How {pretty to think so} and Bimi’s Canteen & Bar get it right.

By Hal Rubenstein

In 1983, I donned a starched white apron as one of Café Luxembourg’s first cadre of waiters when it opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Since it was the second venture for Keith McNally and Lynn Wagenknecht, the pair who launched The Odeon, the restaurant that reignited life below Canal Street and became the blueprint for every cool bistro from Miami to San Francisco, it was an instant got-to-be-there spot. 

Predictably, Marian Burros began her stint as restaurant critic for The New York Times with a review of Luxembourg by adopting the paper’s then customary nose-pressed-up-against-the-glass disad-vantage point. Starting with “The stretch limos are lined up outside,” the review wasn’t a complete rave but her woebegone envy of “the scene” was so blatant, the house’s phone lines were jammed by 9am.

That afternoon, McNally assembled the staff before service, brandishing Burros’ critique. “I know you’ve all read it,” he said. “But in case you’ve misread it, here’s some clarification. You are not fabulous. No, no, no. Rather, your job is to make everyone who walks through that door feel fabulous. I suggest you don’t forget it.”

Forty years later, as a diner, I still believe in this mantra. Feed me right, treat me right, and going out to eat is as much fun as you can have in public with your clothes on.

McNally’s pointed edict is also a reminder that what’s on the menu isn’t enough to make dining out a desirable experience. As sure as Beyoncé is destined for a CMA Award, you frequent a number of places where the food is just fine, but upon arrival, you walk into an array of “Hey!”s and “Good to see ya”s, your favorite table is waiting, your cocktail of choice already on its way, you readily access a vibe both kinetic and relaxing, are treated to dessert on the house, and leave amid heartfelt handshakes and hugs. But I’ll buy you Beyoncé’s disco cowboy CD and get her to sign it if you can tell me just one place you frequent where the food is four-star, but the house barely acknowledges you showed up. Happiness is a warm puppy. It’s also a welcoming restaurant. 

{pretty to think so}

4:30pm is not my idea of an appetizing dinner hour, but we were driving Upstate early in the afternoon, and since home is an hour north of Rhinebeck, it didn’t make a lot of sense to go all the way up to come right back down, so there we were, even beating those soon to be searching for an early bird special. Finding the door to {pretty to think so} locked, co-owner Eric Mushel stepped outside and requested our patience for a few minutes while they put the finishing touches on setup. Three minutes later, he welcomed us into his rustically elegant dining room framed with enough candles lit to make you wonder if it wasn’t Ascension Thursday. In fact, Mushel welcomed us back. “You guys were here last week, weren’t you? Table of six, right? Well, glad you’re with us again. Hope that’s a good sign.” That greeting certainly was for me. Rhinebeck may not be Tribeca, but it’s a metropolis when compared to others, so it’s gratifying knowing we made an impression that didn’t involve civil disobedience. 

Granted, it’s a little easier to make your mark in a space that only seats two dozen at tables with another dozen around the bar, yet these close quarters are hardly a deficit, for this is a jewel box of a dining room. It really is ‘pretty,’ though that’s not how the in-demand place derived its name—they’re the last four words of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s only bearable novel—with subdued Federal blue walls, except for the back one covered in pastoral pen and ink sketched Schumacher wallpaper, a pair of stately midcentury style brass up-lighting fixtures and a row of bar stools so admirably streamlined I momentarily considered stealing two except I didn’t want Mushel to get the wrong impression. The result of such enveloping décor is that, though seating is tight and the room often full, diners are less inclined to raise their voices to local brewery levels, so you can hear your attentive and knowing server recite specials, or, even better, enjoy a dinner partner’s shhh-just-between-us storytelling. 

However, you may want to sideline such Scheherazadic web spinning until after you’ve perused the menu, since there’s a lot being offered. For starters, the no-way-have-you-heard-of-these cocktails developed by co-owner and resident mixologist Madeline Dillon are so artisanally complex they might confound, though more likely intrigue, Brie Larson’s brilliant researcher in Apple TV’s Lessons In Chemistry. Despite the limited clientele, the bartender is perpetually in overdrive, muddling, shaking, stirring, firing and smoking one intricate libation after the next. Should you wave off a Fire Ceremony (mezcal espadín, red bitters, orange + pink vermouth, chile de arból, strawberry and cherry wood smoke), in favor of a Patron straight up, squeeze of lime, I wouldn’t blame him for skidding to a complete stop while giving you the stink eye. 

Whether you opt for an adventure on the rocks, it’s readily apparent that {pretty} is a passion project for its trio of owners, and it comes across most notably in Chef Mark Margiotta’s exacting execution of his eclectic menu. You may initially bristle at a $9 charge for bread, but these ain’t dinner rolls. Made from butternut squash, nutty quinoa flour, spiked by fermented cranberries and served with pumpkin butter, it’s an appealing curtain raiser. A lovely balance of tart and tang marks a poached pear, roasted beet and chicory salad splashed with a pistachio orange vinaigrette. White bean and escarole soup is familiar southern Italian fare. Margiotta’s addition of confit garlic, crispy onions and an heirloom tomato broth isn’t familiar at all, and after you try it, you’re likely to regret that it isn’t. Fried green tomatoes read like an out-of-left-field offering, but why not go deep when they come dusted in corn flour and served with creamed grits, pickled chanterelles and Swiss chard. However, the nominal item that had me unapologetically filching off other people’s plates was these addictive potato crisps, halfway between fries and chips. When they came with my favorite appetizer, beef tartare and roasted bone marrow in a briny caper-gherkin remoulade, I was so grateful few people fancy marrow. Whipped brandade didn’t animate the table, but the twice baked truffle potato in celery root cream is a sensual option not to be ignored. 

Entrées often compromise originality to satiate mass appeal. Not here. Manhattan-based foodies are currently salivating over the hands-down terrific fried chicken at Coqodaq in Koreatown. Margiotta’s bird isn’t fried, but he could confidently challenge that prominence with his pot-au-feu, a sizable, succulent wonder framed by crispy artichokes and Bok choy in a Portobello mushroom ragout. The duck confit appears less dramatic, but its skin is so irresistibly crackling I gnawed at the burnished leg until the bone splintered. The shank of pork osso buco is formidable but the spices are too muted. However, the wine braised short ribs are exactly what you were hoping for, plus the potato-celery root gratin is a tip-the-scales bonus. Lobster pot pie is flavorful, though its star attraction needs to make a bigger appearance (which may be why the price isn’t astronomical), especially when up against a delicious pan-roasted cod, buoyed by silken Manila clam chowder.

The three desserts on the menu, a gentle tea cake, chocolate tart (I don’t cotton to marshmallows) and panna cotta (the strawberry gelato really is the star) are fine, but if this praise sounds tempered, it’s only because Baked Alaska was a special dessert one night and it was a sensational variation with dark drunken cherries, chocolate ice cream, a crunchy meringue, plus the chance to witness yet one more house specialty set on fire for all the right reasons. 

“Are we going to see you again soon?” the bartender asked when we left. While this is hardly around the corner for us, I nodded, because I do look forward to returning, though I’m still not sure why it’s called {pretty to think so}. Happy to be Here is a much better fit. But don’t look for that name on Resy just yet. 

{pretty to think so}
6417 Montgomery Street
Rhinebeck, New York 12572

hours: Friday–Sunday 4:30–11pm
Monday & Thursday 4:30–10:30pm
Closed Tuesday & Wednesday

Bimi’s Canteen & Bar

Doesn’t matter whether you live in Fort Greene or Fort Ticonderoga, when you’re hungry for something comforting and spirit-lifting, but spending the next few hours prepping, roasting or sautéing is too high a climb, salvation is that neighborhood place right down the block, where you fall in, drop your shoulders and gladly let others take good care of you.

But unless you reside right outside a town center, few of us have a block to walk down. Instead, you get in the car and drive. And drive. And drive. Granted, this column has its territorial requirements, but even ‘off-the-clock,’ living up in bucolic paradise requires acceptance that it’s routine to drive a half or three quarters of an hour to have or meet for dinner. Our nearest town is Chatham—only ten minutes away—and in an issue of The Mountains, I bemoaned its lack of worthy options for dining after sunset other than the dependable Chatham Brewery, which, though they offer keen chicken wings and burgers, is more focused on what’s on tap to wash it down. Equally bumming was constantly listening to the risk-averse, excuse-on-a-loop that the town is too small, the homes too sprawled and the location too far from a main artery to support a quality eatery with artisanal cocktails. So, when stomachs rumbled, and the cupboard was bare it was time for another road trip.

Until now. With the chamber of commerce’s permission, I’d like to throw Ellen Waggett and Christopher Landy, the ebullient proprietors of Bimi’s Canteen and Bar, a parade for demolishing that shopworn ruse that if you build it, they may not come (on four visits, the dining room was full, even at 9pm), for offering me somewhere to eat when I exit The Crandell, Chatham’s raw gem of a movie house (new seats are coming!), and best of all, for offering here-try-this! nourishment in an easy-to-settle-in setting so close to home. 

And after one slurp and bite of Chef Jesse Curtin’s chicken and lemon-thyme laced dumplings, I plan to lobby for the man to have his own float in that parade. It may not be James Beard-worthy criticism, but this dish couldn’t be yummier. What’s so cool about Curtin’s bill of fare is his use of less familiar sources to achieve soulful pleasure. For example, mac n’ cheese is guaranteed to instigate childhood reversion, and Bimi’s offers two commendable options, including one with crab, but the appetizer that more readily induces cheesy bliss is a wedge of torched feta, glazed in white balsamic, served with grilled grapes and a chunk of fine sourdough. Crab salad, tossed with radicchio, braised fennel, radishes and seaweed tastes fresh as the first whiff of spring. A little gem salad is just that, a brisk stack of lettuces with orange, almonds and olives with a zap of anchovy. Kale has never been high on my list of cravings, but when roasted in tandem with rings of delicata squash, tweaked with a splash of agrodolce and crowned by slices of ricotta salata, it nearly approaches mashed potatoes in a butter and duck fat level of swell. 

In February, Bimi’s hosted a Chinese New Year feast that featured two items I wish they’d add to the menu: covetable fried pork and cabbage dumplings, and a bracing spinach in hot sour dressing. But until then, I’ll gladly indulge in their bountiful cassoulet of pork belly, mutton and nutty Toulouse sausage, a bouillabaisse in which seafood is nestled in a lighter-than-classic broth of tomato and saffron, rosy, pink duck breast agleam with a sweet/sour juniper and birch reduction, plus a nearly upstaging hash of duck confit and root vegetables, and a brawny pork chop, in a dash of onion mustard gravy under a carpet of braised red cabbage. Desserts change nightly, but rarely get overly complicated. So far, our favorite was an instantly devoured berry galette. 

It’s a pleasure to see the generational mix that has rallied ’round this new kid in town. Bimi’s Canteen’s (which has a sultry, hideaway style bar downstairs) only drawback is that it’s become popular so quickly, you should make reservations during prime hours. Nevertheless, fingers crossed that Bimi’s success will spur other local, would-be restaurateurs to ignore the dig-in-the-heels pessimists who discourage go-for-broke bravado. But what I like most, is that finally, I can say to friends who want to meet for dinner, “Why don’t you come up by us? Meet us at Bimi’s in Chatham. See you there.” 

Now that makes me really happy. 

Bimi’s Canteen & Bar
19 Main Street
Chatham, NY
(518) 938-1415

hours: Thursday, Monday 5-9pm, Friday & Saturday 5-10pm, Sunday 10am-2pm, 5-9pm

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