Atop the mountain above Tannersville sits Deer Mountain Inn, a restored lodge and boutique hotel with a fine dinner menu from an ambitious head chef.
Yarrow, agrimony, devil's paintbrush, buttercup—purple and yellow Catskill wildflowers line the grass path. We weave past the ruins of an old resort and through its once regal gardens on our way to a small pond. I'm wading through the meadow with Ryan Tate, and we're going to ogle the trout that arrived this morning via coolers on the back of a flatbed truck.
"Beaverkill Trout Hatchery stocked 75 fish here this morning. Full-sized trout. That means I need to get to work," Tate says, "and come up with a program, like, right now. Before the heron come." As we approach the pond's edge, he hands me a scone. "What's this?" I ask.
"A scone." he responds. "Strawberry shortcake. ...It's for the fish." These won't just be any trout—they'll be organic, local, and strawberry shortcake scone-raised trout.
Tate is head chef at the Deer Mountain Inn, a restored lodge and boutique hotel on the mountain above Tannersville. He has long hair and two solid black bands tattooed around his right arm, above and below the elbow. He's wearing a black Deer Mountain Inn t-shirt that says "Culinary" across the back.
Tate's culinary philosophy involves making the most of the ingredients around him. While we're waiting for the new trout to reveal themselves, he tells me that he forages reindeer moss and red clover just across this field and ramps up the hill. We joke about his no-joke desire to forage frog legs next. This spring, he and his team tapped six maples in the woods behind the inn, harvesting six quarts of sap. Next year, they plan to tap 50. And the farm they're planting feet from the kitchen door is now on its second season of herbs, squash, rhubarb, fennel, nasturtiums, tomatoes, and two kinds of blueberries.
"Maybe we'll have a big party down here, and have guests catch the fish, and then plank them around a big fire." We are just about to give up on throwing makeshift fish food into the water. The soggy crumbs float around, neglected. Some shadowy bodies are visible below the surface, but it's clear that trout have no interest in scones.
I consider tossing what's left of my pastry into the wildflowers but it feels somehow rude, so the remainder ends up in my jacket pocket with my notebook. We make our way back through the meadow to County Road 25 and, across it, to the inn.
Now, on 160-some wooded acres laced with trails, the cedar-shingled main house offers six guest rooms. Each suite, with its cozy nooks and dark wood details, is named for a person of local significance—even if that significance has been more or less forgotten by history. This list includes the original founder and some prominent visitors to the Onteora Club, a utopian artists' retreat founded by Candace Wheeler and her brother Francis Thurber in 1887, known for hosting many a writer, painter, actor, and thinker (the Hudson River School painters, John Burroughs, Mark Twain) in its heyday. The private community lies barely a mile up the road.
Upstairs from the guest rooms is a cozy attic complete with red velvet billiards table, body-sized pillows, fireplace, flatscreen TV, and fine wine honor bar. Downstairs from the guest rooms, a sprawling dining room adjoins an intimate bar, mountain house art on the walls, and leather couches in the corners. The whole space is bookended by fireplaces and lit otherwise by a series of vintage lamps, antler-laden chandelier included. Wrapped around the front of the house, multiple levels of porches—offering no shortage of Adirondack chairs, log benches, and upholstered patio furniture—face the breathtaking mountain ridge on the horizon.
Thursday through Sunday, when afternoons of hiking and lawn games wrap, the in-house restaurant opens for business. That's where we find Tate again, running the show in the kitchen.
When Tate helped open TriBeCa's Le Restaurant, his food—artful, adventurous, and surprising dishes offered exclusively as a five-course $100 tasting menu—earned him a star from Michelin (and several from other critics). Before that, he had been chef de cuisine at SoHo's Savoy. After Le Restaurant closed, the West Village's Blenheim welcomed him with open arms as executive chef. Blenheim got a nod from Michelin as well—inclusion in the Michelin Guide—the review stating: "When a restaurant sources ingredients from its own farm in the Catskills, it clearly takes its farm-to-table ethos to heart." But, as Tate's upstate move goes to show, when it comes to farm-to-table, you can always up the ante.
The DMI's everyday tavern menu features accessible classics. The seven-course tasting menu ($72) changes seasonally. Request the accompanying wine pairing ($45) and risk losing count.
The concept is organic, and, as Tate puts it, "evocative of nature." His clever "Snail snails" come to mind. Snails, from a snail farm on the North Fork of Long Island, are braised, chopped, and blended with sautéed green garlic, scallion, and lemon zest into an escargot duxelles, which is then rolled into house-made puff pastry palmiers. The form echoes the flavor. "It looks like a snail, it tastes like a snail," the server announced to our table when it was presented on a piece of slate draped in fresh green moss.
It was part of the "savory snacks" chapter of the tasting menu, along with quail eggs rolled in hay ash and served in a bird's nest, and tiny new potatoes encased in white clay, plated among stones to which they bear a strong resemblance. "It's to make the potato multi-dimensional," says Tate. "You're getting this great snap from the potato that you're not accustomed to. So, you're experiencing a new sensation while eating a plain old potato."
After that, cured trout venison and sour cherries; rhubarb harvested from the inn's own garden, served with a sorrel granita and buttermilk anglaise; and finally, the maple syrup makes an appearance as a topping over a house-made milk sorbet. Sorbets are a house specialty: anise hyssop or tarragon or burnt ash, a creation literally stirred with a charred log plucked from the bar-side fireplace. It tastes just like a toasted marshmallow.
Transported by Taste"You have to be evocative. Massimo Bottura said just this weekend, 'Fifteen years ago my job was to make food that tasted good for you to enjoy. Now the chef's job in a high-level restaurant is to transfer emotion to your palate.' I mean, cooking should transport people. Even if it's just a cheeseburger."
The tavern menu features Fried Chicken with sesame chili aioli and scallions ($14), Trout Almondine ($25), and the DMI Cheeseburger ($18) with caramelized onions, Muenster cheese, and "special sauce" on toasted brioche.
Cheeseburgers, in particular, transport Tate back home to Michigan: "It should remind you of how your mom cooked in the summer, when it was too hot to turn on the oven in the house. My mom made cheeseburgers and milkshakes. We ate strawberry shortcake every Sunday for a whole summer one time. It was just too hot to cook."
"I'm trying to get people to have more than just a palate experience: Memory, olfactory, all the senses are involved. The dish may not be familiar, but the flavor combinations are something you have come across before."
Climbing the Mountain
Will Deer Mountain Inn build a broad reputation? The best in the region? The best in the state? Will travelers and locals alike drive up the mountain toward Onteora to indulge in perhaps the world's only "Snail snail," resting on its beautiful little mossy slate plate?
As I leave Tate to his prep for an 80-person private event that evening and start my winding drive back down the mountain, I remember with a gleeful start the half strawberry shortcake scone still tucked in my jacket pocket. A bite takes me back to Tate's Michigan summers, and to the trout pond an hour ago.
Deer Mountain Inn
790 Route 25, Tannersville
Open for dinner Thursday to Sunday, 5 to 10pm.