Stephen Fries: Catskill Mountains, a drive away for food, fun and scenery

The Catskills, an area that was once a resort mecca where food and entertainment prevailed, is making a comeback with the recent opening of Resorts World Catskills. See: Generations of families, mine being one of them, returned to the area every summer seeking tranquillity and the perfect getaway. The enormous commitment of the resort has laid the foundation to restore both the luster and allure of this beautiful region of the southern Catskills.

For me, it represents a homecoming of sorts. It is in this region, where it all began, having grown up working in several of the now sadly defunct famous resorts (ie. The Concord, Kutsher’s, The Browns, Grossinger’s) that both defined the Catskills and attracted the masses for decades. It is here where I gained both the passion and experience that ignited my career in hospitality and food. Think of the movie “Dirty Dancing.” Like thousands of high school and college students, I worked at several of the now long gone famous resorts known for top name entertainment and good eating, and plenty of it.

A little more than a two hour drive from New Haven, and even closer for those with easier access to Interstate 84, the Sullivan County Catskills is what I call my country escape. This region of the Catskill Mountains nestles alongside the Delaware River. Here you will find a beautiful landscape, dotted with pristine mountain lakes, dazzling waterfalls, rivers and mountainside retreats. You might remember or most definitely heard of the legendary Woodstock music festival of 1969, held in the town of Bethel. Today, the site is known as Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a full scale concert venue and world-class tribute museum showcasing the Woodstock era.

And now, Resorts World Catskills adds another dimension of entertainment and sophistication to the area. The $1.2 billion dollar development, years in the making sits on land that was once the home of the Concord. The casino resort with 332 huge well-appointed guest rooms (the smallest being 600 square feet), each with floor to ceiling windows that offer spectacular views of the mountains, including 27 premium accommodations consisting of garden suites, penthouse suites, and two-tier villas; its 2,150 slot machines, 150 live table games, a 19-table poker room, VIP high-limit gaming area with private gaming salons, two pools. In addition, the resort offers The Crystal Life Spa, where I enjoyed an exceptional deep tissue massage, and a 2,500-seat entertainment center where Jerry Seinfeld, and award-winning singer/songwriter, Gavin DeGraw, who hails from the area, both recently performed.

And foodies will appreciate the variety of food and beverage options.

RW Food Hall is casual and fast and budget friendly. After you order from one of the self-serve kiosks, watch your order being prepared in the open kitchen. Four menus to choose from; The Grill, Salad Station, Pizza, Mexican.

Doubletop Bar & Grill is an entertainment and sports bar, with live bands, large screen televisions and a selection of local beers. Typical pub grub dishes are served with a twist, such as crispy fried wings with your choice of classic buffalo, Korean, jerk or honey BBQ served with bleu cheese or ranch dressing; baked mac and cheese with Buffalo chicken tenders, Cellentani noodles baked with aged cheddar and Gruyere cheeses, served with Buffalo chicken tenders and grilled scallions

Good Friends serves up authentic Asian street fare, with flavors inspired by China, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia in a casual setting. Spring rolls pot stickers, noodle soups, congee, stir fry, BBQ, bubble tea are prepared in the open kitchen.

Bar 360, is a trendy, chic and stylish space with live entertainment where bottle service is available.

Empire Lounge, located in the lobby of the hotel is great for people watching and enjoying handcrafted Prohibition-style cocktails. Try a signature cocktail like the Smoked Negroni (Bombay Sapphire Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, smoked on wood) or the Godfather (Macallan, 12 years old and Disaronno Ameretto)

Butterfly Beach Bar & Grill at the indoor pool serves up craft cocktails along with sushi, ceviche, tartare. Bathing suits and no shoes are allowed! A bit of South Beach in the Catskills.

24/7 Diner serves the best Belgian waffles I have ever eaten, buttermilk pancakes and comfort food classics with a twist. Several items are reminiscent of the Catskill’s past; matzoh ball soup, chopped liver, pastrami, potato pancakes. Boozy Milkshakes are like a dessert; Kahlua Cookies and Cream (vanilla ice cream, crushed Oreo cookies, Kahlua, whipped cream and a cherry); Bananas Foster (banana ice cream, Myers dark rum and caramel sauce) The only thing “diner” about the restaurant is the around-the-clock service. After all, like a big jackpot, hunger can strike at any moment.

At Lotus, a fine dining Chinese restaurant with full tea service, I started with the Montreign wonton soup (shrimp & pork filling dumplings, BBQ pork, scallops, snow peas, and bamboo tips in chicken broth). The entrée, honey lemon chicken (pan-fried batter chicken breast in honey lemon sauce) is addicting, with the perfect crispiness and blend of the sauce. Sesame balls (fried glutinous rice flour with red bean curd filling and coated with sesame seeds was suggested by the waiter who mentioned it is a popular dessert in China. With an interesting texture, it is a not rich nor too-sweet dessert; perfect with a cup of tea.

The highlight of my visit was attending the grand opening and ribbon cutting of celebrity Chef Scott Conant’s Italian inspired steakhouse, Cellaio, the resort’s signature restaurant. Conant, a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped,” author, television personality, chef and restaurateur has a Connecticut connection, as he was raised in Waterbury.

He and I unknowingly worked at the same hotel, where I was director of sales and marketing. It was this hotel that brought me to the Nutmeg state in 1984. It was fun to reminisce about those days. He said, “The Catskills are important to me as I launched my career following my education at the Culinary Institute of America. It is great to come back to the region to open Cellaio at this beautiful resort. The area is all about being inspired by the people and natural beauty, which is what Cellaio hopes to bring to the table to complement the Resorts World Catskills experience.” Check out my interview with Scott here

Cellaio offers Conant’s take on the traditional steakhouse, complementing aged steaks with the antipasti, market salads and house made pastas that have become synonymous with Conant’s cooking.

The robust selection of more than 500 wines is curated for novices and connoisseurs alike to experience iconic Italian varietals along with boutique, half bottle and large format bottles.

The grand opening celebration, featured a sampling of some of the dishes on the menu; raw bar, Pasta Al Pomodoro, Bistecca Fiorentina, house made focaccia and Stromboli, risotto, tuna crudo with greens, lemon & pickled fresno chilies , creamy polenta “Boscaiola,”(recipe below), Salted Caramel Budino (for this recipe, visit

So pack your bags and come and enjoy the Catskills spirit and legendary hospitality….and in early 2019, the integrated resort destination will add additional entertainment venues, restaurants, and accommodations including a boutique hotel, The Kartrite Hotel and Indoor Waterpark and a Rees- Jones designed 18-hole golf course.

In a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the cream and milk until warm, about 5 minutes. Whisk in salt and keep whisking until the liquid is very frothy and hot. While still whisking, slowly rain the polenta into the pot. Continue to whisk until the granules swell, about 8 minutes. At this point, switch to a wooden spoon to stir the polenta. (it will get too thick for the whisk). Keep stirring until polenta has begun to thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn heat down to medium and cook until it evenly begins to bubble. Reduce heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, until cooked through and liquid has reduced, about 1 ½ hours. The polenta might look done sooner, but it does continue to soften, so be patient. During this time, a skin might form on the bottom of the pan, which is fine.

Just before serving, raise heat to medium-high, stir in the butter and cheese, and cook, stirring until butter is melted, then take the pot off the heat. If polenta looks thin, don’t worry, as it will thicken as it cools.

What chef would you like me to interview? Which restaurant recipes or other recipes would you like to have? Which food products are you having difficulty finding? Do you have cooking questions? Send them to me: Stephen Fries, professor and coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, at or Dept. FC, Gateway Community College, 20 Church St., New Haven, 06510. Include your full name, address and phone number. (Due to volume, I might not be able to publish every request. For more, go to

11th Annual Rhubarb Festival, June 15-17, noon-5 p.m., White Silo Winery, 32 Route 37E Sherman, 860-355-0271, Small plates of rhubarb dishes prepared with farm grown rhubarb for $5 per portion. Menu: Pulled pork sandwiches with Rhubarb Slaw, Crostini Three ways (smoked rhubarb, rhubarb jam, rhubarb mustard/cheese, roasted rhubarb and goat cheese salad with rhubarb vinaigrette, ginger rhubarb panna cotta, strawberry rhubarb crisp, and rhubarb pizza, live music.

Consiglio’s Murder Mystery Dinner “Taking Dad Out” June 15, doors at 6 p.m., dinner and show at 7, Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, reservations at 203-865-4489, $65 includes dinner and show (beverages, tax and gratuity not included). An interactive comedy show that goes on throughout the evening as you enjoy a 3-course meal. The cast mingles from table to table, dropping clues for a mystery that only you can solve.

Oregon Pinot Noir Winemakers with a French Connection, June 19, 6:30 p.m., Park Central, 1640 Whitney Ave., Hamden, 203-469-4218, $85. In this unique tasting, enjoy a collection of Pinot Noir from Oregon from as many of the French-connected wineries as possible. Taste them blind- why? Because thrown in is a ringer: a red Burgundy to see if it stands out. It will be hard to detect, but that's the fun of this tasting. Enjoy a 3 course menu with a choice of entrée. Tickets

International Wine and Craft Beer Tasting: Compassionate Care Awards Gala, June 21, 6 p.m., Woodwinds, 29 Schoolground Road, Branford, 203-782-4330, $75, Features a delicious variety of wine and beer from many vendors, buffet dinner, silent auction, and DJ.

Consiglio’s Cooking Demonstration and Dinner: June 28, 6:30 p.m., Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, 203-865-4489 (reservations required), $75 (beverages, tax and gratuity not included). Learn how to make Focaccia topped with figs, pinenuts, caramelized onions and Gorgonzola; shredded Brussels sprout salad; macaroni and Fontina, bay scallops and pesto bread crumbs; and burnt caramel pots de crème.