House of History
Stissing House combines authentic Colonial charm with French-influenced cuisine that is carefully — and beautifully — prepared
By Ken Charney
Photo Michael Nelson
What do a historic restaurant built in the late 1700s and KC & the Sunshine Band have in common? I’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk beer. How refreshing to have a half-dozen robust beers on tap, and nary a Bud Light among them. When the choices are Bass, Stella, Brooklyn Lager, Acme IPA and Guinness, I know someone cares about quality.
And quality was evident throughout our visit to the Stissing House in Pine Plains. Current owners Michel and Patricia Jean purchased the place in 2005 after nearly two decades of running their well-regarded Greenwich Village bistro Provence, which they recently sold. From the gravelly parking lot to the kissy-kissy Lacoste shirt and loafter crowd, to the cozy Colonial atmosphere, the pair seem to have gotten things just right. Blending a dash of wood-smoked homeyness with a pinch of richly weathered history — topped off with a touch of Manhattan attitude — it all meshes perfectly.
The Stissing House is a large inn which dates back to 1782 — if local history is to be believed, the place is America’s oldest and longest operating restaurant. For two centuries, its many small dining rooms have hosted all sorts of important folks (like the Marquis de Lafayette) and local yokels for dinner, political theater, and the celebration of many a marriage. Like so many historic buildings, it came close to demolition in the late ’90s to make room for a gas station. (Back then, its patrons included motorcycle toughs who would ride right into the bar.) Fast-forward to 2007: the building has been restored with many period-style details, such as the replica 1700s tapered floor in the tavern and a reproduction hand-planed beam in the bar. Entering the low-ceilinged restaurant, you really get the sense that you’re sharing history with the many characters who hobnobbed in this place over the years.
The Stissing House is comfortably lit, offering a sense of warmth and privacy without making you go blind trying to read the menu. After a comfortable spell at the bar, we moved to our table, where we were peppered with all sorts of questions by the many young runners: Would we like water? Flat or sparkling? Would we like bread while we waited? Fresh ground pepper in our olive dipping oil? And finally, a real head-scratcher: Did we need menus? (The questions left me exhausted.) And by the way, the bread — which we said yes to — was crisp, dark-crusted, warm and very fresh.
As I would have expected, the meats served at Stissing House are organic and raised locally whenever possible (often at Herondale Organic Farm in Ancramdale or Prospect Hill Farm in Pine Plains), as are the seasonal herbs, greens and vegetables. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the food for the most part is very good, if not excellent.
Our party ordered several appetizers. We started with a thin crusted, wood-grilled Margherita pizza covered in mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil. It was bright, fragrant and tasty, and a perfect starter for four to share. The Sky Farms mesclun greens salad, piled high with hazelnuts, Fontina crouton and red wine vinaigrette, was fresh, though I found the dressing tepid. The Coach Farms goat cheese tart with marinated zucchini, eggplant and tomato was simple but tasty. We could savor the taste of each vegetable individually, and it was clear that care had been taken in its cooking. The baby artichoke salad with shaved Pecorino Toscano and olive oil was a real treat, with thinly sliced artichokes that gave the plate real spirit. The mussels mariniere — in a broth of white wine, parsley, shallots and fish fume — was out of this world. (As one of our companions remarked; the restaurant won one of this magazine’s 2006 Best of the Hudson Valley awards for its mussels.) The mussels were plump, meaty and tender with a mild rosemary-accented broth.
Up until now, we had been enjoying ourselves, drinking wine and waiting for our entrÃ©es. Then the aforementioned KC and the Sunshine Band came into play. What began as a slight thumping from above became louder and louder until we were no longer able to brush it off as background noise. Obviously a wedding was going on; we could identify and sing along with a whole passel of moldy oldies being played by the deejay. The waitress claimed this was not the norm, and in a way it was comical. Perhaps if the food had not been so good, we would have made more of a fuss.
As it were, many of chef Roberto Mosconi’s entrÃ©es shone with simplistic beauty and careful preparation. The wood-grilled duck breast and leg confit with port demi-glace came with polenta and sautÃ©ed greens. The breast was very moist and delicious, the leg confit a tad dry — as confit can be — but still quite tasty. The polenta was super creamy and a perfect accompaniment along with the demi-glace, which was rich in depth and flavor.
The soft-shell crabs, a special, were tender and pan-fried with just enough flour, leaving all the favor of the crab to be enjoyed. The crabs were full of supple meat and very sweet with a fab butter sauce. We also tried pan-seared halibut with lobster saffron broth, mussels and clams. The broth had a sumptuous flair that complimented the firm, sweet flesh of the halibut. The accompanying mussels and clams were somewhat tough, however. The fish was escorted by a side of fava beans ala Pecorini Toscano. Favas are a tender, fleeting treat, making their late-spring cameo a don’t-miss proposition. And we didn’t.
Desserts are house-made, and there’s a nice variety of them. The tiramisu was classically rich in flavor, yet light and delicate in taste and texture. The puff pastry used for the profiteroles was not as moist as we would have liked, but the ice cream and chocolate sauce were tasty enough to help offset the dryness.
Upon later investigation, I discovered that customers sitting for later dinners are informed of pending parties upstairs before they arrive. I very much recommend a visit to the Stissing House, but remember, before you make a reservation, make sure to ask about their banquet room schedule. Bon appetit!