HIGH FALLS, N. Y. -- Eighteen years ago this week, food writer Mimi Sheraton put forth a bold claim in a Time magazine cover story: The "father of new American cooking" was working not in California but in New York state.
Two years before Alice Waters opened Berkeley's Chez Panisse in 1971, Sheraton wrote in her Aug. 26, 1985, article, "John Novi, 43, began free-associating ethnic influences for dishes at his DePuy Canal House, a restored wood-and-stone tavern dating from 1797."
Novi's hair has gone white since his photo ran in Time. And at 60 he's looking more grandfatherly than fatherly. But you'll still find him overseeing his kitchen Thursdays through Sundays, flanked by a crew of young chefs plucked mostly from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, a few miles down the road in the Hudson Valley, which relocated from New Haven three years after Novi opened his restaurant.
Novi's own training as a chef wasn't so academic. He worked in his parents' bakery here in High Falls, then spent 1968 in several hotel kitchens in Sorrento, Italy, before returning home and opening his restaurant in 1969. A canal buff, he had bought the building five years earlier, at age 19, with $4,500 borrowed from "the richest guy in town." Water, heat, electricity, and a kitchen were added later, via a loan of another $10,000. Craig Claiborne visited eight months after the restaurant opened and awarded it four stars in The New York Times.
Novi's operation has since expanded to include a bistro, a bed and breakfast, and a store. But the chief lure is still the restaurant: its homey series of warm, dark-wood dining rooms; its expert dining room staff; and above all its adventurous, regionally inspired cuisine. You might start with, say, a Hudson Valley foie gras pate floating on duck broth ($14); follow it with pan-seared beef tenderloin with local maitake mushrooms, wild rice cake, and sweet snap peas over roasted shallot demi-glace ($34); and accompany this with a $30 bottle of cabernet franc from the Millbrook winery across the Hudson.
The menu evolves daily. "Chefs out East have to be concerned with four seasons," Novi says. "We have to be creative."
DePuy Canal House, Route 213, High Falls, N. Y., 845-687-7700, www.depuycanalhouse.net. Open Thursday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11:30-2 p.m.; Sunday dinner, 4-9 p.m. Entrees $23-$45; four-course dinner $60; seven-course dinner $75.