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Bon Vivants Love the Catskills' Gallic Getaways : French innkeepers have established an enclave in Upstate New York. The dining is good, but don't expect a floor show.

July 18, 1993|STEPHEN WILLIAMS | NEWSDAY

SHANDAKEN, N.Y. — It might have been a country inn near the Pyrenees or in Bordeaux. The guest room met most of the requirements: a worn armoire, a bed covered with a fresh, white chenille spread and sufficient clearance--just enough--for a person to pass between the pieces of furniture.

Near the window was a small porcelain sink, and a 40-watt bulb wrapped in a delicate pink shade dangled over the bed. The thin carpet held the stale, faintly sweet odor of strong tobacco. Inside a small chest of drawers--no Bible, no phone book, just two matchbooks; tres Gallic.

From the window, an autumn view of blazing color, the fiery foliage of a lush hillside.

And from the kitchen downstairs, morning aromas: French roast coffee and steamed milk, the bite of a Gitane, a baguette heating in the oven.

But this is the scene about 2 1/2 hours' drive north of the George Washington Bridge. In the Catskill Mountains. Of New York. United States of America.

And it's not just in autumn that the area comes alive. There are activities for visitors throughout the summer, including hiking the mountain trails, bicycling, fishing, antiquing, wine-tasting and inner-tubing down the Esopus Creek.

There's nothing formal about the French Catskills. The state of New York officially recognizes the villages of Shandaken and Mt. Tremper and Big Indian--what a name for a hometown: Big Indian. But the French Catskills exist mainly in the traveler's lexicon, as do the Jewish Catskills and the German Catskills and the Italian Catskills.

Geographically, this region of Catskill Park, about 30 miles west of Kingston and the New York Thruway, is an hour's drive from the Borscht Belt, from the giant resorts like the Concord and Kutcher's and the Nevele.

In terms of attitude, though, the gap is as wide as the difference between steak tartare and brisket well-done.

Take La Duchesse Anne. It's a creaky country house tucked in a leafy glen in the village of Mt. Tremper that's just a right, a left and a right off New York 28, the main highway hereabouts. Nearby flows a rocky stream, and horses prance out in the back.

The gracious Martine Gaudet and her husband, Bruce Baum, run the inn with a low-key continental warmth that reflects Gaudet's Brittany heritage. Most of La Duchesse Anne's 18 rooms are small, cozy and inexpensive ($40-$50 a night) to rent.

The tables in the low-ceilinged, old-fashioned dining room are clothed in white under hanging plants and ceiling fans. But it's what goes on the table that's most impressive. I dined late one evening last fall on a glass of blanc de blanc, Martine's Salad Esmeralda (a gorgeous ensemble of radicchio, bibb lettuce and chunks of fresh goat cheese) and a fillet of sole brushed with butter and blanketed with slivers of almonds.

"My mother and grandmother were innkeepers," said Gaudet, resting for a moment between her trips to the kitchen to consult with chef Frederic Puichard. "We try to be a country home here. People who come feel like they are in their own living rooms."

That's the attitude among most of the expatriate Frenchmen who own and/or operate the half-dozen inns and restaurants snuggled here in the heart of the Catskills. There's nothing very French-sounding about Shandaken and Big Indian, though parts of the landscape might pass for Savoy. But this part of the world has been attracting les Francais --and plenty of "foreigners" as well--for almost four decades.

One of the pioneers of this French connection was Edouard LaBeille, affectionately known as Dadou, a French fisherman who came to the States after the war. He worked for a time as a waiter at Le Pavillon, one of Manhattan's grandest French restaurants, and vacationed in the Catskills.

In 1952, LaBeille bought an 1870 hunting lodge in Shandaken, added a restaurant and invited his pals from New York--chefs, waiters, maitre d's, trout fishermen, foodies and food critics--to cook, gather chanterelles in the woods, and generally chill out in the home he named L'Auberge des Quatre Saisons (Inn of the Four Seasons).

Other downstate French people soon followed; Shandaken and surroundings became a kind of French colony. "We had a weekend place here some time ago," said Marguerite Bertrand, who with her husband, Serge, now runs the immaculate kitchen at Val d'Isere, a restaurant chalet in Big Indian. "When this place was for sale, we thought it was a shame to be empty."

Although he kept his house in the Catskills, LaBeille sold L'Auberge in 1984 (he died last year). By then, the French community in the Esopus Valley--carved out by the creek of the same name--was fully established. The current manager of L'Auberge, Liliane Hasson, estimates that about 600 French families, living here part-time and year-round, now populate the enclave.

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