A Touch of Artistry
With Artist’s Palate, Poughkeepsie’s long-neglected Main Street gets a colorful (and very welcome) newcomer
By Alex Silberman
In its heyday more than half a century ago, Poughkeepsie’s Main Street was a big deal, a hub of culture and commerce. Folks came for the three department stores, the plays and vaudeville, and just to stroll amid the grandeur of the solid Victorian buildings lining the thoroughfare. Gradually, for all the usual reasons, the street fell into decline, and it all became a little seedy.
Over the last few years, state grants and various initiatives have been reinvigorating the neighborhood. There are artist’s lofts in restored buildings, businesses are moving back in, and now there’s a hip new restaurant — Artist’s Palate — the first dinner venue to spring up on Main Street in a long time. Chef/owners Megan Kulpa and Charles Fells Jr. say that they were warned off the area, but decided “we’re happy to be pioneers.” (Chef Kelly Johnson is the third member of the culinary crew.)
Our party of four agreed there was something about Artist’s Palate that we liked a lot. The dÃ©cor is minimalist but attractive, somewhere between casual and elegant. Tables along each wall and down the center of the room have adequate space between them for comfort and conversation. As the evening progressed, the place filled up and took on a cheerful buzz, but we could still talk comfortably across our table. Perhaps the high, pressed tin ceilings and well-aged wooden floors (left over from the space’s previous incarnation as the M. Schwartz & Co. department store) contribute to good acoustics.
There are about 20 wines by the glass ($5-$10) and a well-priced wine list of good food quaffs rather than prestige products. As a result, you feel free to experiment without consulting your financial adviser.
Dinner began with an amuse bouche, a round of seared tuna the size of a silver dollar. Pretty in its light sesame crust, with a mango salsa and sprinkling of red pepper confetti, it was nevertheless a bit bland and provided a false hint, as it turned out, of what was to come.
Grilled Fruits de Mer salad ($10) was a sumptuous display, heaps of marinated calamari, octopus, and shrimp atop greens and garlic-rubbed crostini, dressed with lemon juice and a good olive oil. The shrimp and calamari were good, but the octopus, a difficult sea creature to tame for the table, was fabulous. The crostini was especially welcome as another spreadable for the excellent sun-dried tomato pesto that comes along with the bread.
Another appetizer of Maine lobster mac and cheese ($12) was more a showcase for lobster. Moist chunks of crustacean nestled among tiny pasta shells just lightly cheese-flavored. The crumb topping didn’t make it through the browning process unscathed, though, so the dish was a bit dry, a triple rather than a home run.
A generous portion of lemon nut-crusted French Brie($9) came surrounded by a warm peach sauce touched with vanilla, the whole thing providing a nice contrast in textures and tastes — creamy and crunchy, savory and sweet at once.
The star starter was the duck confit and foie gras ravioli ($12), an appetizer-sized portion of one of the dinner pastas. The “ready for their close-up” ravioli were bathed in a truffle butter that delivered such a foresty aroma we handed the plate around the table for everyone to get a whiff. In the mouth, the ravioli were velvety, with concentrated flavor. This is one of those remarkable dishes that will have you boring your friends as you attempt to describe it.
As dinner progressed, silverware was replaced between courses and drinks wordlessly replenished, our pleasant waiter proving capable of being almost invisible and very helpful at the same time. Dinner salads appeared, a modest portion of very fresh mixed greens dressed in tomato basil balsamic vinaigrette.
EntrÃ©es appeared promptly. The roasted half Hudson Valley duckling ($21) was notable for its beautiful mahogany sheen, product of a pomegranate glaze. The dish was enlivened even more by nutty Himalayan red rice studded with Bing cherries. This bistro standard was rendered with panache and very much enjoyed.
Pan-roasted wild boar chops ($24) were meant to be the sit-up-and-take-notice dish. It looks as though game is on its way to being a trademark here, with such exotics as antelope and kangaroo making an appearance on the menu. Crusted in Parmesan (delicious), infused with rosemary (subtle), the trio of chops was finished with a Pinot Noir sauce and served over mashed potatoes. They looked good and tasted good, and would have been truly outstanding if they hadn’t been just a little more done than the requested medium rare.
More modest, but also more remarkable, was a frenched breast of chicken with chorizo-crawfish stuffing and a restrained yet piquant Creole mustard sauce ($19). The CIA chef-in-training in our party exclaimed, with a touch of awe, “This chicken is done perfectly!” The stuffing was superior, and the splendid Swiss chard gratin went above and beyond the call as a side dish.
Large day boat scallops ($22) were prettily presented in a geometric pattern, each one perched in little circle of smoked tomato vinaigrette. A resounding success, the scallops were seared just so and retained their briny, sweet essence. The crispy shallots, warm spinach and pancetta salad accompaniment provided a perfect counterpoint.
Portions here are ample, but it would be a serious mistake to deny yourself dessert. The night we were there the dessert sampler included lovely miniatures of a spectacular strawberry cheesecake (suffused with berry essence), crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, a Key lime tortlet, and warm chocolate cake. The tortlet was two dainty mouthfuls (if you were careful) of concentrated flavor, almost a lime liqueur. The crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, with Grande Marnier, was perfect. Good coffee and cappuccino didn’t let the side down.
Though there’s a public lot about a block away and ample curb space, the restaurant offers free valet parking on Friday and Saturday nights, a convenience probably meant to assuage any lingering doubts about the neighborhood. There are also plans in the works for a “dinner and a show at the Bardavon” package. You’ll pull up at the restaurant, get parked, enjoy your appetizer and entrÃ©e, then walk the short distance to the Bardavon. After the show, you return for dessert, and have the valet bring up your car. Sounds like a fine evening out.
Usually when reviewing a newly opened restaurant, I’m inclined to find excuses for small lapses if the spirit of the place seems right. Here, I found myself fretting about whether they were going to be able to keep up what they’d already achieved with their first broad strokes. I plan to return often, just to be sure.