A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 18, 2009
So, I’m driving to Albany, going to see a movie – there are a lot of high quality, grown-up movies out right now, but, living in the Catskills, you have to travel a bit to see them. I decide to take a cross-country route to the Capital District, looking for a little mountain adventure on a gray, ground-hog’s-seen-his-shadow late winter day.
I drive up Route 30, through Grand Gorge and North Blenheim, Middleburgh and Schoharie, to the intersection of Route 30 and Route 443, just beyond the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie. There, I turn right onto Route 443 toward Gallupville. It’s an unfamiliar route to me, but the map tells me I’ll enter Albany on Delaware Avenue, site of the theater. It also just seems right, approaching the capital, as I am, from the upper Delaware River and all.
Route 443 winds its way through Gallupville and West Berne, Berne, and East Berne, climbing through the Heldeberg Mountains, and the villages and hamlets known as the Hill Towns of Albany. It’s a pretty ride. The road seems to follow the hilltops, through rugged backcountry, along the ridge of the Heldebergs, with fewer dramatic variations of elevation than in our Catskills.
Just to my left, a few miles north of my route, the Heldeberg Mountains rise majestically from the wide, flat lowland geologists today call Lake Albany, a sandy fossil-rich expanse surrounding the city, formed by an ice-age glacier that created a now-dry inland sea. The Heldeberg Escarpment is a 200-foot rocky rise that forms the northern edge of mountainous terrain above the flats of the Mohawk Valley, and curves south to form the western border of the Hudson River lowlands, as well.
John Boyd Thatcher State Park straddles the escarpment. Signs direct the traveler from Route 443 to the park, and it’s well worth the trip. Thatcher Park is one of the most beautiful places in the state, and it’s right in our side yard. On a clear day, one can see from the Park’s escarpment trail, the Adirondacks to the north, and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east, as well as the Mohawk Valley and Capital District at one’s feet. It’s a great place.
But I had a movie to catch, and, being unfamiliar with the route, was unsure of how to gauge my time. Thatcher Park would have to wait for another day. I followed Route 443 east, past the signs for the park, into Clarksville, a little country hamlet not unlike many in our own mountains. That’s when I saw the sign: Jake Moon Restaurant and Café.
It was unmistakable. The sign would be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the former Jake Moon Restaurant in Big Indian, precursor to today’s vibrant and delightful Peekamoose Restaurant, successor to the inventive and original now-long-gone Rudi’s Big Indian. I caught the sign out of the corner of my eye: the yellow and burnt umber color scheme, the long, narrow-faced bearded mountain man in a soft, wide-brimmed felt hat, the squinty, narrow-eyed stare. It was Jake Moon! I had to stop, turn-around, pull-in. The movie could wait.
Chef Dan Smith grew up in Woodland Valley, learned his craft while serving in the Army in Europe, where he earned a degree in Restaurant Management and graduated from La Varenne School of Cuisine in Paris. He honed his skills under chef Eugene Bernard, a Basque who stressed the use of fresh local produce. Dan was Executive Chef at Rudi’s Big Indian, and bought that restaurant in 1994 establishing the first Jake Moon.
Jake Moon himself was a legendary Catskill Mountain Man and Dan Smith’s great-great-great granduncle. Of both Native American and European heritage, Jake Moon was one of the first settlers of Chichester. He stood 6-foot, 6-inches tall, was a bark-peeler and railroad man, and a local character.
Once, he was a night watchman at the rail yard in the Stony Clove Notch above Chichester. Asleep in the guard’s shack, he was suddenly awakened by a landslide that carried him and the building he was in down hill onto the railroad tracks, into the path of an ill-timed on-coming train. I’m not sure how he survived, but he did, starting his family when in his 70s. A number of his descendants, direct and collateral, still live here in the mountains.
And one, Dan Smith, “retired” to Clarksville where last month he opened his new version of Jake Moon. I had lunch, a terrific grilled chicken sandwich on homemade dill bread with a wonderful handmade cole slaw. Dan serves breakfast and lunch daily (Monday to Thursday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.), weekend dinners (Friday and Saturday 6 a.m.-9 p.m.) and Sunday breakfast and brunch (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Like the Catskill Mountain Cuisine he refined in Big Indian, Dan uses fresh local ingredients including dairy products from a farm just down the road from his place and grass fed beef from another Albany County farmer. The food is great.
Jake Moon Restaurant and Café is at 2082 Delaware Turnpike (Route 443) about 25 miles from Route 30 north of Schoharie, about 11 miles this side of Albany.
If you are looking for a pleasant ride and a taste of home away from home, try Dan Smith’s new digs. It’s good.
And I made the movie!