Rosendale must have been quite a scene in the 19th century, when hundreds of men worked in the natural cement mines that the Ulster County town became famous for. Back then, the mile-long Main Street was dotted with taverns and, by all accounts, there were a few bordellos as well. These days it’s much sleepier, with a small movie theater, a gourmet cheese shop, and a couple of restaurants providing the main attractions. The miners wouldn’t recognize the place — although a vestige of the old spirit exists in Red Brick Tavern (minus the ladies of the night, I should add).
The building is part of a former lumberyard and has served as a watering hole of one kind or another for decades. Most recently, it was the Alamo, a Mexican eatery owned by a lively couple of ex-Manhattanites who renovated the interior in high/low style, exposing the brick walls and huge beams, and adding a big, square bar and polished cement floors embedded with glitter.
Two years ago, Michelle and William Loughlin took over the place. Locals will remember the Loughlins as the owners of The Loft in New Paltz, an American bistro that was a favorite of SUNY faculty. The couple (who had taken a hiatus from the demanding restaurant business to produce a son) set out to appeal to a broad range of customers. They cozied up the front of the bar room with a couple of booths salvaged from a 1930s hotel, hung neon beers signs in the windows, installed a stockade-style fence to separate the bar and pool table from the main dining area, and opened as Red Brick Tavern in January of 2007.
Chef/owner William Loughlin
They’ve been doing a brisk business ever since, thanks to having successfully created a comfortable atmosphere that suits everyone from born-and-bred locals of all stripes, to “new” locals like us who migrated from the city, and weekenders who just wish they were locals. The menu, too, is designed to please all comers, offering burgers, quesadillas, wings, sandwiches, and other typical pub grub, as well as steaks, chops, chicken, and seafood. Although there are no “gastro-pub” pretensions, most entrées come dressed up with a sauce or preparation that lifts them well above the mundane. And if you’re in the mood for something a tad more gourmet-ish, you’ll find it in the specials, where William gets creative — things like rabbit pot pie and Kobe strip steak with black truffle herb butter make regular appearances. Prices also reflect the tavern setting: no entrée on the regular menu costs more than $19.
When we visited recently, a few burly guys who looked like they’d just knocked off work were at the bar. Simple wood tables and low lights add to the welcoming tavern mood. (A tip to sports fans sitting in the dining area: There’s a big-screen TV in the rear of the bar, and if you position yourself carefully you can watch the game over your companion’s shoulder. And, while I’m offering tips, a caveat to the aurally sensitive: Those sparkly floors and brick walls do nothing to absorb sound, so the decibel level, which is merry on weekdays, can get up there when the place is packed.)
The serviceable, well-priced wine list offers at least 10 choices by the glass, which are generous pours. The staff, clad in jeans and black shirts, are friendly without being overly familiar, and service is well-paced. Although our young waitress twice had to run to the kitchen to get information about dishes, she explained apologetically that it was her first night, and went out of her way to be accommodating.
A favorite appetizer holdover from Loft days is the Louisiana Backwoods Bayou Cake, a pleasing variation on the traditional crab cake that’s so satisfying, two of them could make a dinner. The dark golden cornmeal crust gave way to a dense filling with little chunks of gulf shrimp, crab, and crawfish varying the texture and adding bursts of flavor. A spicy citrus rémoulade added a Cajun kick.
My smoked shrimp special (our waitress thoughtfully bopped back to alert me that it was more expensive than the other choice I’d considered) was a delightful contrast of flavors and textures. Lightly smoky, medium-sized shrimp came with a few bites of melting lump crab, segments of sweet-tart mandarin orange, satiny slices of avocado, a big dollop of mango chutney, and some peppery leaves of mizuna all arranged in a shallow, square black bowl set on a white doily, so it looked pretty, too. It was served chilled, which may not have been the best choice for the unseasonably cool evening, but I could imagine enjoying it enormously in summer.
A dish well done: Grilled Black Angus hanger steak (left) comes topped with wild mushroom demi-glace; desserts — like the creamy pumpkin cheesecake at right — are prepared by Michelle Loughlin
My beef-loving husband chose the special Black Angus hanger steak served in a wild mushroom demi-glace — a sauce that also accompanies the Duke (filet mignon) or the Brick Layer (flatiron steak), both menu regulars. The hanger was a good size, and served in one piece rather than sliced, as it often is. It was tender, tasty, and nicely jazzed up by a sauce made with a mix of shiitake, crimini, chanterelle, and button mushrooms. (The sauce’s shiitake flavor is bold enough that you might think twice before getting a more delicate cut like the Duke slathered with it.) Sides — that evening’s were mashed potatoes and a mélange of fresh-tasting late summer squash — were served on a separate plate. Speaking of plates: A charming quirk is the mismatched pretty china that the Loughlins have collected over the years, and use to “get some color on the table,” as William puts it.
My crispy roasted half-duckling, another popular staple, came in a rich, black currant-brandy glaze that set off the moist duck without overpowering it. A scattering of whole black currants was a nice touch.
Michelle Loughlin makes classic desserts like bread pudding with pumpkin ice cream, chocolate peanut butter pie, and apple berry crisp. We finished up with a creamy cheesecake that got a lovely zip from its crunchy gingersnap crust. It came with a boatload of whipped cream topped by a few mint leaves and was so intense, I had to take half of it home.
On our second visit, we ran into my dentist’s nurse, who offered an enthusiastic plug for the Chilean sea bass. But this time we were there for a quick, pre-movie dinner — a delicious hot pastrami sandwich and a really good salmon sandwich with that spicy citrus rémoulade that came with the Cajun cake. Both were served with a mountain of seasoned fries. A couple of tap beers and we were well-fed and out in time for the film without spending a bundle. We’d chosen the same table as before and got the same waitress, now a pro in her second week. “Hello again, you guys,” she said, making us feel like regulars. That’s the kind of place this is — not fancy, just a friendly, comfortable, local tavern, as advertised, where you can have a quick nosh, hang out at the bar and play pool, or eat a well-prepared meal at leisure, depending on your mood.
Red Brick Tavern
388 Main St., Rosendale
845-658-8500 or www.redbrickrosendale.com
Open Mon. & Wed.-Fri. at 3 p.m., Sat.-Sun. at 12 p.m., closed Tuesdays
Appetizers range from $4.25-$9.25; entrées from $14.95-$18.95; desserts are $5.25. Burgers and sandwiches are all $8.95 or $9.95