If you havenÂ¡Â¯t been to uptown Kingston lately, a pleasant surprise awaits you. Bread Alone bakery and cafÂ¨Â¦ now has a bustling outpost there. Locally owned gift shops, like Bop to Tottom, TheresaÂ¡Â¯s, and the Well-Seasoned Nest, are thriving. Rounding out the scene are quirky standbys like KimmÂ¡Â¯s, a jumble of everything Asia Â¡Âª from fish kites to porcelain lamps Â¡Âª with a small grocery in back with hard-to-find ingredients and great prices. (Where else can you get a half-gallon jug of kim chee, the Korean pickled cabbage?)
But the most important force in uptown KingstonÂ¡Â¯s renaissance may be Jean-Jacques Carquillat, a French-born chef who worked in Paris, London, and New York City before moving to the Hudson Valley in 1992. The restaurant he worked for failed, so he opened Le Canard EnchainÂ¨Â¦ on Fair Street in 1996. Defying all odds, the French bistro quickly found a following and is one of the most successful restaurants in the region.
Carquillat has been steadily expanding his empire down Fair Street ever since. First he broke through a wall of his bistro to add a piano bar. Then he opened the nightclub Rive Gauche. And last July he debuted the Thai-fusion restaurant CafÂ¨Â¦ Nouba, designed with an open kitchen so Carquillat can tape a new TV show heÂ¡Â¯s calling French Kiss. (A second kitchen is where food is prepared for his patrons.)
CafÂ¨Â¦ Nouba has already developed a lively after-work bar scene, with attractive folk crowded at the green bar hung with red, green, and white fairy lights. Maybe they come for the exotic cocktails, like the French Kiss Martini, made with Vertical vodka, pineapple juice, and Chambord. But I suspect theyÂ¡Â¯re more intoxicated by the sophisticated lounge atmosphere: the walls of red, orange, or blue; the Â¡Â¯50s-style lamps; modern art juxtaposed with serene Buddhas from Thailand; and cool music that isnÂ¡Â¯t too loud. Â¡Â°This reminds me more of a place in the city than up here,Â¡Â± said our waitress as she delivered a small basket of pink and white prawn-flavored chips. We agreed.
The wine list is short Â¡Âª nine bottles each of white and red; the by-the-glass list (four reds and four whites) includes a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, and Pink Zinfandel. The Hanwood Chardonnay from Australia was full-flavored and fruity, and the serving was generous enough to last through an appetizer and entrÂ¨Â¦e Â¡Âª very unusual! (However, the glasses are blue and green, which is anathema to a wine lover, who likes to see what she is drinking.)
The appetizers are also large and hearty, with a tendency toward drama. Anyone accustomed to the typical chicken satay will be surprised by CafÂ¨Â¦ NoubaÂ¡Â¯s presentation ($7): three skewers of plump, tender chicken breast marinated in coconut milk and spices, grilled, and stuck into the cut end of a cucumber, so that they arrive at the table upright and steaming. Served with a sweet, thick peanut curry sauce, this is a good appetizer for the table to share or the perfect Atkins entrÂ¨Â¦e. The appetizer plate of mixed tempura ($9) is another fine dish. The shrimp, sweet potato, zucchini, and Japanese eggplant, dipped in batter and deep-fried, were hot without being greasy, and the soy sesame dipping sauce added a nice piquancy.
The chicken coconut soup called Thom Kah ($5) is a delicious broth Â¡Âª well-made stock with a good depth of flavor and a little heat Â¡Âª but it came with a big hunk of lemongrass stalk that shouldnÂ¡Â¯t have been there. And I would have preferred vegetables to the crumbly pieces of chicken that had sunk to the bottom. The Nouba salad ($7), a large bowl of lettuce, cucumber, tofu, bean sprouts, and onion, was satisfactory but a little bland. Skip the Thai quesadilla ($7), too. The tortillas stuffed with mushrooms and cheese were overly charred from the grill and overwhelmed by the stripes of hot sauces, one red pepper and the other wasabi.
Two appetizers could easily make a meal, but then youÂ¡Â¯d miss out on the entrÂ¨Â¦es. The Tuna Tataki ($18), a lightly seared piece of sushi-grade tuna with a peppercorn crust, was excellent served over soba noodles with a sweet tamarind ginger sauce. Big chunks of good-quality beef made the masaman beef curry ($14) another winner. This stew-like dish with potatoes, pearl onions, snap peas, and roasted peanuts has less heat than an Indian-style curry and a distinct coconut flavor (although coconut is not an ingredient, says Chef Carquillat). The pan-roasted salmon ($16) in a green curry coconut sauce was a bit hotter, and excellent, though the jumbo tiger prawns that accompanied it were a tad overdone. It came with a side dish of tasty brown rice that went wonderfully well with the delicious curry sauce. Finally, the Pad Thai ($14), Thai noodles stir-fried with shrimp, chunks of chicken, peanuts, tofu, bean sprouts, scallions, and cilantro, was too heavy on the fish sauce for my palate. (Vegetarians will be pleased to know that all dishes can be made without meat.)
In Thailand, the preferred way to end a meal is with a nice piece of fruit. At CafÂ¨Â¦ Nouba, the dessert menu (all $7) is limited. The coconut flan is a French-style crÂ¨Â¨me caramel with coconut, and the Â¡Â°chocolate mountain,Â¡Â± cooked to order in a muffin tin and served upside down, is a chocolate cake with a molten center. Both are pleasant. You can also get espresso, cappuccino, and coffee.
So has Carquillat broken through his last wall? Somehow I doubt it. Â¡Â°I want to get the building next door and open a bed and breakfast,Â¡Â± he says. Maybe if the Food Network picks up that TV showÂ¡. Â¡Ã¶
CafÂ¨Â¦ Nouba is located at 288 Fair St. (at the corner of John St.) in Kingston. Dinner is served Tues.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., and Sun. 4-9 p.m. Appetizers range from $5 to $9, entrÂ¨Â¦es from $14 to $18. Desserts are $7. Reservations recommended. 845-340-4770.