WHETHER JOHN NOVI ACTUALLY “invented” Hudson Valley cuisine probably is best left to the critics or historians to decide. But there is one incontestable fact: Since 1969, when Novi opened the revered 1797 DePuy Canal House in High Falls, he has been a central force—if not the prime mover—begin putting the cuisine of the Hudson Valley on the map.
When I first opened up, all the restaurants in the area were standard menus—roast beef, portion-controlled veal, frozen fish, parfaits for dessert. I wanted to concentrate on fish. I didn’t even want to have meat on the menu, but I was told that unless I had steak on the menu and Johnny Walker Red in the Bar that I wouldn’t get any people from Kingston. So I opened up with prime rib.
Standard American Fare. American cuisine has taken several revolutions since then, and Novi was among the young chefs, including New Orleans’ Paul Prudhomme, California’s Alice Waters and New York’s Larry Forgione, who pushed the boundaries and ushered in a new American cuisine drawing from fresh, locally grown foods and intermingling them with ingredients from around the world.
It’s a step away from the usual and the norm. I did what I did from the very beginning. My style was using foods from different parts of the country, different parts of the world. What was going on in France at the time was called nouvelle cuisine, but smaller portions, which I didn’t reflect. I used a combination of foods, but also on a lighter basis—sauces made out of pureed vegetables, pureed fruits. I always used a lot of fruits and vegetables.
Eating at the Canal House involves stepping into a set. There is, of course, the historic ambiance of a 200-year-old house meticulously restored (but not necessarily “modernized”). There is, too, the service—unhurried, unharried. Each step in the process is orchestrated, whether it’s for an a la carte meal or a full, seven-course dinner.
The Canal House is one of those places that you have to get to know to really appreciate. We’ve gained a reputation for being a place to spend a few hours for dinner—it’s an experience for an entire evening. We reserve the table on a once-a-night basis, usually allowing two to three hours.
For us, every Thursday is like a big opening. The curtain goes up at 5 o’clock Thursday night, the staff is ready, the flowers are ready, the lights are on. It could be a musical production of someone wanted to put it to music. Thursday we don’t serve too many people, and I tell my staff I don’t expect any rushing. Friday we serve a few more, and then Saturday night is the crescendo. Sunday is a lighter day—we’re open for brunch and for dinner, but it’s easier and it’s easier and it’s not as stressful as Saturday night.
Canal House cuisine has been called adventurous, occasionally far out, sometimes odd, but never less than exraordinary. There are obvious (and not so obvious) influences from Italian, Spanish, and Japanese cuisines. The menu reflects the complexity of Novi himself: a four-star chef who is self taught; a restaurateur (a notoriously demanding profession) who guards his free time; a preservationist who loves the spontaneity of jazz improvisation.
In all the years I’ve been open I haven’t put a particular “style” with the canal House. In the early days I relied a lot on what I knew already, working in Italy and being raised Italian. My parents’ entire menu was Italian. We had a ravioli machine in the cellar that made 8,000 raviolis an hour. It was a business. It’s ironic that I’ve come up with a pasta dish—carrot pasta reel with ricotta cheese, a steamed pasta served on a fresh red miso tomato sauce.
Then too, Novi credits the influences of the people—often externs from the nearby Culinary Institute—who over the years have come to work with him.
It’s jazz. That’s all we’re doing, giving people space, showing them a direction. My thing is I can’t show them half as much as what they show me with a lot of these people. A German working with us brought with him choucroute dishes from his neighborhood. He taught me how to make a good choucroute au champagne—the German, Alsatian way—with onions, thyme and different sausages and pork. What I discovered was cooking octopus with sauerkraut. It really works well.
The food, of course, is the best part of going to the Canal House. It’s what Craig Claiborne gave it four stars for, it’s what people keep coming back for—to see what Novi is up to now. Just back from Italy, Novi has new ideas for his menu.
We carry a few signature dishes. I used to be more inclined to change the entire menu, but more recently I’ve been latching on to certain dishes that work really well. I’m partial to anything with fish. One of the thinks I’m enjoying right now is a salt cod estofado—a Spanish concept for an all-fish bouillabaisse that’s made with black Spanish olives, traditionally made with potatoes and onions, saffron, and Pernod. It’s cooked with clams, sea bass, lobster—I do a bunch of variations. Everything is fresh.
I like my menu to be well-balanced—game, fish, shellfish, a veal and a vegetarian item. Also what’s in season. Right now, bluefish are coming in from Long Island and soft-shell crabs from Maryland. A combination using bluefish and soft-shell crabs and scallops a fritto misto—a very popular thing in Italy—is one of my favorites. We sauté the crab and batter the bluefish and then I put an a spicy Creole sauce with lots of vegetables.
I’m going to be doing a recipe using eggplant called mozzarell encarote—cheese in a carriage. There are so many variations—you don’t even have to use cheese, you can use polenta or goat cheese—or use potato or bread (so it’s almost like a French toast). You take eggplant, peel it, slice it, cover it with salt and keep it 45 minutes to an hour, then rinse and squeeze the salt off. This gets rid of the bitterness. Put it on the grill and cook it until it has nice grill marks on it. Then make it into individual sandwiches using two pieces—in the center you put a slice of fresh mozzarella and then you press them together, dip it in flour, then dip it in egg and sauté. It is really, really good.
There are so many different ways of intermingling foods that really blend well together. I haven’t even begun—no one has.