On August 1, 2010, Allan Chapin stopped for lunch at a cafe in Le Perche, northern France, and tasted what he calls the baguette that changed his life. Chapin, an investment banker who has a home in Claverack, had purchased an 1830s building on Hudson’s main street, and was thinking of opening a bakery-café there. “But I didn’t know a damn thing about baking,” he says. “Then here I am in Le Perche eating this bread and I said, ‘This is what I have to do.’ ”
Chapin got chatting with the creator of the life-changing baguette, a master baker named David Lambert, who uses his own formula of flour grown and milled in Le Perche, an area that reminds Chapin of Columbia County. Chapin (and here’s one advantage to being an investment banker) decided he had to have that baguette in Hudson. A key component was the right oven — in this case an enormous circular thing, 11 feet in diameter, made of ceramic bricks encased in steel.
“Lambert found me a second-hand oven,” Chapin recalls. “It sounds like the old lady who only drove her car to church on Sundays, but it was owned by a farmer who had barely used it.” Chapin had the oven shipped to Hudson in pieces, along with two French masons to reassemble it. He asked Jennifer Houle, general manager of Manhattan’s upmarket bakeries, Le Pain Quotidien, to help develop the café. (“She was a star at Pain Quotidien,” Chapin says.) Houle wound up staying on, and moved to Hudson last February when the building was still “neck deep in construction,” as she puts it. “It wasn’t hard to make the move,” she says. “Hudson has a great social scene — it’s young, vibrant, artsy, and everyone’s so nice.”
Left to right: Chef Robert Pecorino, restaurant partner Jennifer Houle, and baker Lisa Brickman
Houle in turn wooed baker Lisa Brickman away from Chicago’s legendary Charlie Trotter’s; Chapin sent her to study with Lambert, who visited Hudson to formulate the right flour, which comes from Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners. The café opened in mid-June offering bread, pastries, and baked goods. Soon after, chef Robert Pecorino began serving French bistro fare in the dining room.
Extensive renovations left the ground floor divided into a café-retail space in front, a bar in the middle, and a dining room-lounge in the back. The original dark wood wainscoting, coffered ceiling, and floors are lustrous, while the café tables, landscape paintings, and sofas drawn near the fireplace in the dining room create a comfortable atmosphere somewhere between a café and a Victorian parlor. There’s also a courtyard garden for when it’s warm.
The restaurant now serves all three meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — six days a week. The breakfast menu offers brioche French toast and roasted banana pancakes (among other things); at lunch, there’s a daily soup, salads, and crostini along with sandwiches — like ham and Gruyere on the famous baguette and Dijon-crusted roast pork with onion jam. Three bistro-style entrées that were on the fall menu: steak au poivre; roast pork loin with sweet potato bourbon mash; and chicken paillard. Drop in for a breakfast croissant, feast on the legendary sandwich at lunch, or sit at the zinc-topped bar and sip a pastis; as one happy customer remarked, “it’s like a trip to France!”
The bottom line: Sandwiches $9 to $14; entrées $19 to $22
Crowd pleasers: “Everyone’s crazy about the bread,” says Houle. “We make a really mean sandwich,” adds Chapin
The verdict: “Magnifique!”