2000s Archive

New York State of Mind

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Others were slow to follow, but by last summer there were no fewer than 75 wineries dotting the shores of Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga lakes, most of them—like the boutique Ravines, where the bespectacled intern helps Danish-born Morten Hallgren produce European-style Rieslings, Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs—devoted to vinifera wines. Pulling into the leafy driveway at Seneca Lake’s Hermann J. Wiemer, run by the scion of a family that’s been making wine in the Mosel Valley for 300 years, Joanne points to a sign informing limos and buses that they’re welcome by appointment only.

Even with the wine scene exploding, though, the food in the Finger Lakes had lagged sorely behind. Over the years, we’d hear about one new restaurant or another opening and eagerly go check it out, only to be confronted with disastrous renditions of “Continental cuisine” lacking in either context or style. But on this trip, we find that this is changing, too.

Traipsing through his apple orchards with Louis Lego, you can’t help but succumb to his enthusiasm for the region’s culinary promise. Eight years ago, Lego and his wife, Merby, quit their jobs to farm full-time, and today they oversee a staggering variety of organic fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs on the 100 acres surrounding their home, near Auburn.

In his shorts and T-shirt, gray hair peeking out from under his straw hat, Lego leads us toward his elderberry bushes and Asian pear trees, rambling on about their merits like a nerdy kid showing off his stamps. We wander past the building that houses the year-old Restaurant at Elderberry Pond, and he segues into the tale of how, two years ago, he and his family bumbled their way into the enterprise. “We way underestimated how much this was gonna cost,” he says, shaking his head as he recounts having to remortgage the 150-year-old farmhouse and invest all their retirement money despite having finagled a $60,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture.

And that was only the beginning. The kitchen equipment they’d bought on eBay broke down, and he was constantly being harassed by the chef—his 32-year-old son Chris—for failing to keep up with demand. “‘I have to have a dependable supplier,’ he’d say to me, ‘or maybe I should just go to Sysco.’ He knows all the hot buttons.”

Sitting beneath the exposed beams in the handsome dining room, you’d never know the restaurant had got off to such a rocky start. The young servers move confidently among the Craftsman-style tables, their manner as down-to-earth as the food on the plates. An heirloom Chioggia-beet salad and red-skinned Norland potatoes with peas and mint sing of the surrounding soil, and the flavors of a raspberry almond tart are as clear and bright as the garnetlike fruit peeking from beneath the crust. Lego wanders the wide-plank floors, stopping to chat and infecting everyone with his easy laugh.

In their modern kitchen sipping a local Cabernet Franc after the Saturday-night rush, Suzanne Stack and her husband, Robert, are no less ebullient. The New Jersey residents were vacationing three years ago when they saw a “For Sale” sign on a 1903 farmhouse, high above Seneca Lake. “I totally blew it with the realtor,” says Suzanne, describing how her eyes welled up the minute she stepped inside. “It was like I’d been waiting for this place all my life.”

Modeled on the country inns she’s long admired in Europe, her year-old restaurant, Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine, highlights the organic produce that Stack grows on the 100 acres that came with the house, as well as on what she gets from area farmers, vintners, and cheesemakers. Sharing honest, finely wrought dishes like a smoky late-summer chowder sweet with just-picked corn, Joanne and I find it hard to believe that this is the Finger Lakes we grew up with.

We have a similar reaction emerging from the luxurious spa at Skaneateles’s Mirbeau Inn, where we’d been wowed the night before by the cooking coming from Edward Moro’s kitchen. Opened in 2000, Mirbeau has done as much as any establishment to raise the profile of the region, and despite its slightly bizarre conceit (it’s a re-creation of Monet’s Giverny, down to the arched bridge and lily pads), it is absolutely transporting.

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