The expanded menu at Downtown CafÃ© in Kingston is slightly flawed but still satisfies
You realize how fast things are changing in the Valley when you try to park your car in the Rondout, Kingston’s thriving waterfront district. What used to take 30 seconds on a Friday night now requires a hunt through packed municipal parking lots and up and down hilly side streets. (Fortunately, it’s a relatively brief hunt — probably less time than it takes to find a good spot at the mall.) And it’s the price we pay — gladly — for prosperity returning to old neighborhoods.
While the Rondout has a number of interesting restaurants to choose from, we were there to check in on one of the area’s pioneers. Many, many years ago — say, 1997 — Graziano Tecchio, a native of Italy, opened Downtown CafÃ© at 1 West Strand, crowding just 20 seats into a tiny venue. With a short menu and nightly specials, Tecchio got lots of good reviews for his Italian fusion cuisine. In 2002, at the apogee of the raves, he decided to spill over into the historic yellow brick building next door. What was the original restaurant became a small bar, with 10 beers on tap and live jazz on the weekends.
Suddenly, Tecchio had a comparatively vast new dining room, which he painted a cheerful coral color and packed with whimsical oil paintings, Oriental rugs, and potted plants. He even had room for a country table laden with homemade strudels and cakes, as well as a pleasant garden out back.
So the atmosphere is convivial. How’s the food? The menu is greatly expanded — 26 entrÃ©es for dinner (if you count the specials) and 20 appetizers, including soups and salads. But from the varying success of the dishes, it seems that Tecchio’s work was better when his focus was as tight as the quarters.
The most successful starter we had on a recent visit was a special: five or six Black Mission figs, split in half and served over a handful of greens with a smear of Modena balsamic reduction and a cool wedge of Stilton cheese ($7.50). It was fresh, simple, and delicious. From the regular menu, we tried a pricey spinach salad ($12.95), a deep white bowl filled to the brim with fresh, undressed baby spinach leaves topped with two thick disks of creamy goat cheese and a generous handful of caramelized Vidalia onions with balsamic reduction. It was oversized and a little heavy for a dinner appetizer, though it would have worked well as a lunch entrÃ©e. You can also order a house salad with Gorgonzola walnut dressing for $3 with an entrÃ©e — the better way to go. A plate of six jumbo deep-fried coconut shrimp with mango lime aÃ¯oli ($8.95) is a rich, generous appetizer that is good to share.
Tecchio has a number of beers on tap, including Keegan’s Mother’s Milk stout and Old Capitol Ale from a local brewery in Kingston ($4 the glass). The wine list has an eye-grabbing promotion — the first bottle is half-price with the purchase of two dinners — but the excitement dies down when you look at the prices; for instance, $47 for a bottle of Merlot from California’s Blackstone Winery. (I’d rather have a list with wines that start in the $20s, no gimmicks, please.) But you can get a carafe of Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon or an Italian Merlot for $20.
As we moved on to the entrÃ©es, we found that the most successful by far was again a special. The handmade linguini was tender and full of character, covered with a flavorful pesto, and tossed with fresh shrimp and artichoke hearts ($18.99). There’s a whole section of the menu devoted to fresh, handmade pasta and risotto, all priced between $16.95 and $18.99, and these are the best bet. Some of the tantalizing items we did not sample were gnocchi amatriciana, with smoked bacon, onions, tomato, and basil ($16.95); tortellini filled with ricotta in wild porcini mushroom sauce ($17.95); and saffron risotto with bay scallops and black truffle oil ($18.95).
But we were trying to sample the range, and so tried the Napoli thin-crust grilled pizza ($13.95) with prosciutto, pesto, and fresh mozzarella, a creation that was somewhat weighed down by too much salty tomato sauce. The fish section of the menu touted its sashimi-grade tuna with wasabi ($24.95), but failed to mention it was going to be served raw, along with greens and seaweed dressed with a balsamic soy vinaigrette. It was tasty, but if this is the kind of food you want, you’d probably go to a Japanese restaurant. (If you like, you can opt to have the fish seared.) The 16-ounce grilled ribeye ($26.95) was fine too, although the bourbon demi-glace tasted a little like barbecue sauce. Again, you’d probably be better off in a steakhouse.
Desserts were good. The German chocolate cake ($6.50), very generously sliced, seemed a little dry, but a rich, creamy chocolate truffle served cold with blueberries and a raspberry coulis ($10.99) was delicious, as was the slice of apple strudel with cinnamon and honey ($7.99).
I was struck by all the raves on the back of the menu. Tecchio is clearly capable of producing very good food — especially good Italian food. He should stop trying to be everything to everyone and do what he does best, with a shorter menu that he’s truly enthusiastic about.