Spoiler Alert: I originally set out to simply write a review of a restaurant that friends had been encouraging me to try for a couple of years. However, I found that as I wrote, my restaurant review had morphed into my observations and opinion on the role that dogs – and most of their owners – have become in our society. If you accept 'all things dog' and object to a bonafide curmudgeon's POV on the excesses and inanities of modern dog culture, please stop reading now. I know I'm not going to change your mind anyway. Ultimately, this restaurant review boils down to whether I will choose to return to eat there.
I readily admit to my bias: I much prefer cats. This is not to say that I have not enjoyed the company of a few canines in my life. I even have owned a couple that I dearly loved and grieved mightily upon their demise. I acknowlege that canids have always had a useful role to play alongside hominids. They provide comfort and companionship. They serve as guards, rescuers, hunters, herders, even entertainers. But I have found that, for the most part, dogs annoy the hell out of me. Why? Because, like people, dogs need something to do; they have to have some meaning and purpose besides just existing. Or, like people, they go a little mad. And, like people, they require training and discipline. I think there are too many bored, undisciplined, ignored and abused dogs. Just like people. Further, today's 'dog culture' exasperates me. Exclusive doggie motels? Spas? Day Care? Couture? Entire retail stores dedicated to dogs and their needs...shelves after shelves of food, treats, medications, grooming supplies. I mean, there are infinite ills in this world that need, indeed demand, our attention. Painted dog claws and insulated dog boots aren't on that list if one were to ask me. Which they didn't.
The Review: As I mentioned, friends have been encouraging me to try this funky, farm-to-table establishment that is at once a delightful, rural farm stand brimming with their own local and regional produce as well as other locally-sourced foodstuffs. An adjacent barn houses their own brewery and cider works. There was reputably a unique and fabulous restaurant that, while of limited menu, featured delicious Asian culinary delights from Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia with allegedly generous portions and extremely reasonable prices.
Of particular interest to me, they had converted a machinery shed into a performance stage, complete with lights, a good sound system and they regularly present live, local music. I figured that I ought to explore this as a potential venue for my own music. So, one evening after I finished performing at a regional farmers' market show, my wife and I drove over the NY State line to The Chatham Berry Farm for our dinner.
Upon arrival, the parking lot was jammed. This is usually a very good sign. Outside, we noticed several hi-top tables set up in front of the aforementioned stage, the early Fall sun casting its glow upon acres of field corn awaiting harvesting. Bucolic to the max! Each table was filled with happy people socializing and quaffing the homemade ciders and beers. Several dogs milled unencumbered around the tables. I was disappointed that there was no music to be played that evening, but I pleasantly anticipated trying the food.
A short stroll lead us to a couple of rows of long, quonset hut-like greenhouse structures filled with large picnic tables set upon crushed stone that serve as the indoor dining seating area. One could easily be reminded of a WWII military mess hall, except that these structures were covered with clear plastic. The picnic table areas were roughly compartmentalized by floor-to-ceiling trellises covered with climbing vines. I think I recognized some thriving mandevilla and some hops vines – and cheerful, raised-bed flower boxes aligned the low walls. Hundreds of small, twinkling light bulbs illuminated the waning Fall dusk. Every table was filled. And there were dogs. Lots of dogs.
We walked about, trying to get the lay of this new land. A few signs warned that “Small Children Must Be Accompanied by an Adult”. Nothing about dog accompaniment. We determined that there was no table service whatsoever; no bussers, no waiters. Just down-home, country simplicity. As we walked thru the quonset hut aisle, I saw at least eight different sized stainless steel bowls of water on the walkway. Hmmmm. Then we noticed folks coming from the far end of the quonset carrying trays of what looked like very delicious food. As we'd just observed, there were no open tables. We turned to each other to discuss whether we should leave or hang out and wait for something to open. Our musings were punctuated by the occasional excited Yip! or muted snarl. Hmmmmm. Just then, a couple got up from their seats at the last table in the room, bussed their dishes and kindly offered their seats. I thanked them for making our decision for us. I noticed that there were slices of pickle and a squashed lemon peel on the table top. Just a reminder: No table service.
We 'reserved' our places at the vacated table with our jackets and went into the kitchen to order. As noted, the menu was limited, but each entree was given a tempting description so it was easy for us to choose. The kitchen staff was cheerful and helpful and they all seemed to be having a good time. A happy staff is pretty much always a good indication that you, too, will have a good experience. My wife ordered Vietnamese Pho Kat (Huh, faux cat? Wassat?) - a coconut, rice, lime, herbed & curried potato dish that was out of this world - nary a cat involved! I ordered Japanese fried chicken with rice and cabbage and a tangy sweet/sour dipping sauce. Superb! The batter was light, crispy, the chicken was juicy, tender and fully cooked. As reported, the portions were most generous and the price was better than fair!
We took our trays back to our picnic table, sat down and prepared to enjoy our repast. What about drinks? Ah, yes. The drinks – ciders, beers, sodas – were in the bar barn at the complete opposite end from the kitchen order area. Mildly frustrated by not remembering this, I walked all the way back to the bar barn, waited in line and got our drinks - hers, a nice farm-brewed pilsner; mine, a crisp, dry cider. Both, delightful, but not inexpensive.
That's when things began to go a bit off the rails for me. As I headed back to our table, I wondered if some patron carrying their food tray - or perhaps me carrying my two beverages - had ever been ensnared by a darting dog, its uncoiling leash tripping the unsuspecting arse over tea kettle onto the ground? As I strolled by the rows of stainless water dishes, I gave them a wide berth. A huge mastiff- like creature the size of a small water buffalo was loudly slurping from one of the dishes. I was reminded of the St. Bernard I once owned when I was in my 20s. As I passed, the mastiff raised its head, ropes of slurpy drool dangled to the floor from flaccid jowls. Large, sadly sagging, red-rimmed eyes balefully stared back at me. The buffalo mastiff shook its massive head, propelling missiles of slimy drool onto the walls and into the walkway. Gratefully, I was out of range. The dog's owner leaned against the wall, lost in the 2-Dimensional world of his iPhone, oblivious to his animal's slop slinging.
Again I was reminded why I don't always like dogs. It's dogs like this huge mastiff with their persistently slobbery jowls, or tall, needle-headed standard poodles with slimy, rheumy eyes. They seem to seek me out as if they were quadruped pilgrims and I was their Doggy Mecca. They wipe their slippery jowls on my knees. They shove their long noses into my crotch and scrape the funk from their smelly eyes onto my thighs. They place huge, unwelcome paws on my chest, cleaning their feet as they attempt to wash my face with hungry tongues. I am not amused.
When we were courting, my wife owned a jet-black Shih-tzu, the famed lap dog of Chinese emperors. She was truly a quirky, jolly and loveable little creature with a personality that far outsized her small stature. (The dog was fun, too. Just kidding!) Mulan always did what she wanted, disregarding your requests if they were not convenient. If you were our guest and she liked you, she would take one of your shoes and hide it so that you couldn't leave. If one left a handbag or back pack unattended, she would open it and purloin some object of consequence - glasses, wallet, phone, address book – and take it to her hidey hole. We learned that she favored to stash her treasures under a small willow tree far at the other end of the property. This was not usually a problem. Unless it was a stormy winter's night. I found such retrieval missions to be highly annoying. She had some of the smelliest, rheumiest eyes I'd ever encountered. If she ever spent a moment on your lap, you knew it all day. I called her Old Filth, but I digress.
Having returned to my table, I set the drinks down and plopped onto the bench across from my wife. There were now more dogs inside the dining area. A lot more. I'd estimate that there were perhaps forty or fifty diners inside the quonset and perhaps twenty dogs - that I could see. It became evident, that while most were indeed leashed, I suspected some could be skulking and lurking unseen under tables. As I became more attuned to the animals' presence, I also became aware of the myriad whimpers, whines, yips 'n yaps, the occasional distressed bark and the aforementioned snarl.
Across the aisle from us was were two senior-citizen couples, tweedy professorial types with wild grey hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Beside them sat a wolf. It might have been a genuine wolf but for its curled up tail, more like a husky. It sat stoically next to its owners, shaggy head several inches above the table top It could have eaten anything it wanted on that table. Maybe even its owners. But it didn't. Sitting there, unruffled, steely-eyed, it kept watch over the entire room. It was wearing a stout leather harness that was tethered to the table.
Two tables away, a small, but very cheerful and exuberant terrier-poodley creature lunged out from under its owner's feet at every passerby. It happily grinned and wagged and whimpered at the passing ankles, sometimes illiciting a friendly pat and some gooey baby-talk, sending the animal into paroxisms of joy. The pup's owners seemed largely oblivious. No harm done. Wolf silently observed.
Further down the aisle, a grumpy, greying old mutt of indeterminate breed lay under the table trying its best to rest comfortably on the lumpy, crushed stone. An impossibility, I thought. A perky young, extroverted golden retriever at the next table would have none of that introverted sloth. Goldie would tentatively approach the ancient beast and poke him gently in the side with her snout. Grumpy would raise his head, sigh and place his head back down. Goldie was nothing if not persistant. Eventually Grumpy had had enough. He spontaneously combusted, leapt up and snarled viciously at the retriever whose owners nonchalantly reeled their now terrified dog back to their table. Grumpy's owners dragged him further away from his offender. Goldie continued her quest to meet others. Ah, when introverts and exroverts collide! Wolf kept a steely watch, seemingly unphased.
I was astounded by the lack of consideration that many dog owners had for other diners, and even the other dogs. I was remarking about this to my wife, who tends to humor me and forgive me my curgudgeonly ways, when I felt a small, brown something dart by my feet under our table. “Did you see that?” I asked her, “I think some sort of squirrel or chipmunk just ran over my feet and disappeared!” No sooner had my question been posed than it happened again. My wife let out a muted snicker, rolled her eyes and gestured with her head towards the table just behind ours. “What?” I asked, further perplexed. “Look behind me,” she mouthed.
There, beneath the table behind us, quaking and shivering like a debutante at her first frat kegger, was the smallest, most miniscule chihuahua that I had ever seen. Its bulging brown eyes and huge bat-like ears were much too large for its tiny cranium, but obviously were quite effective in discerning minute food particles amongst the crushed stones. This elfin canid was attached to a retractable leash, but it was powerful enough to shoot from under its table lair with laser-like accuracy to retrieve a tiny morsel of fried chicken batter that I had inadvertantly dropped from my greasy fingers and then retreat clandestinely to the shelter of its owner's legs.
“Do it again,” my wife dared, grinning. Obliging, I picked a morsel from my plate and dropped it at my feet. Like Mexican lightning, that chihuahua once again defied any resistance employed by its retractible leash and rocketed towards the crumb. The dog snatched the tidbit and retreated to its table with a look of “Nothing to see here.” I was amazed and could have amused myself by repeating this again and again, but the dog's owner picked it up and cradled it inside her coat. Had the dog been shivering because it was cold, or was it simply super excited to eat more crumbs? We'll never know, but I'm betting on the crumbs theory. Wolf looked over towards our table. It had one very blue eye.
I found myself so preoccupied with the all the surrounding dog antics and their owners' obliviousness that I suspected any normal dinner conversation was going to be impossible for me. Suddenly aware of this, I purposefully redirect myself to another subject: our upcoming road trip. My effort was to be short-lived for at that moment, down the crushed stone walk, as if on some Paris-Milan fashion runway, strutted a sleek, but tiny animal that looked exactly like a Doberman pinscher – one that had been shrunk several sizes in a dryer! “What a sweet li'l min-pin!” my wife cooed. “A what?” I blurted. Unlike me, she readily responds with all the positive doggy feels.
No sooner had the question left my lips than the rapturous little poodley thing that had been keeping watch under the adjoining table shot out like a cuckoo from a clock and began to yip-yap excitedly at what I now knew to be a 'miniature pinscher'. The min-pin (insert my eyeroll) halted its promenade and immediately lifted its leg, peeing on the trellis of mandevilla just inches from our table and then proceeded on its way tethered to its owners who were nonplussed by it all.
“Ay yi yi! What's next?!” I said, shaking my head. I imagined the wolf was wondering the same thing?
I was about to find out 'what was next' as five millennials, all tatted sleeves and man-bunned took their seats. They boisterously laughed and jostled merrily with one another. It appeared that Brooklyn had migrated north. Suddenly a very tall, rail-thin gal with short, blonde hair arrived at the Brooklyn stop. She looked like a Roaring '20s flapper. In short order, she produced a leash upon which was attached a very young, cute Welsh corgi. Though not a puppy, everyone in Brooklyn Oooohed and Aaaahed as the little dog with two inch legs and no tail whatsover wriggled about in ecstatic greeting. The chihuahua, peering out from its owner's coat sleeve, shook like it was being electrocuted.
“Hoo, boy, what could possibly go wrong here?” I mused. My wife gave me the ‘stifle it’ look. Wolf stood up. Was it salivating?
But I needn't have worried because the Flapper solved the problem of any potential Mexican vs Welsh blood-bath stand-off. Simple. Just place corgi on top of the table. “WTF!?” I muttered. The dog sat there like a centerpiece, surrounded by plates of hot Asian food, its tailless and completely exposed bunghole kissing the table. I was grossed out. The milennials continued their revelry unabated. Eventually, corgi decided it would be interesting to see exactly what was on those plates and began to slowly march down the middle of the table on its stubby legs, casually sniffing each plate. NO ONE CARED!
“Holy moly,” I muttered, “what poopy dog park or manure-clotted field have those feet been in today?” To my utter amazement, the dog did not eat, or even lick, any of the food! Offensive to its delicate Welsh palate, perhaps? No one seemed to mind any of it except the chihuahua who had retreated inside the coat sleeve and was Yi-Yi-Yi-ing in a muffled sophranino voice. So why should I care? Because it's unsanitary and bad behaviour, that's why! I was now riled up. Maybe the wolf sensed this too because he began quivver a little, his jaws clacking quietly like toothy castanets.
No sooner was I about to unleash my own dogs of consternation upon my wife when - and I truly wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it for myself - an elderly gentleman and his wife came down the aisle accompanied by a beautifully mature and rather large – wait for it - Welsh corgi! This dog was easily more than twice the size of the corgi centerpiece, and when the blonde flapper saw this regal dog's entrance, she errupted in shreiks of glee. This caught everyone's attention, including the diminutive corgi who, upon seeing its Welsh DNA-counterpart walking towards them, stopped its table top expedition and dropped to the ground like a hairy bomb, its stubby legs useless in breaking the fall.
The two corgi owners immediately engaged in animated corgi talk; I gleaned that she had 'rescued' her corgi - from who or what, I don't know - and that the old gent had raised, shown and bred his now- retired dog. The two corgis ceaselessly sniffed and pirhouetted around, around and around each other, whimpering quietly, until their leashes were entwined in a Gordian knot of epic proportions. The wolf began to move towards the frey and required the intervention of a few sharp commands (Was that German?) and a mighty yank on its stout harness. Gratefully, it worked. That could've gotten ugly!
My curiosity begged me to stay around and see how all this would shake out as it were, but my revulsion insisted that I leave. After all, we were finished with our meals. It was time to go. As we were preparing to leave, an artsy couple, perhaps in their late '30s, dressed in black and wearing sunglasses – though it was now very dark outside – came down the aisle pushing an expensive baby carriage. I mean, this was the Ferrari of baby carriages; powder coated frame, chrome wheels, cushy tires, full suspension, leather convertible top...the works. “Wow,” I thought, “this is actually the first baby I've seen in here.” It had only just then occurred to me that there were absolutely NO human children in this restaurant the entire time we were there!
The couple sat down across the aisle a few tables up from ours. They settled in and as we walked by, I glanced into the carriage as the woman lowered its leather convertible top. There, swaddled inside a luxurious Tartan-plaid blanket and peering back out at me was a small furry entity with pointed, fuzzy ears, large, bright eyes, glistening black nose and a mouthful of tiny teeth. The room lights reflected gaily off its little diamond studded collar. I had no words.
My wife and I walked out of the quonset hut towards the car park and passed by the rows of stainless steel dog dishes. There was the mastiff buffalo, still tanking up, its owner still leaning against the wall staring into his iPhone. Had they been there the entire time? Were they statues or some kind of art installation?
I simply shook my head. It really was time for me to go. This place had gone to the dawgs.