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Restaurant Review: Bywater Bistro

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The New Normal

 

Down-to-earth dining with a touch of class at Bywater Bistro in Rosendale

 

 

 

A few years back, when a couple of sophisticated city guys opened a hip restaurant called the Rosendale Cement Company in the not very hip Ulster County town of Rosendale, it immediately drew a trendy crowd. But it also elicited some “will-ya-look-at-this” eye-rolling (from those the trendsetters refer to as “the locals”). Walls textured with cement (a nod to Rosendale’s historic claim to fame) and a renovated Airstream trailer dispensing cocktails in the garden out back added to the chic charm of the place. It was cool.

Last May, the original owners sold the restaurant to one of the locals — a young chef named Sam Ullman, who set out to make it a bit more welcoming to those of us who dwell off the trendometer. Now called Bywater Bistro, the name reflects both the location (the pretty garden in back, where you can dine in summer, leads down to the Rondout Creek), and Ullman’s menu (although his is American — rather than French — bistro fare).

Before the restaurant’s opening last summer, Ullman and his brother, Reuben (a silent partner in this family business) gave the narrow room a redo, painting the textured walls a rosy terra-cotta shade, and installing a new poured-concrete bar with a mahogany facade. Orchids bloom in Spanish-style niches in the walls. Pendant lights with yellow and red tulip-shaped shades diffuse soft light, as do the paper globe lanterns over the bar (where, on the busy Monday night when we were there, a row of people sat gaily munching). Tablecloths are covered with brown paper, and the atmosphere is informal and warm, though there’s still an urban, contemporary feel. (We couldn’t decide if it was more like a European café or something in Montreal.) There are fewer tables than in the space’s previous incarnation, so you have a bit more elbow room, but there’s still a café mood.

Ullman focuses on comfort foods, but with sophisticated touches. Several dishes are offerered as full or half portions — a smart move for those like me who can never decide what to eat and might want to try two things. (Although it turned out the halves were so big that finishing two would be a challenge for anyone with a normal appetite.)

While we looked over the menu, squares of a ciabatta-style bread were delivered to the table, and our efficient server poured us water infused with a light lemony flavor from the slices floating in the pitcher — a nice touch.

We ordered a Red River Cabernet ($5 by the glass), a fruity wine from one of the Texan vineyards in that state’s burgeoning wine industry. The changing list features many New World wines for around $30, and there’s a selection of sparkling wines and Champagnes, too.

Dishes here are presented well, but without froufrou flourishes, although the prosciutto and fig appetizer ($10) was really pretty. Curls of prosciutto encased four fig halves, looking like little roses around a pile of bright haricots vert in the middle of the plate, all atop a bed of sliced beets. The ripe figs and prosciutto offered a lovely combination of salty and sweet. The beets, however, were undercooked so their inherent sweetness didn’t come forward, and the dressing was too vinegary. The green beans were a little too crunchy also, although they were the long skinny variety that taste good even when raw.

The Caesar salad ($7) was well balanced, with crisp greens and a light but flavorful dressing. The plate was a bit small for the portion, which forced a certain daintiness in eating it, but that’s just a quibble.

My beef-loving spouse chose the hanger steak in red wine shallot jus ($18) — a venerable bistro standard. It was a generous size, tender and tasty, and prepared medium-rare as ordered, though it didn’t have much of that pleasant charring that one likes when someone else is doing the cooking and cleaning up. It arrived with a side of haricots vert and a hefty helping of thin-cut, crispy French fries flecked with fine chopped parsley and chives and drizzled with a little truffle oil. Irresistible.

 

I tried two half dishes. The first (or the one I chose to eat first — they were delivered at the same time) was spinach linguine topped with pan-seared scallops ($13), served in a bowl with herb-roasted tomatoes and tarragon broth. Tarragon can be overpowering, and I’m not that fond of anise or licorice-y flavors, so it was a risky choice. But here the chef had a light touch, and the tarragon just served to brighten up the other flavors in this Mediterranean-style combo. The three mid-sized scallops were sweet, the tomatoes a pleasing contrast, and the spinach linguine done just right.

I enjoyed it a lot, but I really loved my other half dinner: fusilli pasta with lamb ragout ($12). Also served in a bowl, the fusilli was liberally coated with ground lamb prepared in a red wine marinara, and crisscrossed on top with half-inch-wide ribbons of Pecorino Romano — deliciously satisfying. I mopped up the last morsels with the triangles of toasted ciabatta perched on the edge of the bowl.

Other dishes available that day in either full or half sizes were Brooklyn Brown Ale-braised short ribs ($24/$13); boneless slow-roasted pork with a chipotle barbeque sauce ($18/$10) and Four Cheese Ravioli Alfredo ($18/$10). Offering such hearty dishes in light portions at a reasonable price is a terrific idea — and something that would draw me in as a regular (although in future I’ll restrict myself to just one half).

We finished up by sharing a chocolate caramel panna cotta with caramelized bananas and bourbon sauce ($7), the whole sweet, smooth, melting concoction slipping silkily across the tongue.

As we ate, we talked about how much the dining scene has changed in the mid-Hudson Valley since we moved up from Manhattan in the early ’90s. Back then, it was dominated by two kinds of eateries: big portion palaces (many of them Italian) or “special occasion” restaurants like the DePuy Canal House or those at the Culinary Institute.

These days, a place like Bywater Bistro, where you can find well-prepared, good food, presented without hoopla but with a dash of style — and at bistro rates — represents the new normal. Like the menu selections, the spirit here is easygoing enough that it is an ideal place to just drop in for a burger or a sandwich at the bar or for a casual celebration. This is the kind of neighborhood place that city residents take for granted. Now, at last, we can too.

 

Bywater Bistro

419 Main St.

, Rosendale. 845-658-3210; www.bywaterbistro.com

Open for dinner Thurs.-Mon., Sun. brunch. Appetizers range from $6-$10; entrées from $15-$24 (with half portions available on many dishes). Bar meals run $8-$12. House-made desserts are $4-$7.

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