The Crimson Sparrow Restaurant Review in Hudson: New American Food and Dining in Columbia County

There’s culinary magic in the air at the Crimson Sparrow, Hudson’s new hot spot

Wylie Dufresne, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is the trailblazing chef who brought molecular gastronomy to Manhattan with his casually luxe, rhapsodized-over, Michelin-starred restaurant, WD-50. So when graduates from that hot spot head north to Hudson to open a place of their own, you naturally wonder what culinary wizardry will be in store. How will it compare? And what exactly is molecular gastronomy, anyway?

Ben Freemole and John McCarthy, the chefs in question, opened the eagerly anticipated Crimson Sparrow in June (read my blog post about it here), but stonewall any attempt at comparisons with WD-50. “Wylie Dufresne is one of the best teaching chefs working right now, and he had enormous influence on both of us,” is as far as McCarthy is willing to go. “We’re trying to do our own food, and assimilate into the food scene of the Hudson Valley.” As for the scientific, “molecular” approach to cooking: Vacuum chambers and the other trappings are “just tools,” insists McCarthy, who also wants to make clear that there’s nothing precious going on. “We’re intense, but we’re not stuck up, or serious, or pretentious. We’re just two guys who met at WD-50 and decided to go into business. And we’re having a blast,” he adds. Whether you’re a passionate foodie on the trail of a sophisticated experience, or just want a fanciful, entirely novel meal, at the Crimson Sparrow, you’re in for a blast, as well.

The restaurant is housed in the old Keystone building at the top of Warren Street. McCarthy moved to his Columbia County country home to oversee a major overhaul of the place, which resulted in an artful mix of modern industrial chic and vintage Hudson. The door opens into the tavern, where a riveted, stainless-steel bar is set off by salvaged decorative ironwork on the wall. In the main dining room beyond, a tin ceiling adds some dazzle and an old barn door topped with glass forms a table in the center. The brick oven, left over from the building’s incarnation as a bakery, is now a semi private nook. There’s also a private dining room in the rear and a wonderful interior courtyard, where a big window looks in on the shiny, sleek kitchen — once a carriage house. Seat yourself at the counter by the window if you want a close look at what’s going on.

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outdoor diningThe oxtail with congee dish, at left. Right: the interior courtyard features a window that faces into the kitchen and a custom-made table with “radiator” benches

The courtyard beckoned on a warm summer night, when sparrows (fittingly) were hopping about in the vines growing up the brick wall, and enticing aromas were drifting from the kitchen. One of the chefs waved gaily through the window when we looked his way. The hostess gave us a quick tour of the restaurant before we chose where to sit, and our personable server was equally obliging and well-informed.

The menu is divided into Plates and Large Plates, with a few cheeses and three offerings under the heading Others, including a soup and a bread. Dishes are described only by the ingredients lining up to be married — lamb sweetbreads with buckwheat, plum, dandelion, and clove, for example. The preparation remains to be seen, unless you quiz your server. (It’s more fun to wait and see, though.) We decided to sample four of the smaller plates, and started with a monkey bread, flecked with scallions and chives and served with a pat of olive butter. Salty, chewy, good, and obviously bread. From then on, it was one playful, skillfully orchestrated surprise after the next.

A crisp romaine heart, infused with lemon vinegar and lightly charred, was paired with silky pickled halibut and zingy, frizzled anchovies. I wasn’t expecting to discern the taste of some delicate sunflower shoots sprinkled on the plate, and yet they were a subtle bonus. Oxtail with congee, anise, turnip, cilantro, and vinegar was a highly enjoyable new take on a comfort dish. Sticky rice congee studded with tiny cubes of turnip formed a bed for rich, braised, pulled oxtail meat. On top, a disc of vinegar gel served as a little shelf for loops of fennel shavings and cilantro leaves, whose bright, sharp flavors were perfect to cap it off.

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» Get directions to The Crimson Sparrow in Hudson, NY
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octopusCreative pairings: Octopus with sweet pea risotto is just one of the Crimson Sparrow’s small plate offerings

Octopus with sweet pea risotto, kimchi romesco, and lime proved to be tentacles of tender poached octopus perched on peas masquerading as a creamy green “risotto,” with little squares of tart lime gel for contrast. The dish involves three different pea preparations, McCarthy explained later: blitzed freeze-dried peas with coconut milk, blitzed crushed peas, and whole English ones, with butter and Parmesan bringing it all together. Delicious, unexpected, and fun to try to figure out.

Pork belly with artichoke heart delivered the smooth, fatty pleasure of pork plus a little extra octane from Cynar, a slightly bitter herbal/artichoke liqueur. I suppose my taste buds were reeling because I didn’t notice the “cedar” that’s somehow incorporated into the dish, though I’m sure it added a special note.

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Midway through these delicious and satisfying treats, we decided, as reporters, that it was our duty to sample one of the Large Plates, and ordered the half duck with five spice, yellow raisin, and red pepper orzo to share. Although the menu declares “substitutions are politely declined,” the kitchen will gladly divide a dish, if it’s divisible. (“We compose dishes to experience various flavors,” McCarthy told me later. “But otherwise we do what it takes. We can accommodate ovo-lacto vegetarians, vegans, or whatever.”)

The half duck turned out to be medallions of duck, boned, brined, rolled in its skin, and cooked sous vide — a laborious preparation that takes about three days in all, McCarthy says. Time well spent, it you ask me. It was the essence of moist, tender, intense duckiness, with a dark, piquant skin. Add dreamy orzo, along with pickled cauliflower for a gentle kick and micro mustard greens for a dash of pepperiness, and you’ve got a sublime combo. It was also such a generous portion, even divided, that I checked with our server to be sure it was just one. The bad news is that it’s off the menu for a while, but McCarthy described a replacement duck preparation for winter that involves a panisse with crumbled merguez sausage and charred cipollini onions that I’m willing to bet is another wowser.   

ice creamHibiscus ice cream

Desserts are equally inspired. Hibiscus soft serve with blueberries, orange, sesame and olive oil jam was served sprawling across a cold slate slab like some deconstructed, celestial Mister Softee, and was intense but uncloyingly sweet. Peaches with oats, cucumber jelly, and frozen yogurt fragrant with cardamom was such a heavenly mix of crunchy, smooth, sweet, and tangy, we didn’t even care that it was light on the peaches. “Granola of the gods,” my husband uttered.

Prices, although not cheap, are reasonable given the quality and sheer inventiveness of the fare. Backing up the menu are some cool cocktails, a sake list, craft beers, and a thoughtful wine list that includes many affordable bottles as well as by-the-glass choices for under $10. We drank Secco Prosecco with our meal, but next time, we’ll try the Sleight of Hand Magician Riesling since, in name at least, it expresses what goes on at this quirky, eminently satisfying spot.

The Crimson Sparrow
Dinner Wednesday through Saturday; Sunday brunch. Plates from $11-$16; Large Plates $29-$31; desserts $10-$11.

» Get directions to The Crimson Sparrow in Hudson, NY
» Read about The Crimson Sparrow in The Accidental Foodie blog
» Go to
» Go to the Hudson Valley Restaurants Guide
» Go to the Hudson Valley Food & Drink Guide


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