Provence In Pine Plains: Stissing House
By Don Rosendale
To see Michel Jean perched at a table in his Pine Plains restaurant, Stissing House, evokes thoughts of a French Impressionist self-portrait. Except that Jean is an artiste of a different sort, his brush a whisk at what many will say is the best French restaurant north of Yankee Stadium.
But he leaps to correct the notion, with his thick-as-bouillabaisse accent, that Stissing House even is a “French” restaurant. Jean was born in a small town above Nice, in the Provencal district of France, and he gestures to his right as if he were standing on the Boulevard de Anglais in Nice, with the Mediterranean at his back. “Over here, we have Italy,” and then to his left, “Over there is Spain, and then Morocco is right across the Med. And my cuisine is Provencal, which is a blend of all of them.”
As a boy, Jean says, he wanted to cook and travel, and he figured that as a chef he’d satisfy both of these yearnings, so he enrolled in the French equivalent of the Culinary Institute, the Ecole Hoteliere in Avignon. After he graduated in 1968, he began a journey that took him from cruise ships which traveled half the world, working apron-to-apron with chefs who had three Michelin stars (the highest possible rating from that guide), to the kitchen of the king of Morocco, to Aspen, Colorado where he skied by day and cooked by night, and finally to New York where he was the dashing tuxedo-clad maître’d at Regine’s in New York City, a boite where you dined on Michelin-caliber French cuisine and then discoed until dawn.
It was there that Jean met his wife, Patricia, who minds the front of the house at the Pine Plains restaurant, and who, because of her striking looks, is sometimes identified as a “former model.” Jean corrects that—she was an artist studying in New York. At this point, he decided with his new bride that it was time they owned a restaurant, and they found “this lovely little place in SoHo with a garden out back” and in 1986 opened a restaurant called, perhaps predictably, Provence, which won plaudits and multiple stars from The New York Times.
But Jean longed for a life in the country, like his boyhood in Provence. “I like to hunt,” he says, once again expressively holding an invisible shotgun to show what kind of hunting he means, “and ride horses. I wanted a house on a hill that I could restore.” In 1989, he found them both in Pine Plains, two miles from Stissing House.
What is now Jean’s Dutchess County restaurant began life in 1782, and over the centuries served as inn, tavern, restaurant, bawdy house, and sometimes hotel; one of its 18th Century guests was, appropriately enough, the Marquis de Lafayette. In the 1990s, it underwent a total renovation that left its Revolutionary era beams, bar, and fireplaces intact but added a wood-fired pizza grill facing the tap room and a new open kitchen. Despite the renovations, the dining spot didn’t take off until 2006, when the Jeans closed Provence, moved to Pine Plains full time, and stepped up to the Pine Plains plate. (The Jeans actually don’t own the building, but rent the space.)
Jean, who tends to measure stars by the Michelin standard, says, referring to a publication he doesn’t recall the name of, “There is this newspaper. I don’t know how many stars they give, maybe five, but they never give anybody five, but they gave me five.” Since then, a crowd with a taste for a better quality French—sorry, Provençal—dining has worn a path to his door.
Stissing House is only open for dinner Thursday through Sunday, with brunch on the weekend. The menu changes every week, depending on what is fresh from the market; the Stissing House menu lists its local farm-to-table sources. Last week the specialties were Dover Sole meuniere ($36), pot a feu ($32), and a yellow beet and gorgonzola pizza. On the regular menu, popular entrees are organic chicken ($26) or a trout Grenoblaise ($24). With the emphasis on fresh produce, the locavore-oriented Jean defends one of his exceptions, the Dover Sole, which comes from France: “It is not frozen; it’s shipped by air fresh from France, and I can only do this because the supplier is a friend of mine.” Jean says that he likes to work with “classic” dishes such a rabbit and ox tail, although they’re not always popular because “people aren’t familiar with them, or they are counting calories.”
What distinguishes the Stissing House from other white tablecloth restaurants in the region is the breadth of its wine list—with New York, California, French, Italian, Argentine, and New Zealand wines, priced at only a slight markup over wine-store prices. (There’s my favorite Bordeaux, Chateau Priure Lichine, at $85, and a Pouilly Fume, at $45). Get a table in one of the small dining rooms off the main taproom, pair the Lichine with the $29 braised short ribs or the duck. Reserve early, and tell Jean how many stars you think his cuisine rates. And don’t go to Stissing House to count your calories.
7801 South Main Street
Pine Plains, NY
Thursday: 5:30 - 9 p.m.
Friday: 5:30 - 10:30 p.m.
Saturday: 12 - 3 p.m.; 5:30 - 10:30 p.m.
Sunday: 12 - 9 p.m.