Fish & Game: An Ode to Hudson’s Tasty Past
by Dale Stewart
It was around this time last year that Zak Pelaccio, pioneer of the nose-to-tail culinary movement, made his Hudson debut, holding court like a rock star at his booth at the second annual Ramp Fest. One could hear Pelaccio’s deep belly laugh throughout the packed building. Reporters, bloggers, and foodies lined up two deep to talk to him: He kept his sunglasses and straw hat on and a can of Pork Slap beer in his hand, giving passersby even more reason to speculate on who was getting a hero’s welcome, and taking the spotlight from the elusive ramp. (Photo at left from Carole Osterink’s Gossips of Rivertown.)
Over the next year, rumors of Pelaccio possibly opening a restaurant in Columbia County were in full swing, spreading from Old Chatham (near his family farm) to Hudson, where Pelaccio has just opened Fish & Game, immediately scoring key mentions in GQ, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Grub Street and Eater. “It’s a bit much, right?” Pelaccio says of all the attention. “It’s hard to do things quietly in a small town, and food right now is so hip. Opening any new venture, but particularly a restaurant, is very personal. We’re a small, tight-knit group and we’re still figuring out what Fish & Game is. We spent a lot of time building it, but it’s not until we got into the space and felt it out that we really understood what kind of animal it was.” This is a departure from the Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue empire Pelaccio built in New York City, and in which he will shift his role to adviser and occasional collaborator.
Pelaccio started this venture with Hollywood heavyweight Patrick Milling Smith and the chef’s “tight-knit crew,” consisting of general manager Scott Brenner, co-chef Kevin Pomplun, and bar director Kat Dunn. “We also have our friend Walter Grohs working with us in our baking program; he’s so amazing, he’s from another planet,” Pelaccio praises. And the team wouldn’t be complete without their secret weapon, alchemist and “wife,” Jori Jayne Emde, who collaborated with Pelaccio on his noted cookbook, Eat with Your Hands. “We’re not legally married,” Pelaccio jumps in to say, “We just say we’re married because we share everything and live together. We just haven’t gone to city hall.” More than year ago he and Emde left Brooklyn for permanent residence in Columbia County, just two hours north of Manhattan.
With his scruffy beard and wildly curly long hair, Pelaccio gives off a calm, laid back vibe: He seems more like a Coachella music festival attendee than a chef who’s earned a reputation for sparking culinary trends. He’s also a genuinely nice guy; a no-ego collaborator who has no fear of losing the spotlight, quick to praise the members of his staff as equals he couldn’t live without. Emde jokes, “He literally could not be in the kitchen for three weeks and everyone would still write about the amazing meal and what a great cook Zak is.”
The process and end results of his efforts are perhaps the keys to his fame. Fish & Game boasts an intimate dining room with seating for about 36 guests, with two prix-fixe menus ($68 each), “Omnivore” and “Vegetarian,” Pelaccio says. Many of the dishes themselves are spiked with house-made, one-of-a-kind condiments produced by Emde from Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, vermouth, vinegars, and kimchis. There are few things she has not thought of fermenting. “I put a lot of focus into not wasting anything, from carrot tops to their skins for a vinegar. I can make the bitters for the bar and all the tinctures, and even mustard.” It’s that zest that gives the flavors such unique layering. On a recent menu the grilled lamb was soaked in an anchovy marinade that really gave the dish legs.
The kitchen is equipped with both the latest gadgetry and some time-honored tools, including a CVap (Controlled Vapor Technology oven), rotary evaporator, and an old-fashioned wood stove with hand-forged rotisserie. Pelaccio executes the orders that come in, calmly reading the new tickets with the precision of a surgeon. He tastes almost everything that comes out of the kitchen, nodding his head in agreement with the preparation. The open kitchen serves as therapy of sorts; Emde points out that “It’s more motivational to not scream and yell in the kitchen,” although Pelaccio is quick to laugh and point out, “I can get snippy,” and jokingly says, “I usually sleep on the couch and Jori does all the work, and I wake up and take all the credit.”
Fish & Game’s seasonally driven ingredients are sourced from farmers and artisans throughout the Hudson Valley, as well as gathered and collected by the culinary team from local forests, fields, and rivers. The dishes come out of the kitchen exquisitely plated and thoroughly explained by a well-trained staff. The vegetarian version is often a subdued take on the meaty counterpart, with some serious standouts like the parsnip “abacus” dumplings with charred onions, cooked in whey and amaranth, and a rich mushroom broth with thinly shaved radish and sherry over akaogi farm rice ramp ragout. On the “omnivore’s” menu, a signature dish is smoked Vermont cut of pork with fiddleheads, red orach, yarrow, and mostarda, each with overwintered carrots with a maple sap glaze (and smoked pork belly for meat eaters) with pepperwort. On a particular night, both menus had asparagus with duck egg hollandaise, an assortment of leaves borage vinegar, angel flake salt, and ended with a chocolate cremeaux Vermont black walnut with spiced crème fraiche. The bar menu changes frequently, but dishes like country pâté with rhubarb kimchi will be likely mainstays.
Fish & Game found its home in a 19th century blacksmith’s shop, its boudoir meets men’s cigar lounge meets high-end brothel vibe a stylistic reinterpretation of Hudson’s past. All of the factions bonded together with the keen eye of architect and interior designer Michael Davis, who says, “This was a wonderful collaboration, among numerous people, to capture the spirit of Hudson. We had this very old building to contend with, and in the end we were able to preserve it with effort and affection.” In the dining room, Mid-century modern Italian chairs mix with handmade black walnut dining tables made by a local Hudson Valley artist. The fireplaces in the dining room and bar, and the wood-burning oven were made with brick and stone salvaged during construction. The space’s undeniable style is an ode to Hudson’s bordello past and stylish present, with deep-colored walls and red-velvet wallpaper, rich leather sofas, library-sized wing back chairs, and dark gray wool-like banquets encircling the dining room. (The space in its entirety was skillfully constructed by Hudson’s Peggy Anderson Associates.)
In the not-too-distant future, the restaurant will also offer an upstairs wine room/private dining room for intimate parties. Right now, Pelaccio wants to know a few things before he rests. “How are we doing with the menu we are serving? How is it being received by our guests? We can’t delegate that, we can’t hire someone for that. I’m sure at some point we’ll have some semblance of a life back. Or at least get a nap.”
Fish & Game
13 South Third Street