On a fall afternoon, cars from Rhode island, Vermont, Connecticut and Ohio filled the parking lot at Blueberry Hill Market Café in New Lebanon, N.Y. Wayfarers in search of an oasis on a nondescript road were drawn by a welcoming building trimmed with bright orange pumpkins and multicolored mums.
Inside the well-stocked marketplace, shelves overflowed with groceries both practical and gourmet -- crates of farm vegetables, giant onions and potatoes, a pail of perfect avocados, fresh baked loaves.
Mouthwatering salads in the deli case offered gastronomic and visual appeal: chicken with apricots, dried cherries and pecans; bowtie pasta and colorful vegetables; creamy potato salad; ruby red beets; a jewel-toned fruit medley of pineapple, watermelon and blueberries. On top, a tray of breaded macaroni and cheese; by the register, a jar offering free dog treats to take home.
Café owner Melanie Hunt talked with visitors while right-hand helper Byron attended to customers. A third generation local, Hunt returned to the area to raise her son near family after 10 years as a private chef in Philadelphia. Previously, she had cooked at Canyon Ranch and the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.
After years cooking for other families, she knew she was ready to have her own kitchen. Drawn by "the need to have more food in town," she opened Blueberry Hill in New Lebanon on Memorial Day weekend.
With no food stores in the local area, Hunt explained, she was just trying to provide staples, so people didn't have to drive 15 miles to get fruit and ripe avocados for dinner. She also stocks Asian foods brought in from Albany, Mexican ingredients, imported Italian products, and Polish pirogues and sauerkraut. She makes burgers from grass-fed beef from Kinderhook Farm in Ghent, N.Y., and custom ground Black Angus, while her coffee is roasted locally by Liquid Assets of Stephentown, N.Y.
Hunt does her best to support her customers' tastes and dietary needs.
"We're trying to be gluten-free friendly," she said, "because there's a lot of people that can't have it."
Her boyfriend, contractor Jeff Dwileski, provided construction support -- and his favorite Polish food items for the market. Vintage tablecloths came from aunts and Hunt's grandmother, whose mason jars provide quirky containers for cold beverages.
And for those who are wondering, the café is named after the road in Old Chatham Hunt grew up on, rather than Fats Domino's popular hit from the 1950s.
On a recent lunchtime visit, we ordered at the counter from an overhead chalkboard menu and helped ourselves to coffee. Food served on blue willow-pattern plates was brought up the few stairs to our table in the adjoining café.
Despite a steady stream of customers, the sunlit space never seemed crowded. Walls were hung with oversize flower blossom photos, while an eclectic collection of tables and chairs from wood to wrought iron were adorned with vintage tablecloths, miniature mums and ornamental pepper plants. Seats ranged by large picture windows, and light and the outdoors filled the bright, airy room.
A lightly spiced bowl of apple cider butternut squash soup ($4.99) offered thick, tangy warmth on a crisp fall day, accompanied by hearty toasted sesame bread ($1.25) from Berkshire Mountain Bakery, the favorite of restaurants up and down the county. (Blueberry Hill offers nine different bread choices, from ciabatta to challah).
Sliced stuffed pork topped with zesty mustard overfilled a grilled sandwich, served with a small bowl of apple glaze for careful dipping ($8.25). A juicy, flavorsome Black Angus burger came with melted provolone cheese to order ($6.50), while thick, lightly salted sweet potato fries ($2.50) let the tater taste shine through.
Hunt's recipe for Chocolate Polenta Cake ($4) teamed a cookie crumb base with thick bittersweet ganache and melted chocolate accents. The Apple Crumb Cake ($3.75) layered fresh apple slices between thick crumb topping and a dense foundation.
As baking takes place mostly on weekends, we needed a second visit to sample the café's signature double crust apple raspberry slab pie -- a favorite in-the-hand breakfast for men on the go, said Hunt -- and moist, eggy frittata, which changes daily (bacon, brie and caramelized onions is one appealing example), both well-deserving of customers' praise on Facebook.
Hunt likes to keep her flexible menus seasonal, but she promises to have printed paper menus and a website ready "soon." Until then, the overhead chalk board and appreciative word of mouth will have to suffice.
If you go ...
What: Blueberry Hill Market Café
Where: 515 Route 20, New Lebanon, N.Y.
When: Open daily except Tuesday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Price Range: $2 to $10
Information: (518) 794-2011
Rating: 4 chefs' hats