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For the typical New York City resident upstate New York begins at the end of the Bronx, for long Islanders it begins when you cross the Throgs Neck Bridge.
Although our island contains almost 15 million residents, the lion’s share of the state population, there is more to New York State. This series will cover the Central New York area. In fact we will be at the very geographic center of New York: Oneida County.
Just about 5 hours from the city line north on the throughway (87) make the left at Albany (90) and “go west”. The drive is quite easy and the trip up is part of the vacation. Stop often along the way and eat light since the real food starts in Utica. The train is another option: it is about 4.5 hours from Penn Station and the expense can range from about $60 to over $100. It depends on what’s available so call in advance and get a reasonable seat. It has been suggested to me that the business class is the best because of the added facilities so get the cheapest ticket and add the upgrade. When you arrive rent a car and stay awhile. There is a lot to see and do but take it easy. This is the country.
Our first introduction to the contemporary culinary of Utica was the Tailor and the Cook. Having a long background in eating, several items stand out. The site location of the restaurant in general is somewhat difficult to work but the crowds that fill the restaurant emphasize the good food. Besides after the first visit one will not forget how to get there, what time to arrive and what to order. I am told that there is almost a three month wait for reservations so call them and beg for a spot to sit. The food is fresh, locally grown and served in creative dishes that will cause your taste buds to demand more. I had the coffee crusted steak. And, yes, I had the mandatory Utica Greens. Chris Talgo, one of the owners, said it is a Utica Tradition. Eating them was a symphony for the mouth. Dinner was almost three hours long and the place was consistently filled with a waiting line to get in. I am told this is how it is every night. The wait staff must do exercises on the off hours because they really are attentive to the customers and the service is fast considering the high quality dishes. While eating an appetizer, watch Chef Tim Hardiman, another owner, in the kitchen. His face shows the intensity of a long distance runner. He seems to be the food! Each dish is prepared under his watchful eye or with his hands adding the final touch. Since the menu utilizes locally supplied produce whenever possible, the restaurant contributes to the local economy.
Tonight, I spent time with Virginia Pulasky at the Blueberry Brooke Bed & Breakfast just outside of Utica. The inn is located in a gut renovated farmhouse fully taken down to the studs and rebuilt with modern facilities, updated rooms and a real farm breakfast that would prepare you for heavy labor. Aside from the quiet location and the food, a real attraction is the interior decoration. Virginia took special care and pride to decorate in a “Victorian-like” style. And she hit the mark! Be sure to visit every room. The paint colors, artwork, lighting and decoration show a masterful hand and extreme sensitivity to the Victorian era. This is a place for ethereal awaking and spiritual relaxation. Find any excuse to be here: wedding, general party, Baker Street gathering or a just a special weekend away. This is where Prince Albert would stay.
The Village of Clinton is a reminder that the old days of a sleepy country village are still alive. It looks and feels like a Hollywood set for The Music Man. Band concerts in the gazebo, old buildings surrounding the park, neat, clean and friendly neighbors. Dorothy you are not in the city anymore. Ferris Betrus, president of the Historical Society and all-round community volunteer showed how the society guides the main buildings in their general historical restoration that brings a local economic growth. While a few scattered buildings apparently haven’t gotten with the program, the rest of the town has and the new businesses and art galleries lend a positive note to the many community events and festivals held each year. An added aspect for the architectural admirer is that many of the businesses have wall pictures that show that building as it was in the early 1900’s or older. As you shop look for the pictures that tell the story of town progress.
Lunch today was at the Café CaNole in New Hartford. If you’ve ever wanted to speak Italian, the food here will give you all the words you need. Chef Dean works the kitchen like he owns it (which he does) and prepares every dish like he was serving his wife (who also eats there). To say you're treated like family may be an overused expression but how otherwise to express the comfort nature of the food.
After lunch we took a walk around the Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum of Art in Utica. Established in 1919, it has a very large sampling of artistic styles and mediums. The main building itself is an “architectural artwork” with the foundation designed to allow the building appear to float above the ground. Connected to the complex is the Fountain Elms, an Italianate style mansion, the actual home of the Williams Family (benefactors) and the period rooms showing how they lived almost 100 years ago. The rather large complex and variety of exhibits allows it to compete on the world stage of art but the need for community commitment is also present so several of the gallery spaces are used for concerts or major local events. There is an associate educational School of Art which offers courses in the arts. All of this commitment enables the Museum to provide for the past, present and the future.
No tour of Utica would be complete without a tour of the Saranac Brewery. For more than 100 years the Matt family has been an economic mainstay of the area and a force within the brewing community. They employ both full and part time local folks and then get extra help from the nearby colleges. Tours schedules are posted on the internet and they cover the full brewing process. Not so much that you could steal ideas but enough that some might be interested in home brew. If drinking beer is not to your liking, take the tour anyway, for along with the free sample at the end of the tour a non-alcoholic birch beer is also made on site and can be sampled. A little known item is that the Saranac Brewery brews beers for smaller local beers throughout the country that do not have the facilities for a large scale production and the Matt Family accommodates their specific secret recipe.
Sylva Beach, located on the shores of Lake Oneida, is a wonderful community of year round and summer rentals with the added benefit of an old style amusement park. No slick operations here just the basics: games, amusements and rides. Come visit one of the oldest carousels in New York State. My stay tonight was at the Sunset Cottages. It has a variety of units from 1 to 4 bedroom cottages but I stayed in a small house keeping unit with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, bath, living room and eating area. Neat, clean, modern and right off the lake!
With its location on the Erie Canal, the Sylvan Beach community also lends itself to boating adventures. But if boating, sun tanning, lake bathing is not to your liking, then visit to bask in the warmth of the community. While there, say a big “hello” to Jeannie at the Canal View Café. Yes, it is in view of the Erie Canal and is also in view of the sun setting into Lake Oneida. Get a window seat and be impressed. Also impressive is A & A Treasures a short walk away. It was a bowling alley and has been converted into a year round miniature shopping mall for antiques and collectables. Look for the little bowling target arrows on the floor.
Fort Rickey Children’s Discovery Zoo is also located in Rome. And, like a recent movie, it is a real family run zoo with an emphasis on “hands-on” children’s fun, exploration and adventure. Visit the website for hours, admissions and location. I already made plans to return for a visit with the family even if I have to borrow a child. Potty trained, of course!
Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome is an easy place to find. Travel up the Hudson to the end of the Mohawk River and just portage about 3 miles to the west heading to Lake Oneida. The Oneidas called it “Deowainsta”, the Carrying Place. They could travel and trade to and from the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Hudson River to the Mohawk River that goes as far as present day Rome. Then they would portage across a strip of land only about 6 miles wide to get into the Great Lakes to trade further west. Fort Stanwix was the scene of two battles during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. If the children or teens have any historic interest in United States History, then this is a field trip to take. Over time the original fort deteriorated and disappeared under development, industry and modern society. The people of Rome never forgot their history and when the opportunity could be made the fort was rebuilt in the exact same spot and the same exact design. I guess in the long run the settlers frontier spirit never died. The National Park Service has done a great job in the interpretation center, but to keep the interest of the children, it may not be necessary to really study the exhibits. The NPS does not do a quiz at the end of the tour. View the exhibits and proceed to the Fort itself.
My Sunday Brunch before leaving Oneida County was at Michelina’s at the Beeches. The romance of the atmosphere, the smells of the foods and the attentive service made each moment special. From the statue of the Capitoline Wolf in the front to the “F. Scott Fitzgerald” style pool in the back. Elegance and quality are paramount and the staff delivers. It will be very lonely without the one you love so take them with you. Although it was a brunch buffet, I can only admit to one piece of pie but I was tempted for more. My spirit is so weak.
The trip back to NYC was just as easy as the trip up but remember that the city traffic on a Sunday night heads into Long Island, so plan on additional stops along the way down.