IN THE NEWS
In the Finger Lakes, the food scene is catching up to the wine scene
Manager Joachim Ohlin, left, and food/beverage director Ed Moro have turned the Divine Kitchen-Bar at Seneca Falls’ Hotel Clarence into the latest Finger Lakes restaurant with an emphasis on fresh, local flavors.
Ed Moro has worked as a chef in tourist-oriented Aspen, Colo., and in “wine country” destinations like Napa, Calif., and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
For the past 10 years, he’s put his culinary skills to work in the Finger Lakes, first as executive chef at the Mirbeau Inn & Spa in Skaneateles, and now as food/beverage director at the newly opened Hotel Clarence in Seneca Falls.
He’ll stack up the Finger Lakes as a culinary destination to rival its better known competitors.
“I knew this was a wine region when I came here,” Moro said. “At first I was concerned about how can I get local products like I got in Napa. But in Upstate New York, you have access to tremendous local produce and you get the change of season, which is a bonus.
“It makes it tremendously interesting as a place to work and to dine.”
Divine Kitchen-Bar in the Hotel Clarence is just the latest Finger Lakes dining spot to open under the direction of a chef who has designed the menu specifically to fit the region’s distinctive seasons and culinary bounty.
That bounty includes food from local farms and gourmet producers as well as wine.
Today, from Mirbeau and the Hotel Clarence at the north end of the lakes to the Stonecat and Dano’s in the southern end, these individualistic restaurants are adding to the region’s culinary reputation. And many wineries, such as Sheldrake Point, Wagner, Knapp and Red Newt, have their own on-site restaurants dedicated to local flavors.
“The idea of the Finger Lakes being a culinary destination - it’s amazing how that happened,” said Michael Turback, a former Ithaca restaurateur and food author whose books include “Greeting from the Finger Lakes: A Food and Wine Lover’s Companion.”
Things are moving so fast, Turback noted, that he already needs to update his book, which came out in 2005.
“There are now people who come here to eat and drink,” he said. “It didn’t used to be that way.”
While the number of wineries in the Finger Lakes region began to boom in the 1980s, the restaurant scene took a little longer to develop. The restaurant surge seemed to coincide with the developing reputation of Finger Lakes wine, Turback said.
“It really started 10, 12 years ago, because that’s when the wines really began to shine,” Turback said. “There began to be outside recognition, in the national press, and that started attracting chefs who wanted to build on it.”
Moro is one of those chefs. A native of Pennsylvania, he loves the idea of being back in the Northeast, and finding a rich food scene here.
“We have a short growing season,” Moro said, “but I think that makes the local produce more intense. You see it in produce like the peaches and the berries. It’s unbelievable quality, even if it’s a short window.”
As the weather turns cooler, Moro takes that as a challenge.
“I love the fall, the changing seasons,” he said. “You get to be so creative.”
Moro cites the abundance of local farm cheeses and the Amish markets near Seneca Falls among his inspirations. And then, of course, there are the wineries.
“The wineries and restaurants feed off one another,” Moro said. “I think of wine as food, and as a local product. It’s a big part of the picture.”
The combined wine-and-food scene is part of what drove the restoration of the Hotel Clarence, formerly the Gould Hotel, at 108 Fall St. (routes 5 and 20), in Seneca Falls. The last restaurant in the hotel, called the Alps, closed four or five years ago.
The hotel is named for the angel Clarence in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” (that also influenced the name “Divine” for the restaurant.) The movie tie-in themes are more subtle than you might expect, such as the continual soundless loop of the film that is projected on a lobby wall.
Moro and Hotel Clarence manager Joachim Ohlin planned the hotel and restaurant to attract locals as well as tourists. That’s why the menu prices (and the room rates), are a little lower than at some of the region’s other destination spots.
But the food will need to be top-notch to keep people coming, Ohlin said.
“The restaurants around here are raising the bar,” Joachim Ohlin said. “Everyone has to rise to the occasion, and keep getting better, because of the competition.”
Marti Macinski, owner of Standing Stone Vineyards on the southeast side of Seneca Lake, has witnessed the increasing competition among restaurants since opening her winery in 1994.
“You used to have to drive 12 to 15 miles to get any food, and it might be marginal when you found it,” Macinski said. “It’s certainly not like that anymore.”
Macinski called the opening of Mirbeau several years ago a “huge” development that put the region on the culinary map. Other restaurants opened closer to her home base, such as the Austrian-themed Dano’s and the Stone Cat Bistro
“Now great restaurants are something the area is known for - local places using local ingredients,” she said. “Our customers now expect to find them and make them part of their experience.”