Rhinebeck’s Le Petit Bistro is everything a true French bistro should be — and then some
Good news, local diners: the quintessential French bistro is alive and well on the main street of Rhinebeck. While the number of Valley restaurants serving traditional French food has dwindled over the years, the aptly named Le Petit Bistro still delights francophiles with onion soup, frogs’ legs, escargot and other classics. But in addition to this standard comfort fare, its progressive chef-owner Joseph Dalu is dishing up some of the most adventurous and innovative food in the area.
This is a place with a history. Originally owned by Jean-Paul and Yvonne Crozier (who still visit when they are in town), then taken over by present manager Dan Bleen, the kitchen is now the domain of Dalu. Before purchasing the restaurant five years ago, the CIA-trained Dalu worked beside well-known chef Melissa Kelly at the still-talked-about Old Chatham Sheepherding Company.
The interior remains pretty much what is was under the Croziers — a dark wood paneled dining room with wide plank floors and lanterns that throw a soft light over the red banquettes. A small lively bar is tucked away in back, and crisp white tablecloths and seasonal flowers brighten the space. It’s the kind of place where, on a single evening, you will see couples on their first date or celebrating an anniversary, multigenerational family gatherings, business meetings, and diners who are just there to savor Dalu’s often inspired food.
Dalu understands the importance of balancing tradition with innovation. The printed menu remains much the same as it was under the Croziers. “When I took over the kitchen,” he says, “I wasn’t going to change something that had been done right. People come in specifically for this kind of food, which just isn’t around much anymore. And besides, it anchors us as to what we are as a restaurant.”
That menu features hearty traditional bistro fare. The appetizers, for example, include Prince Edward Island mussels served in a white wine-based broth with garlic, parsley and a small dab of butter to give it body. There is a traditional pÃ¢tÃ© de campagne of pork, liver and veal served with a crock of mustard and crunchy cornichons. The onion soup is topped with a rich layer of melted, crusty GruyÃ¨re that releases a rush of aromatic steam when poked with the spoon. As for the entrÃ©es, there is always a half of duck prepared with a sauce that varies according to Dalu’s whim and the season. Depending upon the day, it may be a traditional orange, local black currants, or just-picked black cherries. There are lamb chops and a tasty grilled sirloin steak with a crushed black peppercorn cream sauce.
But it is with the daily specials that Dalu’s sense both of adventure and of place come into play. Dalu is a regular customer at area farmers’ markets and seasonal farmstands. During the growing season, the blackboard items reflect this.
Over the course of several meals, we sampled two soups, one a simple blend of sugar snap peas, a little fresh mint and a hint of cream. The other was billed as “yellow velvet” (an apt description), prepared using the first corn of the season and baby yellow squash in a stock made from the corncobs. Spankingly fresh oysters were from the Delaware Bay, known for their plump, briny meat. Hangar steak is often featured and served with totally irresistible house-made pommes frites, that will make you forever scorn the usual premade, frozen variety.
Dalu is fond of serving offal, and the blackboard often features specials of tripe and trotters, kidneys and ris de veau (sweetbreads). The restaurant actually maintains a list of customers who’ve asked to be called when certain dishes are available. Our calves’ liver was served rare as requested, slathered in sweet caramelized onions and served with crispy bacon, creamy mashed potatoes and greens.
With fish dishes, Dalu truly excels. He is one of the few chefs in the area to serve whole fish, head and tail on, and bones intact. Grilled octopus is a favorite when featured, as is the whole grilled loup de mare. Seasonal soft-shell crabs, sautÃ©ed in butter and oil, are served with a light meuniÃ¨re sauce of brown butter and lemon along with a rice pilaf and seasonal greens. The menu often includes a whole fried porgy. Dalu deep-fries it, so that the bones are softened, with a crisp skin and flesh enhanced by the crunch of the bones.
The preparation makes this bony fish — too often considered junk — sumptuous and easy to eat. It is served with a spicy and sweet Thai chili sauce, jasmine rice, and local bok choy. “I like serving that dish,” says Dalu. “It’s a local fish and it is a renewable fish.”
One evening, the cobia was a good-sized chunk from a 40-pound wild-caught fish, not the three- to four-pound farm-raised variety from the south. Its firm, flavorful flesh stood up to the mouth-searing coating of Dalu’s Jamaican jerk rub. A house-made sweet salsa containing rhubarb, papaya and a variety of seasonings played against the spiciness of the fish, which was accompanied by rice and beans, seasonal broccoli rabe and sweet plantains.
There are nightly dessert specials and the menu always includes a crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, profiteroles, a cheesecake with seasonal fruits, ice cream and sorbets, and what is called a chocolate temptation. The wine list is small but well thought out (Bleen knows the list well and is happy to make suggestions). There are nine to 10 wines by the glass and they are not the income-producing, watery compromises offered by so many restaurants. We had a Cheverny 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and a Ventisquero 2006 Pinot Noir.
Reservations are advisable, especially on weekends. When the restaurant is at full capacity, the two-person, cooking-everything-to-order kitchen occasionally gets backed up. But have no fear: your patience will be rewarded.