The best of the Finger Lakes on your plate
Trumansburg’s Hazelnut Kitchen showcases the region’s bounty and talent
When you decide to open a farm-to-table restaurant, you’re making a promise. Everything possible will be harvested, butchered, brewed, or cultured at a nearby farm. You won’t be afraid to change your menu at a moment’s notice when seasonal fruits and vegetables pass the peak of their freshness. You’ll obsess over details. You’ll make a lot of things from scratch: the salad dressing, the ice cream, the little tub of butter—even the herbs and spices. Your waitstaff will be whip-smart, ready with facts and tantalizing descriptions for inquisitive eaters. The flashy techniques you learned at your fancy culinary school will never overshadow why your patrons singled you out: to experience the best of the land and water around you.
Hazelnut Kitchen on Main Street in Trumansburg is one such place, part of a very small cadre of restaurants between Buffalo and Syracuse that take their pledge to the farm-to-table dining as far as they possibly can. Hazelnut’s reputation and the drive through the lush, undulating landscape between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes lured this regional magazine out of its area code for a memorable dinner in the (607).
Trumansburg is like hundreds of other small New York towns. Tall, rectangular brick buildings house laundromats, Chinese restaurants, pizzerias, and liquor stores. Hazelnut Kitchen presents a humble façade, one of many storefronts along three village blocks. You step inside through an unusual curtain ring—to keep the drafts away—into a compact dining room that feels rustic without being shabby. There’s an informal din as people laugh and tell stories. Kids sitting alongside their parents spear pieces of steak with their forks. In the back, open to the dining room, a hulking exhaust hood hovers over a sizzling grill.
“In our imagination, this is our home,” explains co-owner Lisa Jonckheere. “We are welcoming people into our own kitchen every night.” This illusion continues to the silverware on the table culled from the antique stores throughout the Finger Lakes and often mismatched.
Jonckheere, an Ottawa, Ontario, native, and her husband, Justin Paterson, bought Hazelnut Kitchen in April 2012 to be near his family in Syracuse. The restaurant was already well known for its farm-to-table commitment, and along with a third partner, Matt Kelly of Connecticut, they continued developing the approach.
“Sometimes the farmers come here, and sometimes we go to the farmers,” she explains. “Depends on their day and what they have to offer. If it isn’t in season, it isn’t on the menu.” Fall is the best time to make a reservation as the leaves change color and area farms burgeon with produce. As the snow arrives, the menu begins to feature root vegetables from nearby cellars and hearty stews.
With today’s first course, Jonckheere’s homespun illusion begins to blend with what you’ll realize is a high-order dining experience. The cheese board ($11) includes Cayuga Blue and Gorge Trail Gouda from Lively Run, a goat dairy in nearby Interlaken. The blue is creamier than the traditional chunky kind that usually comes with your wings and celery, and that distinctive aftertaste is less pronounced. The raw milk gouda, aged for six months, is nicely ripe. Hazelnut serves these pungent cheeses with a drizzle of honey from Waid Apiaries of Interlaken. The third cheese is a triple-cream kunik from the Nettle Meadow Farm north of Saratoga Springs, a blend of goat’s milk and cream from Jersey cows. It looks like brie, cuts like warm butter, and has a bold flavor that blossoms in the mouth. Carpaccio is thin slices of beef served raw, but Hazelnut’s version ($10) puts a faint sear around it and serves it over sweet arugula with almonds, rhubarb, and a restrained horseradish crème fraîche.
Between bites are sips of Redbyrd Orchard Workman Dry apple cider ($5). There are dozens of world-class Finger Lakes wines found in many Rochester restaurants, but the ciders aren’t as well traveled. Trumansburg has two cideries, and there are many more nearby. Hazelnut has cider-centric tasting events in the fall when apples are in the press.
In online listings, the Hazelnut Kitchen falls under the “New American” genre, which borrows liberally from the broad swath of immigrant traditions. On the menus of such places, it’s possible to find Asian spices comingled with classic French preparation, Mediterranean sauces, and Latin American side dishes without referring to the item’s ethnic inspiration.
The braised chicken leg ($24) is presented as a fricassee riding tall on a bed of farro and zucchini, surrounded by a moat of green curry yogurt. A spoonful of salsa verde rests on top. The chicken is fork-tender and easily falls away from its bone into a curry sauce that you expect to be sweet like coconut but is instead tart, almost mustardy. The best part is the crisp skin that carries an intense savory spicing contrasting with the tender chicken and wheat grain.
The servers can tell you the origin of every ingredient in each dish and also suggest wine pairings. Jonckheere herself circulates in the dining room to assist and answer questions, the mark of an attentive owner. Patrons might sometimes ask for a recipe, but Jonckheere says these kinds of meals are hard to replicate at home.
Grilled sockeye salmon with cucumber and snap pea salad, beet gazpacho, dill yogurt, almonds
“People are inquisitive about certain items such as why our beets are so good, and we’re happy to tell them,” she says. “But our meals are prepared with lots of little steps that take all day. Our stocks can take days and days to make. The tops of vegetables that you might throw away, we’ll find ways to use. We buy whole animals, and nothing is wasted.”
The charcuterie board will sometimes feature terrine, or head cheese, made from the head of a cow or pig. There might also be beef cheeks or tongue. “People trust us and know we wouldn’t serve anything we wouldn’t enjoy ourselves,” says Jonckheere. “They would never cook it at home, because they don’t know how, but here, they are interested to try it.”
The Hazelnut Kitchen is an experience that unfolds like an origami rose. You step inside what appears to be a country diner and peruse a menu that seems both familiar and challenging. Come with a group if you can, because everything is good, and you’ll want to pass your plates around. Come again a week or two later, and your favorite item will be gone, a culinary mirage to be replaced with something else that will please you just as much. When you tell out-of-state relatives that you love living in the Finger Lakes, the food served at the Hazelnut Kitchen is one reason why.
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.