If you spend time in the Catskills during the summer and want pizzazz instead of pizza for a change, the dining choices keep getting better. Just as bungalows are giving way to houses with all the comforts of home, restaurants in the Catskills are taking on characteristics of their more sophisticated city and suburban cousins. You can still get a good brisket, but now it’s more likely to be smoked, shredded and served on slider buns.
On a recent Thursday evening I went with a friend to the newly opened Mountaintop Grill at The Chalet Hotel, just outside the epicenter of the bustling summer enclave of Woodbourne, at 54 Chesters Road. While the hotel caters to a largely yeshivish and chasidish crowd, the restaurant is designed for all kosher consumers. The large space boasts high ceilings strung with lights and is filled with picnic tables stained to a high gloss. The grill menu has both finger foods and plated meals, mostly meat, with assorted garnishes and sauces.
The menu and décor were designed by B. Landau, a computer and culinary consultant in New York, who has always loved to eat, cook and experiment. Originally from Israel, he has worked in a variety of restaurants and catering businesses and maintains a dual life as a business and food expert. A friend recruited him to come to the Chalet for the summer and help develop a new restaurant. A steakhouse for the past few years, the owner wanted a more practical concept.
“There was a need for something in between fast food and fine dining, somewhere the family could go without breaking the bank, but with delicious, high-quality, fresh food,” Landau said in a phone interview. To achieve the best-quality meat, Landau buys a whole side of beef, cutting it up into steaks and grinding the meat for burgers himself—no fillers.
Landau said he looked at what other restaurants were doing, noting which ones were successful and which ones closed. He discovered the key metric was simplicity with a shorter menu and a specialty in one area.
Landau developed a grill menu with enough choices to give diners options without being overwhelming. He carried the simplicity with quality theme into the décor as well: It is simple but clean and elegant. Landau and staff built and stained the tables themselves.
At our visit, my friend and I shared crunchy chips and piquant guacamole, a trio of beef sliders cooked to a perfect medium rare, served on fresh buns with tomatoes, pickles and house garlic aioli sauce (a nice change from ketchup), and slow-cooked boneless riblets in a barbecue sauce with an excellent balance of smoky, sweet and tangy flavor. The restaurant also serves a selection of beer and cocktails. Landau said they had the liquor license from when the restaurant was a steakhouse and decided they may as well use it. And who doesn’t love a beer with a burger?
A meal at the Mountaintop Grill, can be just one part of a family getaway day. Landau said that with a call ahead to the office, restaurant guests can enjoy an afternoon at the hotel, boating on the lake, strolling on the beautiful grounds or spending an hour in the escape game room, hunting for clues to solve puzzles. Dinner at the Mountaintop Grill is the finale. “We have great food, great décor and great vibes,” Landau said.
Although the steakhouse menu wasn’t right for the Chalet, there are two in the area with top-of-the-line meat and prices to match. UpSteak NY (a play on the designation “upstate”) opened last month at 951 New York Highway 17b in Mongaup Valley. PrimeCut at the Raleigh Hotel, 243 Heiden Road, in South Fallsburg, launched seven years ago.
Fouad Kerendian, a veteran Monticello restaurant owner, opened UpSteak NY after his first kosher venture, River Edge Steakhouse, didn’t work out. Now he has a new chef/partner who has revised the space and the menu. Along with prime meats, UpSteak NY has a wine list and serves cocktails.
Kerendian sees the area growing. He is attracting affluent customers who have built luxury second homes and want a nice city-style dinner. He’s also attracting kosher diners from Monroe and other areas who are close enough to visit for a night out. He’s thinking about keeping the restaurant open all year, as many of his customers have winterized second homes and plan to use them after the summer.
The Raleigh Hotel is one of the last from the Borscht Belt era still in use but has a very different atmosphere today. Ten years ago a new owner made it strictly kosher. Three years later, Primecut Steakhouse was introduced for both hotel guests and visitors to the area. The restaurant chef, who runs a big catering firm in Brooklyn during the year, butchers and ages the steaks himself to ensure top-quality meat. Dov, the owner, said people come from Monsey as well as the mountains who “want something nice and rich, new and fresh.” Midweek, PrimeCut attracts couples and groups, including women who live in the mountains all summer and have a “ladies night out.” The Raleigh is now only open weekends and is filled with people for simchas and family get-togethers. But Dov said he’s planning to open all week and be open year-round, with newly built private homes available for daily rental.
If you’re looking for dairy or vegetarian dining, try The Citrus Café in the heart of Woodbourne at 436 NY-52. In a spacious, though nondescript room, Citrus Café serves excellent salads, pastas, fish, paninis and wraps. Delicious personal pizza too. Service can be spotty at times, but try to sit back, relax and know your meal will arrive and you will probably be very happy.
Sushi is now ubiquitous in kosher dining and it has established a foothold in the Catskills. Simply Sushi, 343 E Broadway, in Monticello, opened several years ago and continues to draw crowds for its first-rate sushi, wraps, knishes, salads and specialty frozen coffee drinks. There is a small inside area for seating and a larger area with tables outside.
Star Gelt Café, 1128 NY-52 in Loch Sheldrake, overlooking the lake, serves a dairy menu for breakfast and lunch and is now open through dinner. All seating is on an outdoor deck, with a permanent roof boasting ceiling fans and an enclosure that can be rolled down and zipped to keep diners dry in the rain. Start your day with waffles, pancakes, muffins or omelets. The tuna melt on bagel works equally well for breakfast or lunch. Salads, fish and pasta round out the menu.
The Catskills resorts your bubby knew are long gone. But Orthodox second-home developments are bringing more people to the Catskills, and an increasing number of good kosher restaurants to serve them.
By Bracha Schwartz