Life was nearly normal in the sleepy borough of Milford, N.J., along the Delaware River, where as late as last weekend, you could still find toilet paper on its small-town shelves, one narrow bridge across from locked-down Bucks County, and a world away from the virus-driven panic stripping the big city stores an hour away.
Inside Canal House Station at the foot of the bridge, you could also dig deep into Saturday’s endless stack of what may be the greatest pancakes in the world, the airy rounds levitating from whipped egg whites in the buttermilk batter, each layer pooling with salted Irish butter and a drizzle of maple syrup.
“We believe in breakfast,” says co-owner and co-chief Christopher Hirsheimer, speaking for her business partner and co-chief Melissa Hamilton. “We also believe in lunch.”
Indeed. We were clever enough to linger from breakfast until the kitchen flipped to its lunch menu, and then devoured another parade of dreamy flavors I can’t stop thinking about during this present state of home quarantine.
Rustic slabs of pâté marbled with chunks of pork, herbs and Cognac-scented chicken liver. A milky bowl of chowder steeped Irish-style with smoked whitefish. A duck confit so perfect, its tawny skin glowed luminous atop caraway-roasted apples as the afternoon light beamed in gently from across the river.
If it seemed liked I was eating inside a cookbook, that’s because I was. Since opening last summer, Canal House Station has been Hirsheimer and Hamilton’s vehicle to bring the pages of their publishing career to life.
It wasn’t initially planned as a restaurant. When they first moved into the country stone bones of this 1870s train station in 2017, they intended it as a larger studio and event space for their thriving cookbook empire.
Launched as Canal House in 2007, Hirsheimer and Hamilton’s collaboration has been a triumph of DIY entrepreneurship that’s produced eight gorgeous self-published volumes of slender seasonal cookbooks that won a national following; a blog; a weekly radio hour; one James Beard-winning cookbook from a major publisher; and a Beard nomination for their latest, Cook Something (Voracious, 2019).
“We kept saying, ‘No, restaurant! No!’ We needed this open kitchen studio for the light so we could shoot [photos] and finish the book," said Hirsheimer. "Plus, you need to be 29 to open a restaurant!”
They were both that age long ago when they each opened their first restaurants. Hirsheimer had two in Illinois before moving to New York to become an editor for Metropolitan Home magazine and then cofound Saveur magazine, where she pioneered a food photography style characterized by its use of natural light. Hamilton partnered with her father, Jim, in 1988 to open Hamilton’s Grill Room, where she was executive chef, before joining Hirsheimer at Saveur as food editor.
But the restaurant urge kept calling. It had been 30 years since they left the business when Canal House Station opened in July, which explains the manageable hours focused on breakfast and lunch: “The good news,” says Hirsheimer, “is that we’re old enough to run it, and not let it run us.”
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing tidal wave of dining room shutdowns nationwide, however, has proven more powerful than any business plan. The Station, like many others, has scrambled into take-out mode, with quarts of kale and bean soup, duck with lentils and avocado toast fixings to go: “Like everyone, we are figuring in real time. We are the tale of the little independent restaurant,” said Hirsheimer.
But if Canal House Station is the last restaurant I formally review for a long time, it has earned every one of its three bells for its genuine vision and skillful cooking, from the blini layered with caviar and fluffy eggs to the glossy chocolate tarts oozing dulce de leche. A recent Beard nomination as semifinalists for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic is further confirmation.
Even more fitting: their book Cook Something is such a remarkably true reflection of the “perfectly plain” food this restaurant has mastered, that its 300-plus recipes and evocative photography can translate the Canal House magic to any home kitchen, with accessible dishes that rise on step-by-step techniques, quality ingredients, and the notion that once you get rolling, as Hirsheimer says, “Good cooking comes out of good cooking.”
Most importantly, it’s a comprehensive primer on how to cook, more than what to cook. There’s an entire section (p. 30) dedicated to their fluffy omelets enriched with cream, folded around myriad variations, like the roasted apple-bacon filing I devoured at breakfast. There are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Chicken," from the succulent roasted chicken over gnocchi (p. 231) I ate at the cafe with capery green sauce (p. 112) to the porchetta-spiced spatchcocked bird over lentils and preserved lemon I faithfully re-created (p. 232).
There’s an entire ground meat chapter entitled “The American Way” (p. 29) with nine diverse riffs on meatballs (yes, please!). A master class in salad dressings (p. 128), like the lime vinaigrette that brightened tender Castelfranco greens, toasted pepitas, and ripe Fuyu persimmons.
There are instructions for the intensely chickeny brodo stock (p. 84) into which they sometimes float tortellini and occasionally the creamy-centered ravioli that also make an appearance beneath their slow-simmered take on Bolognese (p. 160), classic with mixed meats, nutmeg, wine, and milk.
And while the Canal House menus trend Eurocentric and classic American comforts, there are also surprises that harken to Hirsheimer’s California roots (all those luscious avocados!) and their work as globe-hopping food journalists. Most memorable was a pork stew in guajillo chile mole served one Sunday afternoon that’s a legacy of Hirsheimer’s inaugural issue at Saveur, which showcased the moles of Oaxaca in 1994, when most Americans had never heard of that treasured Mexican tradition. Luckily, it’s on the menu of take-out options they’re now offering Thursday through Sunday afternoons.
There’s a recipe for that mole (p. 284), too, and it’s exceptional, the tender meat cloaked in rust-colored gravy, mildly spiced with roasty dried chiles, raisins, toasted almonds, cumin, and cloves. The fact that this complex dish translated so seamlessly to my own stove would be no surprise to anyone who’s followed the Canal House duo over the past 13 years. But in these daunting moments of crisis, it’s also a soul-satisfying bowl of inspiration, a wistful reminder of those not-long-ago days I took the “nearly normal” of restaurant dining for granted.