Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black were just getting started with Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, their electric-maximalist Latin comfort food paradise. In the years since, the restaurant has earned four James Beard nominations.
Lil Deb’s Oasis
In 2023, Lil Deb’s scoops up its fifth! James Beard nomination, this time in the Outstanding Hospitality category. Since its inception, the colorful spot has been far more than a dining destination. Backed by its vivid dishes packed with electric flavors and a playful approach to natural wine, the spot has served the equally important function of being a flirty, irreverent, and inclusive oasis for queer culture in Hudson.
Entering the former diner, you are met with a standing sign that says “Please Wait to Be Tasted” (which later lent itself to the title of the duo’s cookbook.) From there you are ushered to a table or booth, or you can seat yourself at the bar if you are lucky enough to find an open stool. The service is fast, attentive, and if you have questions about food, cocktails, or the somewhat-cryptic-though-utterly-delightful menu of wine poems, it feels like you’re consulting a knowledgeable friend who speaks in layperson’s language.
The neon interior of Lil’ Deb’s is a feast for the senses, a maximalist indulgence that pairs perfectly with dishes that sparkle with the flavorful punctuations like lime, hibiscus, chili, cilantro, and pickled jalapeño. The whole fried fish (MP) is a fail proof selection, the vegan hand-pulled noodles are a good winter option ($15.69), and the tuna tartare brings the flavor with a dill aioli, pickle relish, crispy shallots, and prawn crackers ($23.69). But the real way to do it is to come with a fellow food lover (or four) and split as many things on the menu as your budget allows. And yes, you are correct, every menu price ends in $0.69, but beyond just being a cheeky flourish, it is a way of raising money for local mutual aid organizations with every dish.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that celebrated chef Clare De Boer’s takeover of the Stissing House in Pine Plains has earned her a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant. In 2018, at just 28, De Boer earned a JBF nomination for Rising Star Chef for her work at the “slightly French but mostly Italian” SoHo eatery King, which she opened with co-chef Jess Shadbolt and manager/beverage director Annie Shi.
De Boer, who grew up in India, the Middle East, and England, brings an urbane, globally informed fluency with spices to her food and has described her own cooking style as “maximal flavor, minimal fuss.” This approach is on full display in the 6,000-square-foot historic tavern in Pine Plains. The locally sourced menu here changes monthly, but sample winter offerings include coal-roasted scallops in green garlic butter ($27); smoked hake with butterball potatoes, hollandaise, and American caviar ($39); and a rabbit and tarragon pie for two ($68).
Stissing House is De Boer’s first solo project and she helms it with expertise, homing in on a wood-fired food program inspired by the luxuriously simple recipes she uncovered in the Shaker cookbooks she found on-premises.
We saw this one coming a mile away. Since opening in May 2021, Shaina Loew-Banayan’s cozy corner joint Cafe Mutton has garnered praise from every corner, with lines around the block for lunch even on weekdays. In September 2022, Bon Appetit boldly claimed the spot as one of America’s best new restaurants while the New York Times noted Cafe Mutton on its coveted list of "50 places in America we’re most excited about right now." So making it to the James Beard Åward semifinalist round for Best Chef: New York State isn’t exactly a shocker.
As they detail in their raw, lyrical 2022 book, Elegy for An Appetite, which can best be described as a seemingly effortless, stream-of-consciousness memoir-poem, Loew-Banayan cut their teeth in some of New York’s most elite and intense Michelin-starred kitchens, like Eleven Madison Park and Prune. Upstate in Hudson, the pace of things is gentler ( the restaurant closes at 3pm every day but Friday) and the vibe is decidedly casual, but the food is just as good.
At Cafe Mutton, Loew-Banayan has made an art of unpretentiousness, elevating the most commonplace to glorified heights. (Take afternoon snack, the humble bologna sandwich, which has a place of honor on the menu.) They have a soft spot for underloved cuts of meat, breathing fresh life into things like blood sausage, sweetmeats, scrapple, and pate, all of which are made in-house. The short and sweet menu traffics in the sort of hearty, healing, comfort food that one’s grandmother might dish up.
Foster Hospitality Group
When business and life partners Sims and Kirsten Harlow Foster opened their first property, the Arnold House, in Livingston Manor in 2014, they were unwittingly forming the tip of the spear of a new movement in the hospitality industry and ushering in a fresh golden age of Catskills resort culture. Four of the six properties in their portfolio—Arnold House, the Debruce, Kenoza Hall and North Branch Inn—feature onsite restaurants that bring the idea of hotel dining into the modern age with hyperlocally sourced and foraged fare. Despite expanding, their properties haven’t lost that homegrown je-ne-sai-quoi. Their properties are places where you’ll be welcomed with a handwritten note and find a real wood fire raging in the hearth, places where the truest, most original sense of hospitality has been preserved.
This year’s James Beard semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Restaurateur is a feather in the cap of an already decorated reputation. In 2018, Conde Nast Traveler named the DeBruce one of the top 100 hotels in the world, and that same year, it landed the number six spot on Esquire’s list of the best restaurants. At the DeBruce, whose kitchen is helmed by Eric Leveillee, the menu is constantly evolving.
The signature tasting menu currently includes 14 courses, including a thoughtful medley of items like kombucha, housemade bread, snacks, a salad of mushrooms, and dry-aged duck with a sauce of reduced vinegar and herbs. Breakfast is for guests only but on weekends a single brunch seating at 11am is open to the public and serves up delicacies like smoked trout congee with dry-aged Hudson Valley beef.
At Kenoza Hall, Chef de Cuisine Oscar Vargas and his crew dish up “Old World continental cuisine”—identifiable classics like moules frites and gnocchi Parisienne executed at a high level. The Arnold House Tavern leans into its roots, with a menu grounded in approachable though elevated gastropub fare. It’s a place where tater tot nachos with pulled pork, sweet peppers, pineapple, cheddar, and BBQ sauce happily exist on the menu alongside seared barramundi and a fried chicken sandwich. All of the Foster Supply Co. property restaurants are open to the public.