FROM THE ENTRANCE of Stissing House, a new restaurant with a long history at the corner of Main Street and NY-199 in Pine Plains, you can see three fireplaces and a wide hallway. It leads past a warren of small dining rooms to the main action: a capacious space with north- and east-facing windows, anchored by an impressive bar (seating for 12) and a busy open kitchen. Behind a high counter, a half dozen cooks move from prep stations to an enormous wood-fired oven. When I first visited, on a night in late spring a few months after the restaurant’s opening, my eye went directly to Clare de Boer, the chef and owner, a striking figure in white working on the line, and then to a massive, appealingly askew tower of butter under a glass cake dome.
De Boer, best known for King, a jewel box of a restaurant that she opened with two partners in Manhattan’s SoHo, first saw the Stissing House space back when the world was closed due to Covid. Before the pandemic, De Boer had already been away from a restaurant kitchen for half a year, on maternity leave after the birth of her first son, Abe. With the fate of King uncertain, and a growing frustration with the online chef life (“cooking demos, Instagramming what you’re doing for dinner — it sucks”), De Boer lit up at the possibility of breathing new life into a space with good bones and its own story. The vision was a kind of country Americana take on what she’s known for at King — what the New York Times critic Pete Wells approvingly labeled, “food on a plate in a room.” In De Boer’s words, it is to “serve nice easy food and do it really well.” She likens it to the earthy abundance one finds in Italy — “local people eating local stuff, and it’s amazing, just because it’s so simple. The tavern sets a similar stage; it’s in the middle of beautiful farmland. It’s an incredible building. No nonsense, just plain old luxury.”
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That plain old luxury goes way back. Built in 1782, Stissing House has had a varied existence as a watering hole, inn, brothel, schoolhouse, yoga studio, and biker bar. In the latter incarnation, so goes the lore, the wide-plank floors were often left bloody by late-night brawls, and the rule was that if you could see over the bar, you were old enough to order a drink. The second floor boasts the first domed ballroom in the United States — a previous tenant removed guest-room walls to reveal its smoothly arcing ceiling. Although Pine Plains is a bit west of the Hudson River and the glamorous center of that upstate, farm-to-table, old Dutch charm, it was, in its day, a commercial hub, a crossroads with an opera house and vaudeville theater. “This place has seen it all, and you feel a little dwarfed by it,” De Boer says. “I want to do my best not to disrupt the energy that got it here.”
The farmland-adjacent setting is part of the appeal, though in practice it has proved an occasional challenge. In late winter, it was hard to source from local vendors. Nearby farms weren’t growing yet. Stissing House’s pastry chef, Suzanne Nelson, told me that on a recent afternoon, her order of rhubarb showed up late and unusable, so she had to improvise. Nelson, formerly of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, but also, De Boer notes with pride, the product of a pub-owning family in the U.K., described the magical moment when the fires get lit. And when I asked what time that usually happens, she laughed and said, “Whenever the wood guy shows up.” There have been staffing challenges to overcome too. When I talked to De Boer on a Sunday afternoon, she mentioned staying until midnight after two busy weekend shifts, working in the dish pit because they couldn’t find a dishwasher.
But as the seasons progressed, she anticipated having the simple luxuries close at hand. In the city, she pointed out, even the most precious egg is a week old. Upstate you can serve an egg on the day it was laid. “As spring hits, the yolks change completely, the flavor of the egg transforms. Winter eggs are a bit dull because the chickens are eating corn. Spring comes and they’re free roaming and it’s bugs, bugs, bugs, so the yolk is a more vibrant orange.” At Stissing House, an egg is served with frisée salad, and the idea is to not do too much, letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
Lest this rhapsodizing about egg yolks sound too lofty, De Boer says, “I am not that interested in chefy-chefy, restauranty restaurants. I never want to be aware of eating a chef’s food.” Stissing House, by contrast, “just asks you to hang out. It is a place for misbehaving children.” Her ideal vibe on a Sunday: “Everyone starts drinking at noon and has a big, long, lazy lunch that lasts three hours. I bring Abe [now two and a half] on Sundays, and I ask him to set the tone, and set it low. So he’s driving his tractor all around and throwing napkins.”
The opening has been a process of adapting an initial vision as the team learns what people want. “The reality is always harder but better, because it doesn’t belong to you anymore,” De Boer says — which also seems like a nice summary of the general ethos of the place. Nelson observes that female-led kitchens tend to be more responsive. The open kitchen lends itself to that responsiveness, with De Boer noting that she has always worked in an open kitchen, at King and at London’s celebrated River Café, and wouldn’t want it any different. It has some of the joy of making a feast at home, hanging out with the people you are cooking for, and then sitting down to eat together. “You’re participating in the restaurant, you’re feeding off the energy,” she says. “You cook something, and you send it out and they take that first bite and smile.” She holds up her fist, tightened to roughly the size of an oyster. “The endorphin loop is that small.”
There are oysters on the starter menu, by the way, as well as sliced ham (smoked and glazed with quince), and a festive green artichoke served with mayo. On that spring evening, my partner and I sat at the bar and ate scallops that came off coals in the wood-fired oven. These arrived on shells in a pool of green garlic butter that demanded more bread to soak it up. The bread, like most of the main dishes, comes out of the wood-fired oven. It was all, as promised, unfussy and very good. After we ordered a sticky toffee sundae for dessert, the bartender moved toward the rest of the extra bread in an effort to take it away, along with the dish with a little wedge from the butter tower. But I didn’t want to part with anything; it was all too delicious — even if this was a perversion of the usual run of show. The bartender smiled indulgently and left my bread and butter alone, as though to say, “As you wish.”
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Anna Godbersen Writer
Anna Godbersen is the author of several novels for young adults, including the best-selling Luxe series. She is the current Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence at NYU.
Chris Mottalini Photographer
Chris Mottalini is a partially colorblind photographer based in New York City. He grew up in Buffalo and studied journalism and photography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Uppsala University, Sweden.