Two ‘Saveur’ Magazine Veterans Bring Their Editorial Taste Buds to Canal House Station in New Jersey
In the Delaware River town of Milford, on the New Jersey side of a steel truss bridge the color and approximate width of a stick of Doublemint gum, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer prepare lunch in an old train station. The two women oversee an open kitchen, frying off chicken, simmering pots of kumquat marmalade, and arranging rainbow boulders of heirloom tomatoes like a couple of East Coast Alice Waterses. Wearing white outfits in the white room, they appear almost celestial, washed in the magnificent sunlight that made this bucolic swath of Bucks and Hunterdon counties a magnet for American Impressionist painters in the early 1900s.
Their restaurant is called Canal House Station. “Canal House” for their publishing boutique, Canal House Cooking. “Station” for the space in which it resides, a defunct depot on the old Belvidere-Delaware “Bel-Del” line that carried coal from the anthracite-rich Poconos to Trenton along the eastern bank of the Delaware River.
People still ply part of the heart of the route today, not for coal but for apples, antiques, and autumn leaf peeping around Frenchtown, New Hope, Stockton, and Lambertville. Milford, the 13th stop on the Bel-Del, is just north of and much quieter than those other towns. Its claim to fame is the 1877 wreck of the Oswego-Philadelphia Express, a train that shot over a washed-out bridge and “plunged into the abyss, with the baggage and two passenger coaches following,” historian C.L. Melick wrote in 1934. A plaque commemorates the eight who perished at the entrance to town, just across the street from Canal House Station, where Hamilton and Hirsheimer have been giving the city new reason to be remembered.
Canal House Station is a restaurant, sure, but eating here feels more like an afternoon gathering at the home of a friend who has mastered a certain brand of country sprezzatura. Hamilton and Hirsheimer will greet you when you arrive and deliver a dish or two to your table, perhaps with a bit of advice like, “You should eat the BLT with your hands—everyone does,” as Hirsheimer tells me one day while I struggle to fork-and-knife the open-faced rafts of thick, crunchy bacon, baby romaine, juicy tomato, and toasted rustic bread slicked with mayo, olive oil, and tomato nectar.
Pleasant staff pour watermelon agua frescas and pull perfect cappuccinos. There are fresh flowers and textured butcher paper placemats you could print wedding invitations on. Ramekins at each place setting hold flaky Maldon salt and cracked black pepper—salt and pepper! When’s the last time you saw that on the table at a restaurant of any reasonable ambition? Chefs of the 21st century do not want us ham-fisted Neanderthals seasoning our own food.
Hamilton and Hirsheimer are not those kinds of chefs.
Out of the office
“Where I lived was mostly farmland, rolling fields, rushing creeks when it rained, thick woods, and hundred-year-old stone barns,” New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton—Melissa’s younger sister—writes in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. “It was a beautiful, rough, but lush setting for the backyard party my parents threw with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in-the-dark Frisbees.”
Entertaining imprinted on the Hamilton sisters during their childhood in New Hope. Both women moved to New York to pursue culinary careers, but in different capacities. Between 1998 and 1999, Gabrielle opened Prune, while Melissa joined Saveur, the food magazine Hirsheimer had founded in 1993, eventually rising to test kitchen director and editor.
In 2007 the elder Hamilton returned to her childhood home to launch Canal House Cooking in Lambertville with Hirsheimer. Conversational recipes for and beautiful photos of lobster stew, chanterelle-smothered chicken, upside-down pear cake, spiked hot toddies, and other things you’d imagine served at a pastoral dinner party fill out their cookbooks, color-blocked stacks of which are arranged atop a row of white hutches in the Canal House Station dining room.
The expanding publishing business led Hamilton and Hirsheimer upriver, first to Frenchtown in 2015, then last year to the old train station in Milford. Opening a restaurant was not part of the plan. “We’ve both had restaurants in our past, and anyone who has had one, either they love it or they say, ‘Oh, God, please no. Lock me in the closet. Don’t let me do it,’” Hirsheimer says. Both women were in the latter camp, with Hirsheimer adding, “But the building told us what it wanted to be. It just kept leading us there. It was inevitable.”
The entirety of the Canal House brand now operates in the old stone-and-timber station. You enter through a garden of fig trees and rosemary bushes into a reception room paneled in original chestnut wainscoting, where a spiral staircase leads to the upstairs offices. The daytime schedule accommodates publishing pursuits, with a la carte breakfast and lunch offered Wednesday through Friday. On Saturdays, breakfast is bottomless pancakes dripping with Kerrygold butter and maple syrup, while lunch exclusively features the outstanding fried chicken sandwich. A potato starch dredging creates a shattering, craggy crust on the fried breast, which is dabbed with slightly sweet, tangy “secret sauce” and set between soft brioche cushions. Sunday is dinner only, a prix fixe, four-course “Sunday Supper” served from noon till 4 p.m.
One recent Sunday, Spain inspired the supper. Saffron rice crammed into fruity piquillo peppers. Fideos floated in a nourishing bronze chicken broth so collagen-rich it coated my lips like Burt’s Bees. Poached chicken breast gathered into a cocido with chickpeas, green beans, turnips, parsnips, and Honeynut squash. Each element of the stew was cooked separately to its own ideal temperature and texture, then assembled together to order. Like much of what’s served at Canal House Station, its humble appearance hides a ton of work that goes into it.
More than a test kitchen
“We’re classicists,” says Hirsheimer. “I was just thinking the other day of how disinterested I am in being surprised when I go to restaurants. I am looking for the very best version of something familiar.”
Superlative ingredients power the Canal House Station menu the way the Delaware powered the nearby grist and silk mills during the Industrial Revolution: gossamer rags of salty prosciutto draped over shimmering smiles of dense, sweet cantaloupe, for example. And the precious ham’s cooked cousin, prosciutto cotto, piled in heaping rosettes over a tall slice of toast smeared with caraway butter. Tomatoes “All Dressed Up for Summer” features half a dozen chopped heirlooms tossed in shallot vinaigrette and arranged over mayo kissed with lemon and chile. Puff pastry tarts are flaky love letters to shifting fruit seasons; spiced apples have recently usurped Italian plums.
Corn soup lands in a shallow bowl, an island of ombre-green cubes of firm, creamy avocado rising from its center. The purée is cold, creamy without being starchy, and the pale yellow shade of homemade lemon curd and gender-neutral baby showers. It tastes purely of sweet summer corn—delicious—but would a sprinkle of salt bring that sugar into sharper relief? Would pepper improve it? The ramekins are right there, inviting.
“People have their own preferences, and we want our lovely patrons to get everything just how they want it,” Hirsheimer later tells me in an email. Yes, she and Hamilton can season food down to the quarter teaspoon, but your preference takes precedence. At Canal House Station the customer—rather than the chefs’ egos—comes first. Hirsheimer sums it up in one word: “Hospitality!”
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