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Restaurant Review: Friends & Family II Hillside Restaurant

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Comforting on All Fronts 

 

Casual surroundings and hearty bistro fare at Friends & Family II Hillside Restaurant in Accord

 

By Susan Dohnem

 

Many years ago, when I was young and just this side of penniless, I spent several weeks traveling in France, and was offered a tip by a fellow traveler. To find good cheap dining, my tipster said, at mealtimes just follow the (then notoriously underpaid) French soldiers you’d see walking everywhere — they always knew the best spots. These were usually Chez somebody or other’s bistro, where everyone from the local aristos to rumpled hitchhikers gathered for good food served with lashings of vin ordinaire at affordable prices. That summer, I dined alongside France’s armed forces all over the country.

 

Friends and Family II Hillside Restaurant in Accord, Ulster County, reminds me of a present-day, American version of those easygoing boîtes. First of all, the food is much better than the down-home surroundings suggest. Second, it has the right casual air: stone walls, a wood vaulted ceiling with tree-trunk beams, red check café curtains, and roadhouse chairs. The two dining rooms are separated by a bar, and the crowd is a mix of sleek weekenders, transplants whose sleekness has mostly worn off, and local families with kids.

 

The restaurant opened just over a year ago, offering a Continental menu that strays across the culinary map, although the food is mostly of the hearty, bistro variety. Salah Alygad, a onetime banquet chef at the United Nations, had an eatery in New Jersey named Friends and Family before opening this second version with Denise McCarroll and her daughter, Brianne. The building had a previous, long incarnation as Hillside, which explains the rather clunky name. Most people simply call it either “Hillside” or “Friends.”

 

The night we visited, the four of us chose to sit in the coral-colored back room. It was early autumn, and there was that nip of cool air that (if you’re anything like me) brings on a craving for something rib-sticking. Our pleasant server delivered a basket of warmed, fresh rolls to the table, and announced that there was only one serving left of a special that evening — braised short rib ($20). I ordered it immediately and she dashed off to reserve it for me.

 

Entrées are served with either the soup du jour or the house salad dressed with a choice of house vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, or blue cheese. We each chose salads — a lovely, fresh mix of baby greens with wonderful, unexpected touches like heirloom yellow teardrop tomatoes. Off to a good start. If you go for the blue cheese dressing, it comes in a little crock on the side, so you can douse to your taste.

 

Three of the four of us had selected beef dishes, so we chose a bottle of Petite Sirah Concannon, at $23 a nice value and a good accompaniment to our food. The wine list offers 25 or so reliable choices at reasonable prices, but if you care about vintages, you’ll have to ask. (Also on offer are a dozen wines by the glass, at $4 to $6.)

 

My short rib, when it came, was a generous portion served in a deliciously rich red wine and veal stock reduction. It was just what I was in the mood for, the silky meat just falling off the bone. Another special that evening, braised prime rib of beef ($22) was also very satisfying, tender and cooked perfectly rare, precisely as ordered. The 16-ounce New York strip steak ($22) was a generous, thick cut, and although it wasn’t a standout, the mildly herbed butter carried it above the ordinary.

 

On a previous visit, the fourth member of our party had tried the sautéed crabcakes — lump crab in panko crumbs with a lobster sauce ($16) — and was looking forward to having them again. They were as good as she recalled. A mix of minced red onion, red pepper, fresh herbs, mayonnaise, Tabasco, and plenty of crab, the moist cakes struck just the right balance between spicy and sweet, with the lobster sauce adding another sweet note.

 

 All entrées are served with vegetables and potatoes of the day, which in our case were

steamed, brightly colored snow peas and carrots and a choice of roasted potatoes or potatoes au gratin. The roasted potatoes were a hit; the au gratin were fine, but a little salty.

 

Desserts (all $6) change every couple of weeks and might include apple tart, warm chocolate cake, rice pudding (a chef favorite), or banana and strawberry Napoleon. Already quite sated, we chose to share a peach crumble, served with ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top. Perfectly sweet, but not overly so, it was the perfect ending.

 

Service throughout the evening was friendly and solicitous, to say the least. Our own cheery waitress stopped by a couple of times to see if all was well, as did anyone connected with the restaurant who happened to be near our table.

 

On a second visit, my spouse and I  just wanted a quick bite but weren’t in the mood for burgers or the other simple offerings on the bar menu. Instead, I went for the Caesar salad ($6) and stuffed mushrooms (a special appetizer of the evening, $8), and my spouse ordered the French onion soup ($5). The Caesar salad was crisp and lightly dressed, although the anchovy flavor was barely discernible. (The chef errs on the side of caution, but will gladly adjust spice or flavors on request.) The onion soup was satisfying, and the mushrooms stuffed with spinach and three cheeses (Gruyere, Gorgonzola, and Pecorino Romano) were well done, the mushroom caps still firm and the filling piquant.

 

For an entrée, we decided to share the chicken breast stuffed with apples, golden raisins, and shallots with Merlot sauce ($17). Our server (the same good-natured young woman we’d had before) brought it from the kitchen already split in half and nicely presented on two plates — another demonstration that the guiding philosophy here is “please the customer.” The chicken was well-prepared, juicy, and nicely complemented by the fruit and shallot stuffing. We went home happy and sated.

 

In addition to the tavern and regular menus, Friends and Family also offers sandwiches and lunches, a few entrées for kids under 10, and seasonal specialties (sometimes including Moroccan dishes that reflect chef Alygad’s Egyptian background).

 

My spouse and I can’t agree on whether their slogan, “casual fine dining,” should actually be “fine casual dining.” But either way, this comfortable neighborhood spot is a very welcome addition.

 

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