Small Plates, Big Flavors
Elephant, a tapas and wine bar in Uptown Kingston, leads the charge for eateries offering an adventure in dining
By Lynn Hazlewood
Bodacious bites (clockwise from top left): A selection of marinated olives; CaÃ±a de Cabra (aged goat cheese) with cranberry relish; roncal cheese with honeyed walnuts; chorizo and chocolate; jamÃ³n with black fig jam; chickpea hummus with harissa; boquerones (white anchovies) with San Marzano tomato vinaigrette. In the center, Spanish Marcona almonds are scattered atop a drizzle of sweet-beet reduction
Is the entrÃ©e heading for extinction?” asked a recent New York Times story about what the writer called the “tapafication” of menus these days. Probably not, the story concluded, but what with tapas, meze, anti-pasti, small plates — and just plain old appetizers — gaining in appeal, the traditional big plate entrÃ©e is taking a back seat — and in a few famous New York City restaurants, it has disappeared altogether.
Even in the woodsiest parts of the Hudson Valley, where “big portions” are sometimes an eatery’s main selling point, the small-plate phenomenon is gaining ground. At Elephant, a 10-month-old restaurant and wine bar in Uptown Kingston, the menu is — bravely and confidently — made up entirely of small plates. And they’re something to trumpet about.
Owned by chef Rich Reeve and his wife, Maya Karrol, Elephant is housed in one of Wall Street’s handsome Victorian storefronts. The building’s owners, Joe Concra and his wife, Denise Orzo, enlisted the help of artist Brian Early to make over the long, narrow space.
The team retained all that was charming while bringing it up to date. Now the original tin ceiling is painted black; dark wood battens frame gray pigmented plaster above the wainscot; a bar of stripped and reglued plywood runs halfway down one side of the room. (In the bathroom, a black-on-grey stencil meticulously painted by Orzo was inspired by a scrap of old flowery wallpaper unearthed during renovation.) Lights are low and the background music cross-generational. It feels sleek and hip yet welcoming and comfortable. All the care that’s been expended on the surroundings is reflected in the effort Reeve takes to choose top quality organic and artisanal ingredients to craft his dishes. You can see him in the bare-bones open kitchen in back, where he labors using only a hotplate, panini press, crockpot, and toaster oven (supplemented by a grill outside).
The menu is divided into Swine of the Week (a selection of charcuterie); the Dairy Bar (featuring unusual cheeses); and special small plates, a list of which is written on the mirror on the wall.
It’s a good idea to think of your first visit as exploratory, so you can get a sense of the portions. To begin, you can’t miss with the Tapas Board, a chef’s selection that changes with his whim but which can help you figure out flavors you may want to concentrate on next time.
Our chef’s board — literally a wooden cutting board — included four toasted slices of baguette, each delivering its own morsel, and two cheeses. Karrol, who smoothly runs the front of the house, served it along with a serrated knife so we could cut everything in half to share. The duck liver toast was delicious: rich, essential, and satiny smooth, it was almost like a foie gras. (“Free-range ducks,” says Reeve. “It just shows you don’t need to force-feed a duck to get a good liver.”) Smooth chickpea hummus was made without tahini, so the delicate flavor of the legume shone through; the blob of harissa on top really set it off. (A bigger blob would have pleased my heat-loving spouse and would surely have been available if we’d asked.)
Boquerones and San Marzano vinaigrette was a classic tapa: two silvery plump anchovy filets reminded us these little critters are fish, not just slithery things in a jar. Crisscrossed on a thick, tangy tomato and red pepper purÃ©e, they were briny, piquant, and flavorful.
Chorizo and chocolate was an interesting, playful combination, with the smooth, bittersweet molten chocolate contrasting with the moist sausage — it wasn’t a favorite but it alerted us to how good the chorizo itself was.
Both cheeses on our board were Spanish. One, a raw milk roncal — a firm sheep’s milk cheese — came perched on some honeyed walnuts, a very tasty combination that was clean and light. The other, courtesy of a goat, was a CaÃ±a de Cabra, which Reeve presented with cranberry mustard, another savory treat.
Our selection included four varieties of marinated olives as well as little mounds of condiments like fig jam and raspberry jalapeÃ±o mustard — wonderful touches that seemed to enhance the flavors of anything we tried them with. The board looked nice, too, prettily drizzled with a loop of beet reduction scattered with Spanish almonds. At 15 bucks, it made a hearty, pleasing appetizer for two, each artfully crafted little bite eliciting its own “mmmm.”
Now raring to go, we decided to indulge in a sampling from the Swine list. The Spanish Palacios chorizo (noted for holding its own against the chocolate) is a paprika-and-garlic-cured pork sausage you don’t come across every day. A few slices served in a little glass were a savory complement to another choice: papery slivers of jamÃ³n serrano, a mildly spiced, salt-cured ham similar to prosciutto. (If you peek into the kitchen, you can see a leg of it resting on the traditional slicing stand, complete with hoof.) Our third choice — Reeve’s own country-style pÃ¢tÃ© — was truly superior: moist, well-larded, the flavors nicely balanced.
A brief pause and we were ready for some “specials.” It’s been many a long year since a dish caused the word “wow” to drop from my lips, but the silken Chinatown dumplings stuffed with rich, dark blood sausage did the trick. Reeve says he imagined himself a Chinese chef in Barcelona when he invented the dish. The dumplings came bathed in a delectable pork broth spiked with cilantro, ginger, and garlic that was wow-worthy in itself.
The few succulent chunks of braised confit of pork belly, nestled among roasted chestnuts and brussels sprouts, was robust, wintry, and satisfying. One more special — duck confit — was just like the kind you get in French country cafÃ©s, and although it wasn’t very crispy on the outside, it was so toothy and intensely ducky that the single leg sated the pair of us — and underlined that the best thing about eating this way is that you get just enough to pique your interest.
We finished up with a pumpkin cheesecake topped with a dollop of crÃ¨me fraÃ®che and a couple of truffles from Lucky Chocolates in Saugerties — adult sweets (as opposed to super sugary ones) that capped off this entirely savory experience.
The wine list, though brief, is fairly priced and intelligently chosen to enhance the food. (Beer and champagne cocktails are also available.) And don’t miss the coffee — it’s from the free trade group Counter Culture, and is so good even the decaf tastes like the real thing.
Back in the ’90s, I was among the downtown Poughkeepsie office workers who congregated at a watering hole called Brady’s. The ambiance trumped the food by a long shot — until one day when a new chef arrived and truly tasty dishes began emerging from the impossibly tiny, scruffy kitchen (including a stellar turkey pot pie that lives on in my memory). The pub is long gone, but the chef who really knew how to elevate pub grub was Rich Reeve. He moved on to greener pastures (the most recent of which was the now-defunct 23 Broadway in Kingston’s Rondout district). In most ways, Elephant is a far cry from Brady’s — but it has some of the same charm, and it has Reeve, working magic in the kitchen.
Elephant Open 3-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 3 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday. Tapas range from $3-$12; specials $8-$15. u310 Wall St., Kingston. 845-339-9310; www.elephantwinebar.com