Executive chef and co-owner Zak Pelaccio has no regrets about walking away from his chain of highly successful Fatty Crab restaurants that stretch from the West Village in Manhattan to Hong Kong. “He didn’t want to be a celebrity chef with 17 restaurants that he doesn’t cook at, so he went the other way and opened this place,” says Pelaccio’s friend Peter Barrett, who is working on a book about the restaurant.
Fish & Game, the 36-seat restaurant Pelaccio and his partners opened in Hudson last May, represents “a different headspace,” says Pelaccio. “For me, it’s about getting wrapped up in the rhythms of nature and how things work and look, and how the world smells. I try to get out into the woods every morning. It gives me a gift — I feel more at ease.”
A stocky man with ginger-colored curls, an untrimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses, Pelaccio exudes self-confidence. Unlike many chefs, he is given to long, eloquently worded answers that reflect his introspective approach to food and, well, everything.
He and his wife/co-chef, Jori Jayne Emde, were renovating a barn in Old Chatham and considering moving up from the city when fate found them. Patrick Milling Smith, a friend of a friend, had recently purchased a 19th-century building in Hudson. Milling Smith asked Pelaccio for advice about which chef he should recruit to work with him in this new space, and it quickly became apparent who he had in mind. Says Pelaccio, “I wasn’t prepared for it to happen as quickly and as fluidly as it did, but it made sense. Hudson is growing. It’s got a little more of an urban sensitivity which is the kind of audience we require for the cuisine we do but it’s not too far for me to drive 25 minutes to my house.”
A lengthy, thoughtful renovation ensued. The goal was to reveal the building’s existing features while adding some new, original-looking elements — like the two stone fireplaces that anchor both sides of the space. The result is sophisticated, homey, and rustic all at the same time. As you might guess from the name, game plays a starring role in the décor — the walls of the main dining room boast a bighorn sheep, a snarling boar, and an artfully posed goose that appears to be ready to fly out the window.
Architect Michael Davis managed to procure enough of a vintage red velvet wallpaper to cover the walls on one side of the room, which adds considerable warmth and visual flair. The open kitchen is flanked by metal shelves that are lined from floor to ceiling with glass jars of Emde’s preserved vegetables, fruits and herbs. “We left the kitchen open so there’s an intimacy to it. So if I start yelling you can hear me — though I really don’t yell very much,” says Pelaccio.
A native of Austin, Emde went to culinary school in Texas before going to work for Mario Batali at Lupa in Manhattan shortly after it opened. “She ended up being the first woman to cook pasta for him in any of his restaurants,” says Pelaccio proudly. Nowadays, she splits her time between preserving the food she and Pelaccio forage for and grow at the gardens-that-will-someday-become-farms they’re cultivating to supply the restaurant. She makes her own Worcestershire sauce, and seems powerfully drawn to the culinary science of concocting, fermenting, tincturing, pickling, and canning. “Jori’s really become a researcher and a scientist when it comes to all these ingredients,” says Pelaccio.
From left to right: Fish & Game’s rustic interior; pasta with ember-roasted cone cabbage, wild mushrooms, and dill (photograph by Peter Barrett); Fish & Game chef and co-owner, Zak Pelaccio
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Eating at Fish & Game is truly an experience. The seven-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings is carefully created by Pelaccio and co-chef Kevin Pomplun and changes weekly — and sometimes daily, depending on what the woods or the farm or a local supplier has provided. The menu is never committed to paper, so there is an element of surprise with each new course. The friendly servers do a nice job of explaining each course and of answering questions.
Even the most seasoned eater will likely encounter something new here. Foraged wild edibles — garlic mustard greens, wood sorrel, and ramps are common, and edible flowers like nasturtiums lend both beauty and a unique taste to the dishes.
The meal began with a small wooden bowl containing a beautifully seared Romanesco floret with lettuce, fresh black and red currants, and chopped hazelnuts in a brown butter vinaigrette. The Romanesco was a nice balance between seared and raw, and the crunch of the nuts was echoed by the seeds in the currants.
A slice of brined cabbage, which had been roasted in the wood-fired brick oven, was topped with a mixture of crème fraiche, bacon, scallions, and ocetra caviar. The result was a sweet, nutty cabbage in a sauce that manages to be both light and rich at the same time.
Next came the house-made ramen with a curried fish soufflé topped by a poached egg. Ginger held the high note in the rich, spicy broth that was at the upper edge of how much heat I can handle. The curry spices are grown in Ghent by a Korean farmer who also supplies the restaurant with short-grain rice.
But the highlight of my meal was a duet of thinly sliced green and yellow summer squash, which was cooked in the wood-fired oven and served over a pipérade, a mouthwatering sauce made from tomatoes and peppers. The squash was accompanied by a dollop of house-made ricotta that had a delicious tang from house-made vinegar atop a tomato vinaigrette garnished with a peppery nasturtium leaf. This is truly food to feed your soul.
Fast-forward to a number of artisanally crafted, beautifully presented small plates. A smoky slow-cooked eggplant was accompanied by ground lamb and an oil-cured Calabrian pepper garnished with chopped sage and a beautiful borage flower. A salad of crunchy cucumbers and nutty short-grain rice tossed with yogurt was served as a bit of a palate cleanser before dessert — a sour cherry clafoutis, served in a cast-iron skillet and topped with a sprinkling of Croatian sheepsmilk cheese grated right at the table.
The plates may have been small, but I was full to bursting by the end of the meal. And happy, very happy.
The Crowd: You’ll find a mix of well-heeled older diners from Hudson, Westchester, Connecticut, and Manhattan, and intentionally scruffy hipster types who live in Hudson or are visiting from Brooklyn.
Don’t Miss: You never know what you’re going to get, but rest assured that whatever Pelaccio and crew are serving up will open your eyes, please your palate, and probably blow your mind.
The Basics: Lunch Saturday-Sunday, dinner Thursday-Sunday. This wonderful experience does not come cheaply: The prix fixe dinner is $85, $170 with wine pairing.
If you go…
Fish & Game
13 S. Third St., Hudson