At Rhinebeck’s newest eatery, bistro favorites — as well as more inventive fare — are served up in a lively-but-cool atmosphere
By Lynn Hazlewood
With the opening of the stylish new bistro Starr Place, Rhinebeck continues on its hip trajectory, becoming more Hampton-esque with each passing year. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your view of the Hamptons, but the town — or downtown at least, with its smart shops and boutiques — certainly has a patina of chic nowadays that makes it fun to visit.
Starr Place is set in a handsome 1860s Victorian building. There are two dining rooms, each with very high ceilings, wood floors, soft green walls, and dark wood tables. A tall flower arrangement anchors one end of the bar that runs along the back wall in the smaller room. Red rose petals are strewn on the deep sills of the big windows. Pendant lights and sconces cast a flattering glow, while black-clad servers emerge from kitchen doors in the back and glide around delivering dishes and scooping up dirty plates. All signals say: “Yes, we’re cool, but we’re not pretentious.”
We went on the Friday after Valentine’s Day (hence the rose petals), which was also the start of a three-day weekend, and may explain the ebullient mood of the mixed crowd who’d gathered. We were shown into the smaller room, where the conversational decibel level was running high, though we could still hear each other across our own table. The vibe was lively.
Our server was a competent, chipper young woman whose other job may well be “actress,” she was so pretty. She recited that evening’s specials, but we were already tempted by almost everything on the main menu — a mix of regular comfort bistro fare and more exotic, inventive offerings. For a change, the clear descriptions read like… well, descriptions, rather than precious encomiums for each dish. The roster changes regularly, but among the offerings that evening were bucatini with shucked lobster, port braised lamb shanks, and cedar paper salmon, as well as fixtures like Prince Edward Island mussel pots, burgers, and French bread pizzas.
The one-price wine list ($8 a glass, $30 a bottle) is comprised of a dozen reds, a dozen whites, and a couple of sparklers (as well as a reserve list). It’s a well-chosen international group, all expressive of type, that features decent values (rather than drop-dead bargains) as well as can’t-go-wrong dinner accompaniments. There are also two dozen or so interesting beers by the bottle, as well as a few on tap.
We started off with Joe Popovich’s smoked trout salad. We mentioned to our server that we were sharing, and it arrived already divided onto two plates — the civilized thing to do, but thoughtful just the same. Joe Popovich (of Popovich Provisions) is a local treasure, renowned for his smoked fish, mozzarella cheese, and wonderful Scotch eggs, so the high quality of the smokily delicate yet firm-fleshed chunks of trout came as no surprise. The rounds of cold boiled potato were pleasingly toothsome, and the leaves of red and white endive top-notch fresh. The effect was of nicely matched, good ingredients, although we’d have liked a less-conservative dose of horseradish dressing.
Another appetizer, grilled garlic sausage with braised lentils, was also very enjoyable. Three flavorful slices of savory sausage went well with braised lentils de Puy cooked perfectly, that little crunch intact. The dish came with a ramekin of grainy mustard that, as someone or other always says, kicked it up a notch.
Falafel fritters with hummus and pita chips were less exciting, although I enjoyed them more than my spouse did. I found the fritters clean and light; he thought they should have been crispier. I liked the smooth texture of the hummus and the restrained touch with the tahini; he thought it was too fine and in need of zing. That’s taste buds for you.
It was while we were debating the fritters that the lively vibe in the room went from metaphorical to literal — at least where I was sitting. The jazz band playing that night had fired up in the lounge downstairs, and although the music was muffled — or drowned out by the noise of conversation — the bass vibrated through the floor, up the legs of my chair, and into me. (It’s pretty cool down there in the lounge, though. We checked it out after dinner, and the music isn’t as loud as the effect on my chair might suggest. There’s also a very inviting bar room.)
Back to the dinner table: Steak frites with a pepper-cognac sauce, a bistro classic, is better than average here. The New York strip itself was a hearty 12 ounces; although it hadn’t the telltale steakhouse char, it was tasty, tender and cooked exactly as requested. The pepper-cognac sauce was silky and snappy, a robust accompaniment rather than a mask for the meat. Frites were truly frites, crispy and hot, and there were plenty of them. Some people will enjoy dunking them into the ramekin of olivade — a whipped white cheese, olive and herb dip — that comes along for the ride.
Monkfish medallions were served with a chorizo and flageolet bean ragu — and it was the flageolets that sold me. They’re the little pale green French variety that have rightfully been called the caviar of beans — dense, creamy, and they don’t easily fall apart, which makes them ideal for slow-cooked dishes. I love them, and you rarely see them on menus. The medallions of fish were delicious: mild, sweet and firm, with a very light Wondra flour crust. The small chunks of chorizo added a nice bite to the ragu, but the flageolets themselves were slightly undercooked so their flavor wasn’t quite realized.
We ended with a tarte tatin, another classic done very well here, with wonderfully caramelized apples, a tender crust, and a delicious dollop of crÃ¨me fraÃ®che. Other desserts that show up frequently are peanut butter-and-chocolate mousse, and poached pears.
Few dishes come with anything green, but you can order seasonal sides — sautÃ©ed spinach, haricots verts, cauliflower gratin, and the like — for $5.50.
Overall, this is a terrific new spot that’s already overcome any start-up jitters. Chef Roberto Mosconi (who has cooked at both Gigi Trattoria across the road, and the Stissing House in Pine Plains) is adept at using the best ingredients simply but imaginatively. The food is good, and the service is, too — we were impressed with the orderly manner and pacing on such a busy Friday night. The no-nonsense air that pervades the place, from the straightforward menu to the battalion of servers doing their job well, sets just the right tone — fun, no fuss. We left feeling a little hipper, if a little hoarse. I can’t wait to go back, get a spot in the quieter, less vibrant room, and eat my way through the menu.