In a new location after a disastrous fire, the Emerson at Woodstock continues its tradition of blending fine food with flawless service in a comfortable setting
By Alex Silberman
The first Woodstock restaurant I patronized (“dined in” would be the wrong phrase) had a banner over its front door declaring “Sugar is Your Enemy.” In my fuzzy recollection, the menu dwelt on properties of yin and yang rather than the provenance of ingredients. The chief amenities were clean plates and a working bathroom, and I liked it just fine.
What a difference a couple of decades can make. Always on the cutting edge, or a few steps ahead, Woodstock and its environs now offer all the foodie delights one could wish for: ethnic, elegant, casually sophisticated, and down home.
At the end of an afternoon of gallery-hopping, we stopped in at one of the newer spots, the Emerson at Woodstock. Within months of the fire that destroyed Emerson Inn in Mt. Tremper last spring, Dean Gitter, who owned the acclaimed inn and spa, transferred his expertise, taste, and crucial staff to the intersection of Routes 375 and 212 in Woodstock, where a landmark that has housed many a restaurant in its time was standing empty. (It may not have been a random choice: the building was once owned by the Riseley family, who were also former owners of the Mt. Tremper Inn.) In just four months, the place was gussied up; it started serving meals last August in what may be the apotheosis of Woodstock eateries.
From the outside, the 19th-century white farmhouse building is neat and charming. Inside, it’s comfortably modern with a lot of eye-catching details, and although it’s hip, it’s relaxed, too. The Emerson is among the growing ranks of restaurants that maintain two dining rooms, better to accommodate their patrons’ moods and needs, but it offers the same menu in both. You can celebrate an occasion or concentrate on a really fine bottle of wine from their extensive collection in the somewhat formal Riseley Room or, as we did, go bistro in Rick’s CafÃ©, which (you’ll be glad to know) does not try to carry out the theme of its Casablanca namesake. It’s a handsome, airy room with comfy chairs, spacious booths, and warming splashes of red brocade upholstery. The stained glass chandeliers by local artist Ulla Darni cast a pleasant light that, my companion noted, makes you feel pretty. (There’s a dining porch, as well.) The staff, for their part, make you feel welcome and well cared for.
As we looked through the menu, affable and well-versed sommelier Finn Anson made himself available for consultation. Considering the eclectic international wine list on display in a windowed cellar, it’s a shame we weren’t in a more bibulous mood. But we were intrigued by several Slovenian wines (all the rage in Europe) and tried a couple of glasses of Tilia, a very smooth, round Sauvignon Blanc ($7) while Anson explained the mysteries of terroir that made it so pleasing.
We bypassed the sandwich selection, although the hand-cut fries were very tempting. And we skipped over the “hearty stews” even though a passing Northwind Farm Turkey Pot Pie with roasted root vegetables filled the air with a fabulous aroma. Instead, my companion started with Lenny Bee’s smoked trout cake with avocado-pineapple salsa, sherry vinegar reduction, and dill oil ($12), while I opted for Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls with a scallion-sesame dressing ($12). The trout cake, served over mixed crisp greens, was a true surprise to the palate, achieving a real depth of flavor, with the pineapple salsa intensifying the smoky trout. The quite large portion of spring rolls was tasty and fresh and didn’t skimp on the shrimp, but seemed sort of ordinary alongside that trout.
There was nothing ordinary about my companion’s entrÃ©e of braised short ribs, which were served in a Southern Comfort sauce along with parsnip and winter squash purÃ©e ($22). Chef Jessica Winchell likes to compose her dishes, blending the components so you don’t get the sense of accompaniments or sides to a meat or fish so much as the impression of a distinct whole. To that end, the fork-tender ribs were stacked up on layers of purÃ©ed parsnip and squash and broccoli rabe. The whole thing was richly delicious, far more than a sum of its parts.
My grilled sushi-grade tuna with a soy-sake glaze, stir-fried napa cabbage, and pickled cucumbers ($25) came on a sushi rice risotto cake and was a very fine rendition of what has become a contemporary bistro staple. The sushi rice cake was a bit crisper than I like my risotto, but really, the melding of flavor and textures in this dish was outstanding.
Several of the desserts are, considering their richness and proportions, wisely offered in servings for two. My dinner partner was drawn to the Emerson banana cream pie for two with banana crÃ¨me anglaise and fudge sauce ($12), which almost sounds like two desserts in itself. I’ve never much cared for banana cream pie, at least in the versions I’d previously tried, but this was an eye-opening (or lip-smacking) departure. The fudge sauce was present as a thin, crisp shell in which the cream was nestled, and the combination of clean, light flavors and lush textures of this concoction convinced me I’d like to enjoy them again — although the espresso crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e served with chocolate covered espresso beans ($10) sounds awfully good, too.
The Emerson has got its act so well together — food, service, and ambiance — that it permits a “what-you-make-of-it” kind of evening. Families with well-behaved kids, 20-somethings on a date, a sprinkling of minor celebs, a few boomers, and a gaggle of Woodstock characters all fit in seamlessly. Whether you’re feeling scruffy or polished, you can treat the place as a comfortable backdrop for good food, or focus on it as the main event.