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Food to drink by: New York’s Finger Lakes

Food to drink by: New York’s Finger Lakes

Abottle of red, a bottle of white. It all depends upon your appetite.”

Those are some of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s song, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” but they also represent today’s state of mind when it comes to dining out in the wine and grape-growing region surrounding New York’s Finger Lakes.

Located in central New York, the Finger Lakes region once was looked upon as less than full-bodied when it came to producing wines of real merit. Today, the region’s wine industry contributes more than $3 billion a year to the state’s economy, according to a study conducted last year by MFK Research. Just as the wineries have become forces to be reckoned with, so too has the region’s fine-dining scene.

The Finger Lakes area, which is broken up into four lake regions—Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua—boasts about 95 working wineries where Rieslings generally are king, but reds of all kinds, including Cabernets, Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, are beginning to make names for themselves, too.

“The wine-growing region of the Finger Lakes has become a significant player in the wine industry,” says Chrys Baldwin, director of education for the Canandaigua-based New York Wine & Culinary Center. “There is a whole process of really developing one’s palate, and people really want to know what’s available to them, especially regionally.”

Culinary creativity takes root

As the region’s wine has gained traction, so has the food—especially as a growing number of fine-dining chefs strive to showcase local products on their menus.

“As far as the culinary end of things are concerned, I’d say that it’s really just been in the last five years that the Finger Lakes is finally being recognized as a significant wine region,” says Debra Whiting, who along with her husband, David, owns Red Newt Cellars in Hector, N.Y. “Now, every winery, as opposed to 20 years ago, is going to have good wines, where that wasn’t always the case. And in terms of the food, because more and more people are coming to visit here, the one thing we’re all trying to focus on is offering them the opportunity to experience everything the region has to offer—the wine, the food and the beauty of the area.”

To that end, Whiting, who is the executive chef of a 65-seat upscale bistro located on Red Newt Cellar’s grounds, says offering local, regional cuisine on her menu has more of an impact on diners’ palates than anything else she could do cookingwise.

“Really, what drives our cuisine is what’s available in season,” she says. “As far as techniques go, we’re fairly eclectic here. It’s more about what you can do with the items. For example, a lot of the fruit drives my food, whether it’s sweet or savory.”

Whiting, who is president of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, an organization that promotes networking between local restaurateurs and farmers, says her primary goal is to get more chefs and operators to incorporate local foods into their menus.

“We definitely want our guests to enjoy quality Finger Lakes food and wine—that’s really what we’re pushing toward,” she says. “The wineries definitely have been recognized, and now the food is moving up.”

In an attempt to showcase as much local produce as possible, Whiting has included ramps and fiddleheads on her menus, and, she says, customers can’t get enough of the stuff.

“They come in now to see what I’m doing with the ramps,” she says, laughing. “I made ramp pesto, had grilled ramps and used them on a salad. I use them in stuffings and soups. I even did a creamy ramp dressing. I try to think of as many ways to use something in season that I can.”

Whiting, who changes her menus monthly, showcases a lot of locally produced pork and artisanal cheeses, particularly chèvre, at the restaurant, where entrées range in price from $16 to $35.

“I do a lot with pork tenderloin,” she says. “It’s bacon-wrapped, stuffed with sausage, apples, chèvre and Swiss chard. We grill it and then serve it with an apple-Riesling wine sauce. I also did a pork chop stuffed with rhubarb, cornbread, Swiss chard and walnuts, served in a rhubarb-Riesling sauce. People usually think of rhubarb as dessert, but I like to use it in savory items, like pork chops. For me, a lot of the fun is in the experimentation. It hasn’t been on the menu in awhile, but every so often I bring it back [as a special] because I get a lot of requests for it.”

Spanning the globe locally

For Scott Signori, chef-owner of the Stonecat Cafe, located in Hector adjacent to the Bloomer Creek Winery, using local products is a passion. The ingredients he uses most often are generally grown no more than 50 miles away from the upscale restaurant, whose entrées range in price from $17 to $26.

“My style is cross-cultural cooking, like Southeast Asian and some Southern and American cuisines, or I’ll do some Indian or Italian,” he says. “I like to span the globe with my cooking, but at the same time I try to create a local cuisine. For example, we do a pizzette, made with local peaches, tomatoes and chèvre. It’s one of my favorite combinations that, to me, is a good example of local, regional cuisine, even though pizza is a worldly item in general. Peaches and cream are a classic combination, and the peaches and tomatoes have a lot in common in terms of the sweetness to acid [ratio].”

Signori, who opened the 50-seat Stonecat in 1999, also is known throughout the region for his smoked meats, fish and poultry. He says the secret to successful smoking is to make sure the protein is delicately seasoned.

“Smoked meats and fish are not something you necessarily think of when you think of the Finger Lakes,” he says, “but it’s pretty easy when you use the local woods—the apple, grape and cherry woods. Since the wines are grown in the same soil, it’s likely [the food] will complement them. So say I’m smoking with cherry or grape wood, some of those same flavors will be in the Pinot Noir also. And I tend not to overseason things either. With smoke, it’s best to go subtle; the big hickory or mesquite seasonings can be overpowering. Fruitwoods are sweeter. They’re the perfect complement to medium-body, complex wines, which are what some of the best Finger Lakes wines are.”

Right now, Signori says he’s enjoying smoking chickens he gets from the Amish farmers in Romulus, N.Y.

Back in 1996, Scott Signori was looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. Based on the recommendation of a friend, he visited the Finger Lakes region—and never left. After a short stint as chef at Sheldrake Point Vineyards, he left to open his own restaurant, the Stonecat Cafe, with his wife, Jessica—a move he calls one of the best things he has ever done. Today his customer base continues to grow, and established guests keep returning to see what new kinds of globally inspired, regional cuisine he’ll come up with and how he will marry that fare with local wines. Stonecat, which is open from May through November, is now readying for its eighth season.

What brought you to the Finger Lakes area?

I had a place in D.C., on Dupont Circle, called the Escape Cafe. It was tapas and gourmet coffee and microbrew beers, and I was having fun with it. There was a lot of diversity in the area, but I was longing to go to a place where I could explore where our food comes from, where I could learn to grow some of my own food and have access to fresh, local ingredients. I went all the way to Seattle, went to a lot of places, and then a friend invited me up to the Finger Lakes. I basically fell in love with the place. I helped him open a winery and cafe, which is now Sheldrake, but I decided to leave and buy a small farmers market, which my wife and I turned into the Stonecat Cafe.

How difficult is pairing the right foods and wines?

I taste all of the wines [in the area], and so does my wife. Every spring we have a couple of major tastings where we select the wines for our wine list. We’re constantly thinking about what to recommend with what. After a while you become intimately familiar with the different winemakers’ styles and the fruit, so it’s easy for me to visualize what’s going to go with what.

Is there any particular kind of wine you favor?

It’s funny. I work with all the wines, and our wine list is pretty dynamic. I also cook with the local wines, but I’m really picky. I don’t believe you should cook with any wine you wouldn’t drink. —Elissa Elan

“They’re delicious—antibiotic- and hormone-free,” he says. “I brine them overnight and then smoke them. I’ll glaze them with something fruit-based, a peach-chipotle barbecue sauce or a rhubarb glaze. They go great with white wines—a Pinot Gris or Riesling. The fruit and subtle smoke combined with the oils from the meat makes it a great wine food.”

He also enjoys working with seafood and says he wishes there were more of it available in the region. He claims that is one of the biggest differences between the food offerings of the Finger Lakes and California’s Napa Valley.

“Fish is kind of a weak spot in terms of what’s available to us,” Signori says. “Really, I’d love to buy more fresh local fish. I’d like to put that challenge out right now. Obviously, Napa is closer to the coast and that makes a huge difference, so we’re more likely to see coastal things on their menus.”

But one fish dish Signori does prepare is rainbow trout paired with seasonal fruit.

“When the black caps—they’re like wild black raspberries—come into season in the spring, I make a mixed berry beurre blanc that is served over herb-crusted trout,” he says.

Food + wine = happiness

Smoked seafood and duck are favorite ingredients of Jack Carrington, executive chef at Sheldrake Point Vineyard in Ovid, N.Y., whose Simply Reds cafe accommodates around 50 to 60 diners indoors and a total of 260 more in a separate catering site adjacent to the cafe, on the vineyard’s grounds.

“Actually, I like to call it an American bistro,” he says of the restaurant, which opened in 1998 and features an entrée price range of $18 to $30. “Last year we roasted salmon and served it with a roasted corn salsa. It was an outstanding match with some of our Rieslings.”

This year, he says, one new item will be Cajun cornmeal-crusted catfish topped with pan-fried rémoulade. Because he’s working mostly on the event-catering side of the business these days, Carrington has hired a new chef, Samantha Izzo, to oversee the operation at Simply Reds.

On the catering menu, Carrington offers smoked duck breast, which is a huge seller, he says.

“We smoked it with grape vines from our winery for about six hours,” he says. “Served with a raspberry demi, fresh asparagus and mashed maple sweet potato, it was great with our Meritage blend of red wines, an outstanding match. It showed perfectly how food and wine balance on the palate.”

Though Carrington says that he’s interested in all wines, it’s the Riesling he loves to work with the most.

“That’s the wine we’re most noted for in this area,” he says. “I love to do wine reductions.”

Red Newt’s Whiting also says she enjoys working with the region’s wines.

“As far as entrées go, I try to make my food as wine-friendly as possible,” she says. “I utilize a wine component in a majority of my sauces and, oftentimes, in my dressings.”

Sheldrake Point’s smoked duck breast

To prepare the smoked duck breast, which executive chef Jack Carrington says is a big seller for Sheldrake Point Vineyard, the meat is first pan-seared and put into a wood smoker, which is filled with grape vines from the winery, for about six hours. It is then grilled until medium rare. After it is grilled, the duck is set aside to rest for about 15 minutes and is then teamed up with either a raspberry demi-glace or a cranberry-peach chutney, fresh asparagus and mashed maple sweet potatoes. “It’s out of this world,” says Carrington, who adds that the dish pairs well with the winery’s Meritage blend of red wines.

At Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan, N.Y, chef Frank Caravita says the big, bold flavors of Asian and Mexican cuisines are the perfect complement to the winery’s white wines, particularly its Riesling.

“I’m always trying to pair the wine now with Asian and Mexican flavors,” says Caravita, who oversees the winery’s cafe and prepares its premade gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads. “Riesling does really well with spicy food; the spiciness brings out the characteristics, the sweetness of the wine. Today I made a pork dish that was crusted with chile powder and brown sugar and served with papaya salsa. And I also did some pan-seared scallops with Chinese five-spice on them, served with Chinese coleslaw and pepper-garlic jelly. That one also pairs really well with the Riesling.”

Caravita notes that his menu changes daily, especially since it is primarily composed of sandwiches, “which don’t last very long, so we want to change it up as often as possible.”

Prices at the cafe, which seats 30 indoors and an additional 50 on the patio during the warmer months, range from $3.50 for salads to $3.75 for soup to $5.75 for sandwiches.

Increased tourism is a driving factor in the growing number of restaurants that have cropped up in recent years—especially on vineyards’ grounds, says Gene Pierce, owner of Knapp Wineries in Romulus, N.Y. Last year, more than 70,000 tourists visited the area.

“People literally would have to travel 12 to 15 miles to find something to eat,” he says. “And if they did, oftentimes they wouldn’t come back” to the winery.

Now, he continues, “they want something different. They come to wine country with a certain expectation, to find something they wouldn’t get in the city.”

Pierce, who operates a 55-seat fine-dining restaurant on Knapp’s grounds, says that offering food is just good business.

“For us, the restaurant brings in money, but it’s also beneficial in the sense that it brings visitors into the winery,” he says. “We definitely make a conscious effort to pair foods and wine in order to showcase the wines as well as provide a service to our customers.”

Special Report

Food to drink by: Cuisines of wine and sake regions

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