Being Veggie in Ski Country…
Last Sunday, on the chair lift, one of the men in my ski group asked me something I’ve heard too many damn times before: “What do you vegetarians eat when you go out?” The incredulous tone of his question was more frustrating coming from a gentle and friendly man who competes in triathlons and usually tops off his day on Hunter by running up the mountain in snowshoes (!), than when it comes from those who aren’t so fit and lean. Looking up the mountain, and realizing I had him trapped for the next five minutes until the lift dropped us off, I told him a story in two parts.
Firstly, I told him how incredibly easy it can be. I told him how, a few miles up the road from us, there’s a Pub called The Windhaven. The eating places in ski towns typically cater to the beer and burger crowd, but The Windhaven, which I know I have written about before, casts its net wider. The menu proudly notes (as well as the fact that “the kitchen never closes”) its many vegetarian items – Mexican fajitas, a colorful penne pasta, a fantastic portabello mushroom burger – and makes a point of how all and any can be made vegan. The Windhaven’s a cheerful place, with a good line of draft beer, a fair wine list, an electronics darts machine, and a staff that always accommodates. We went there a couple of times over the Winter Olympics to watch the action; on the second of those occasions, Campbell’s cheese sandwich was burnt and Posie’s salmon was almost cold by the time they came out to accompany the hot plate on which my fajitas were frying. Though this hardly sounds like a recommendation, we’ve been there enough to know this was a rarity (it was a weekend night at the peak of the ski season, with the place as busy as it gets) and sure enough, both plates were swiftly corrected with apologies: Campbell even got a fresh order of French Fries in the bargain. Me, I contentedly tucked into the fajitas throughout, noting how rare it is that the vegetarian dish ever gets returned. While the Windhaven doesn’t look to win any awards for its cuisine, the food is surprisingly good and it has my vote every time I want (a variety of) (veggie) carbs.
And secondly, I told my ski-friend how often it’s merely a matter of asking. We had put off going to The Catamount, for example, a mildly posh restaurant that forms part of the Emerson Place establishment down the main road from Phoenicia, not for a lack of ambience (it looks out on the Esopus Creek) or its owner (Dean Gitter, more of whom later), but for a main course menu that was all meat and fish.
That was until The Catamount sent us a “two-main-courses-for-the-price-of-one” card in the mail, and when a Friday night found Posie and I converging on Phoenicia from different directions, we headed on over to avoid cooking. On sitting down with the menu I recalled, with a grimace, my lack of options, but it was, as so often the case, not a problem. Our youthful waiter, whose desire to please bordered on the obsequious, simply asked me what I would like. I ran through the menu, naming all the good vegetables that were making their way onto other plates: asparagus, wild mushrooms, red peppers, etc. I want these, I said. Not carrots and peas. Have the chef do them up with some linguine or the like, tossed in olive oil and garlic: no tomato or cream sauce. Keep it fresh. The meal I was subsequently served was one of the best pastas I’ve had beyond the wife’s home cooking. Might I have been better off had The Catamount put vegetarian options on its menu? Probably not; I’d have felt (just somewhat) guilty at asking them to change things to my specification. Would the Catamount be better off if it listed vegetarian items? Probably so, but this was one of those occasions where the apparently limited menu played to my advantage.
In fact, everything about our meal at The Catamount was to our advantage. Just about the lowest priced wine on the list was also the most reliable: a Standing Stone Riesling from the Finger Lakes for $22, its refreshing acidity and bright fruits perfect for the food, its low alcohol ideal for two people who each still had a distance to drive home. Campbell’s dinner came out early as requested; our ‘Catamount’ salads were divine, and Posie proclaimed her salmon the best she’d tasted in years. (Given her high standards, that’s a serious compliment.) Though we were still a few days ahead of the big event, the Catamount was offering its Valentines Day meal already, and I took advantage by closing out with chocolate-dipped strawberries accompanied by truffles made in The Emerson’s own bakery. It’s difficult to describe how good they were; suffice to say that I was duly wide awake for the drive home and amorous to boot. Thanks to the 2-for-1 main course option, the entire bill, including wine, Campbell’s meal and tip, came to just $85.
Back to Dean Gitter, who has just opened a double-headed bistro at the entrance to Woodstock and also owns the most expensive spa in the region, right across the road from the Catamount. I’m not enthralled by what I’ve read and seen of his bull(y)ish determination to build housing, hotels and golf courses alongside (State owned) Belleayre Ski Mountain over and above any local opposition, be it well-reasoned or otherwise; there’s too much of the Bruce Ratner in his blunt insistence that he knows best for the community. Unlike the masses in Brooklyn, however, the people of the Catskills are usually well informed on local issues, and a hesitancy to green-light (the size and scale of) his plan extends through politicians, institutions and residents alike. Gitter now feels so victimized by this opposition that, when another of his Inns burned down a year or more ago, he claimed arson and put up a reward. Never a dull moment, even when we move out of New York City for (relative) peace and quiet, huh?
Still, I have to hand it to the chef and the staff at the Catamount for their sterling service and fantastic food at such good prices. We may have to drive home from restaurants these days but, quite apart from the bonus of how this keeps our drinking in check, we’re eating as well up in these hills as we ever were back in Brooklyn. And that vegetarian thing? Like I told my ski partner, the supposed lack of choice exists primarily in the mind of the meat-eaters.