The Pleasure Principle
If you can find the place, the Spillway House is well worth the trip to the middle of nowhere
By Alex Silberman
Over the mountain and through the woods to Spillway House we go. There’s no denying that the short trek into Ulster County’s middle-of-nowhere-ish West Hurley is part of the charm of this country bistro. You follow twisty little roads through an ungentrified landscape, not sure if you’re lost, then come around a bend and suddenly a small sign in front of a yellow house tells you you’re there. (An overflowing parking lot is another clue.)
Inside, Spillway House isn’t cutesy at all. More roadhouse than grandma’s house, it’s got wood paneling, soft lighting, white curtains, white tablecloths, and not much in the way of adornment. On a Saturday night there’s a big buzz of animated conversation from people having a good time, and underneath it the tinkling of a piano from a good sound system. Greeting and seating are accomplished with authentic warmth, menus proffered and drink orders taken with dispatch.
The New American menu struck me as a sort of anthology of the kind of food that people (as opposed to gourmets or “foodies”) like to eat in restaurants these days. Like all anthologies it contains lots of good, solid creations — hearty variations of duck, chicken, salmon, steaks — plus some relative rarities like bouillabaisse, and more than a few flashes of inspiration.
While choosing among menu items and daily specials, we nibbled at bread dunked in a complimentary black olive tapenade, pungent with garlic. First course was a shared Spillway house salad ($7): very fresh and refreshing baby greens interleaved with thin slices of crisp Asian pear, a sprinkling of candied walnuts, a dash of well-balanced shallot vinaigrette, and a light drizzle of raspberry coulis. The flash of inspiration to this now classic salad mix was the small ball of tempura-fried Gorgonzola perched at its center. Not only did the warmed cheese add spice and texture, it was our first indication that chef-owner Kurt Jarvis likes to put a lot of different flavors on the plate.
Country winter roll ($8), an appetizer, is a good case in point. It seems like a wacky concoction as described on the menu, like Sunday brunch getting lost in a sushi bar. Smoked Nova Scotia salmon, scallion and cream cheese are rolled in sushi rice, wrapped in nori, prepared tempura style and served with a soy reduction, pickled ginger and wasabi. On the plate (in a portion large enough for two) it looks for all the world like a sushi roll cut into rounds. In the mouth, it’s rich, creamy, and a real surprise. As the lightly battered rolls cool, both flavor and texture change, the cheese getting chewier and the ingredients becoming more distinct. It’s a clever and satisfying dish.
An appetizer of black truffle sea scallops ($11) plays to another of Chef Jarvis’s strengths: concentration of flavor. The large, pan-seared scallops get a crust of truffle flakes and panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and are served over mashed potatoes with a caramelized shallot beurre blanc — a scrumptious blend of flavors and textures.
During the pause between courses, our very pleasant waitress brought an amuse bouche, two tiny mother-of-pearl spoons bearing Maryland crab in truffle vinaigrette. They delivered a splash of sharp flavor from the vinaigrette, and then the sweetness of crab emerged for the space of one delicious mouthful.
My dinner companion ordered pan-seared filet mignon ($25) for her entrÃ©e. It was a fine enough cut of Australian free-range beef to survive the taste for “medium-well” she was afflicted with during her youth in England, and remained tender and succulent. Rosemary mashed potatoes, done just right, and pleasingly smoky grilled asparagus were the accompaniments. All benefited from a highly concentrated, large-flavored shallot and red wine demi-glace.
I went for one of the nightly specials, grilled kajiki ($27). Shipped overnight from Hawaii, this Pacific blue marlin —much like swordfish in texture, slightly sweeter in flavor — was served with the same potato and asparagus sides as the filet mignon. The fish was liberally dressed with a thick and very bright papaya barbecue sauce, well spiced and with some kick to it. Tasty as it was, it overwhelmed the kajiki — too much, perhaps, of a good thing.
Though appetizers and entrÃ©es are attractively plated, presentation isn’t a scene-stealer at Spillway House. But when it comes to dessert, things get theatrical. Both desserts we tried were topped with lovely golden spun-sugar constructions that resembled the sails on a treasure galleon. A berry-filled crepe ($8.50) — and I mean filled to bursting — held luscious raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and bananas under a topping of cream and vanilla ice cream. A dark, flourless chocolate cake ($6.50) was beautifully rendered. Smooth and creamy, it came in four long slivers anchored in whipped cream over more fresh berries — a truly mouthwatering combination. A rich pot of French Press coffee provided a satisfying ending.
Michelle Jarvis’s management of the front of the house is a good accompaniment to husband Kurt’s kitchen management. Friendly, competent service as well as smooth pacing enhances the pleasures of dinner here, and pleasure is what Spillway House is all about.