North America Dispatch #3: In Which Both Jim's Credo and Upstate New York Are Unveiled
Many people think Kingston, New York, is a scrubby, scruffy place. Aw, contraire! There’s a charming part of town, with some good things to eat. I was hoping to hit Armadillo Bar & Grill (97 Abeel Street, 845-339-1550), which I’d heard boasts a Jewish owner, a Chinese chef, and a menu stocked with Oaxacan moles, rabbit posole, and awesome hamburgers.
Eartha, my GPS navigating assistant, had trouble getting her bearings, so it was a major ordeal to find the place. And it was, alas, closed (at lunchtime on a Friday?). Down the block, the Bridgewater Bar & Grill (50 Abeel Street, Kingston, New York; 845-340-4272), in a weather-worn antique brick building, looked intriguing. And it, too, was closed for Friday lunch. At this point, my friend Jan and I decided to opt for the touristic pleasure of a “fun” clam bar and margarita joint with outdoor patio perched picturesquely on a creek under a bridge. At Mariner’s Harbor (1 Broadway, Kingston, New York), the crab cakes were unfocused, the mussels slightly funky, and I bet the menu includes a bunch of other must-avoids. But the shrimp scampi was wonderful, and lobster salad was quite good. A local microbrew was available in stout, IPA, and pilsner flavors, and was fresh and creamy-delicious. Plus the staff was super-nice. We basked in the sunshine and sucked down beer and were happy. And happiness counts for a lot.
But we came away with different assessments. Jan averaged the peaks and troughs and offered a firm opinion of “so-so.” But I weight the peaks. A restaurant where everything is horrendous but one item is fantastic is, to me, a great restaurant. Jan deems that overly lenient, but consider your favorite restaurant. Its menu surely includes a few losers, and if one were to hit several on first visit, it might overly tarnish one’s opinion.
The restaurant critic’s fallacy is to underrate places where poor dishes were encountered early and good ones later. One must focus on the deliciousness. In fact, that’s a credo for life itself!
Just up the block, nice, sweetly charming, unfancy cookies and such are available at Alternative Bakery (35 Broadway, Kingston, New York; 845-331-5517). Also, quietly, a full stock of frozen Brazilian hors d’oeuvres.
Walton, New York
I’m such a sucker for rural county fairs. I drive hundreds of miles, seduced by dreams of cherry pie competitions, serious soulful fried chicken, jams, jellies, and all the other things America once prided itself on cooking and eating. I hope to find a window to simpler, better times before modern marketing convinced the masses that highly processed soulless crap is the normal, comfortable thing to eat.
The Delaware County Fair
Not even the Delaware County Fair—a relatively small, remote event at the northern edge of the Catskills mountains in upstate New York—has escaped the marketing juggernaut. Nearly all of the fair’s food offerings came from the same carnie concessions you’d find in Staten Island or any suburban sprawl. Funnel cakes, pizza, bloomin’ onions, fried dough, and the like were all slung by grizzled folks in shiny booths. Feelingless food with no sense of place.
I was exultant, though, at coming upon the Treadwell Franklin Walton United Methodist Church Pancake Griddle.
This was entirely a family operation, and the pancakes were light, airy, tangy, and ever so lively tasting. They were perfect. Of course, breakfast was not what I’d been hoping for at 6 p.m. after a long, hungry drive, but chowhounding means availing oneself of greatness when it arises, regardless of personal preference. So pancakes I had.
My waitress, a bright-eyed young teen, was an electronics whiz who required 15 seconds to decode all the controls on my new camera and have me fluently working the thing as I awaited my flapjacks. I wolfed down a plate of delightful pancakes, alone on a picnic table hours from home, with the stench of cow manure heavy in the air. The cashier, a feisty older woman, smiled and looked me in the eye as she handed me my change. I felt a chowhoundish bittersweetness—wishing I could be Methodist and part of the swell gang giving rise to these superb pancakes, but also a feeling of gratitude for being welcomed into the fold for just a moment. In the end, this brief encounter was worth the ride.
Amid the carnie dreck was one item of interest: potato ribbons. This is apparently a new carnival invention, but it’s spreading fast (I saw numerous booths making it). It looks like a vat of freshly fried potato chips, but as you hoist one chip, all the others hoist along with it, like a greasy tuberous string. Topped with (real) bacon bits, chives, and/or cheese, it’s irresistible—albeit trashy. No soul was applied, but the great thing about fried potatoes is that they are so inherently soulful that they make their own spiritual gravy.
Potato ribbons made a fine accompaniment to the plumes of dust and wafts of carbon monoxide fumes at the fair’s demolition derby.