The best dining is intimate dining—no groups allowed.
By Hal Rubenstein
I don’t like eating out with a crowd. I’m not objecting to being at a celebration, like a gala or a wedding. That’s a completely different vibe. I mean, you start out planning to dine with a few friends and somehow the text goes round, and you wind up at a table of ten. Well, unless your friends are more harmonious than a Mennonite choir, there’s no way to engage everyone at that long table in a single conversation. Instead, you’re likely to speak with whomever is on your left or across from you, keep apologizing to the person on your right, occasionally wink at someone sitting at the other end while making a “call me” gesture with your hand against your ear, get the dregs of a family style pass around platter thanks to one unidentifiable glutton amidst the throng and as the alcohol consumption increases, find yourself at a table whose decibel level now dominates the room and end the evening making apologies to your out-of-earshot tablemates for not getting to say much to each other. I’d rather stay home and eat tuna fish directly out of a can.
I also know I’m in the minority here, because local restaurants are full of large parties of friends and family having the best time, oblivious to the kitchen they back up and the raucousness they generate. So, when going out with my preferred table of four (six max) I either try to recall an acoustically flat area of a dining room (oh, I scout and check) I know, or seek a restaurant whose design and staff is unphased by the challenge.
I’m not merely comfortable at Stissing House, I’d move in if they’d sublet me one of the rooms. A take-a-breath-and-exhale-now ambience envelops you the moment you walk in and it’s not simply because the structure is 240 years old. There are local museums in buildings equally old and they’re as welcoming as an Urgent Care, so a storied history isn’t the draw. Yes, the beamed ceilings, well-tended fireplaces and upholstered wingback chairs help. But the knowing confidence of the staff is what generates Stissing House’s ease and warmth. It’s no different at King, the restaurant owner/chef Clare de Boer co-owns in New York City. Departures magazine describes the room as a “jewel box,” and yet it’s a spare, unfussy and undeniably cramped corner bistro off a very noisy stretch of Sixth Avenue. However, everyone on the floor at King has such a feel for and is invested in the room’s rhythm and unerringly satisfying menu that the compact space somehow feels as romantic as its fare is seductive.
In Stissing’s more imposing, historic setting, the staff’s confidence becomes even more gratifying. The trajectory of your restaurant experience is often set within the first five minutes, ten max. If you think about the good and bad times you’ve had eating out, you’ll discover that’s about all it takes to establish your mood. On each of our visits, we were immediately greeted by people who don’t hesitate to smile while making eye contact, escorted to a handsome table where we were either the only ones in the room or with enough space between diners to accommodate a double wide stroller (though happily, this isn’t a restaurant for kids), offered ingenious cocktails and then treated to wood oven baked bread served with a small tower of luxurious butter that I mistook for a four-scoop lemon ice cream sundae.
Without a false step, the trajectory at Stissing House keeps rising. Even appetizers as simple as potato chips and pickles are worth noting, though excuse me while I reach across to indulge in the crisp zing of another fin de la baie oyster, a sweet, succulent slice of quince glazed ham and debate whether we should order another portion of sublime day boat scallops bathed in green garlic butter.
Despite my previously noted trepidation for getting short strawed when it comes to passing food family style, it’s my preferred way of dining. That fear will never be realized at Stissing House. Like that butter tower, portions are impressive, which makes their tasting menu a marvelous, near sinful, well-worth-it feast. First comes the crunchy delight of an endive and pear salad, then the refreshing rush of beets, pistachios and goat cheese tossed in a citrus slaw. The final salad of mixed colored lettuces and winter vegetables is almost too much. Almost.
Too often, appetizers and salads are the most inventive section of a kitchen’s menu. But Chef Roel Alcudia doesn’t slow down. Over the years, many chefs (and critics for that matter) have confided that the dish they use to gauge talent is roast chicken. Everyone makes it. Can you make it special? Well, if that’s the barometer, then it’s a near perfect beach day in July right outside Chef Alcudia’s kitchen. Steak, another dish I hesitate to order when outside my own kitchen, is sumptuous and superior to most red flocked velvet houses that specialize in beef. Pork loin in natural juices brought back such sweet memories of meals at Chef Clare de Boer’s alma mater, London’s glorious River Café, that I surprised myself when I reached for seconds of both poached steelhead trout whose nutlike notes were in harmony with clams, white beans and leeks and smoked hake in the lightest of hollandaise flecked with sturgeon caviar.
I like the buttermilk sherbet with kumquat. I like the coconut cake. But the desserts you best leave room for are just about the best apple and pecan crumble in memory and the sticky toffee sundae which will leave you insanely guilt-ridden while grinning. Stissing House leaves you satiated, not stuffed. It’s a meal you’re guaranteed to remember. But better than that, it’s a restaurant you won’t want to wait to go back to. And yes, you should tell all your friends. Just please, sit in the other room.
7801 South Main Street, Pine Plains, NY 12567
reservations via Resy
Open Thursday-Monday dinner, Saturday & Sunday brunch
The Aviary Kinderhook
The space is so big, wide, high, open and, except for the dramatic black crossbeams, a fairly blank canvas, that it’s a bit disappointing to walk into The Aviary and not duck for macaws, parrots, ibises and hummingbirds flying about. Not that the room is short of activity. A young, very perky crowd perches here, squawking, chirping, even tweeting away. The first night we arrived, the host attempted to seat our party of six next to a table of 14. Before even laying down the menus, she picked up on the exasperation quickly settling into every frown line on my face, anticipating the cacophony after their third round of cocktails.
“You know what?” asked the host, with a deliberate lilt in her voice and a radical turn to the left. “I’ve a better idea,” and across the room we went to a table in the far corner, bordered by two deuces. As my brow relaxed, the host assured me, “You’ll be just fine here,” and then walked by our server, pausing just long enough to say, “Get them drinks now!” In no time at all, we were better than that. Of course, a quick quaffing of nattily named cocktails including Bitter Neighbor, Answered Prayers and Bird on a Wire certainly helped. But what really kick-started our affection for The Aviary was discovering that the restaurant is a lot more ambitious than the minimalist rec hall décor leads you to believe. The Aviary looks like a hangout, but it’s a restaurant that belongs on your list of favorites in Columbia County.
Since it’s so easy to find menus online now, I rarely walk into a restaurant uninformed. Though I had heard good things about the place, I somehow walked into The Aviary cold, without doing any advance diligence. From its clean-lined, unadorned interior, it was logical to expect grilled or farm-to-table American fare. When one of my guests said The Aviary’s website claimed the food would be Dutch- and Indonesian-based, I was less than elated, recalling student summers in Amsterdam, stoned and constantly eating in scores of cheap restaurants that featured rijsttafel, the smorgasbord-like, combination plate, rice-laden, signature dish of Indonesia.
All it took was one bite of beet cured local trout unflinchingly spiked by leche de tigre (purée of fresh garlic, ginger, cilantro, celery, red onion and jalapeños) to know that I wasn’t going to be wasting time chowing down on bowls of long white grains. While Chef Hannah Wong admits to being inspired by the flavors, spices and marinades of Indonesia, her vibrant dishes are unlike any cuisine for miles in every direction. The Korea-born chef, raised by Chinese adoptive parents, has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia and her appealingly amalgamated cuisine boasts a unique balance of flavors that get off on sweet vs. spicy, velvety vs. crunch, with no fear of the spice rack.
It’s a small menu, but a smart one. Appetizers as simple as gouda straws garner attention with just enough coriander and cumin to give them an edge. They’re even better if you run them through the smoked mackerel dip with dill and celery. Radishes and pea shoots gleam with the veneer of sesame oil and vinegar. Those got scarfed down so fast we had to place another order immediately. But the runaway favorite starter is duck legs that are shredded after having been marinated in Thai chilies and then bonded with shards of green papaya and tapioca crisps. So much going on but all in harmony.
Ever had a shrimp burger? Try Chef Wong’s, topping it with some briny cabbage slaw. It won’t be your last. No additives. Just shrimp. How good? Will preface this by saying I will block any vulgarity coming my way with a 516 area code—but I’m happy to match it against any lobster roll you can find in Montauk.
Wong’s mie goreng brightly blends a yin yang of soy, garlic, ginger and chili, with unexpectedly flavorful ramen noodles. For those who don’t usually take to lamb, this tamarind and ginger braised version may change your mind. The aftertaste that hits some the wrong way is absent. It’s not just the treat of pairing the sweet lamb with the pop of chili and garlic infused in the accompanying collard greens. It’s also that the lamb comes from the estimable Veritas farms. The meltingly good short ribs, however, come from the Bay Area’s famed Niman Ranch. When sourcing the best, not every ingredient can be local, but Chef Wong is determined and has been encouraged to do just that, which is why she has combed the mountains for so much of her produce, sourcing Veritas in New Paltz, The Chatham Berry Farm, Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie and multiple cheese farms in the Berkshires.
The Aviary has only been open less than a year. Wong and her partners, restaurateur Yen Ngo and artist Darren Waterston, a painter, are hoping to make their space more of a collective, adding a general store, wine shop and art gallery. In time. Right now, they’re still looking to grow both the menu at The Aviary and Morningbird in Kinderhook, which they also own and whose kitchen Wong oversees. Both places are bustling. In fact, the last time we showed up to dine there, not only was the room rocking, but we arrived, to my surprise, to a table of eight (it’s a long story). “Now, are you going to behave?” my host, who hadn’t forgotten, asked. “We’re going to be watching you.” I promised to try. But after a second round of Bitter Neighbors, I shouldn’t be held responsible. And who knows? After three, I may start seeing birds.
The Aviary Kinderhook
4 Hudson Street, Kinderhook, NY 12106
reservations via Resy
Open Thursday-Saturday dinner