The shortest road to men’s hearts is down their throats,” wrote statesman John Adams in 1814. Nearly two hundred years later, those words, if applied to me, would be, “The shortest road to this woman’s heart is through a generous piece of succulent pork belly.”
With eyes that have a laser-like ability to spy any variation of this dish on a menu, the Molasses Braised Pork Belly with Wilted Escarole was the first item that popped into my field of vision at Flatiron, the new restaurant in the northern Dutchess County village of Red Hook.
Surprisingly, I didn’t order it, nor did any of my dining partners. There was too much else to try, and we had all agreed to share.
The husband-and-wife team of Jessica Stingo and Craig Stafford opened Flatiron last August in the storefront formerly occupied by Libby McKee’s. “We named it Flatiron because we are a steak restaurant focusing on local ingredients. We both worked and met in the Flatiron section of New York City, so in every way, the name is close to our hearts,” says Stingo.
New kids on the block:
Diners can eat at the bluestone bar or in the newly painted mauve dining room. The bar appears to have taken off; a steady stream of happy clients enjoyed the quality assortment of liquors and draft and bottled beers while we were there. House cocktails, all reasonably priced at $9, include the “Red Hook” — Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey, Punt e Mes, and a dash of maraschino liquor. There is a generous selection of wines by the glass, half and full carafes of house red or white, and a well-thought-out wine list put together by Stingo, who previously worked as head bartender and wine purchaser at Giorgio’s of Gramercy.
Admittedly, the dining room could use a little brightening. The dark floors and brown butcher paper table covers — while in keeping with the steak house theme — are a bit drab, and when coupled with dim lighting, they give the room a somewhat somber atmosphere. But the tables themselves are spaced far enough apart so conversation is private, and the staff is attentive enough to notice when water and wine glasses need refilling.
The CIA-trained Stafford comes to the area via the New York City kitchens of Beacon and Giorgio’s (where he was executive chef). He has created a menu that is adventurous yet easygoing and accessible. The one-page lineup is organized so that diners can be comfortable ordering a simple snack, a light meal, or a multicourse dinner. The extensive list of appetizers includes sweet BeauSoleil oysters from the waters of the Northern Atlantic and briny Pemaquids from Maine, served raw or roasted. Our waiter suggested the Pemaquids and he was right on: plump and glisteningly fresh, if we had harvested them that evening they could not have tasted better.
When a restaurant features steak tartare on the menu, it’s a sign that they take their food seriously. It’s a shame that this culinary innovation is so often a “Yuck, I won’t eat that” item — but that’s certainly not the case at Flatiron. Stafford serves a generous, perfectly seasoned mound of filet-mignon quality tenderloin topped by crisp fried parsley, which offers a contrasting texture. Stafford’s Caesar salad (a special that evening) is the real thing, topped with anchovies and croutons and dressed in a creamy vinaigrette. The branzino and clam chowder (with bacon, corn, and potato in a rich tomato broth) could be a meal by itself.
The duck burger (top) comes with duck skin crackling, while steak tartare (bottom) is dressed up with crispy fried parsley
There is a separate section devoted to burgers, all of which are served on Stingo’s house-baked English muffins and accompanied by caramelized onions, oven-dried tomatoes, lettuce, and crisp — not soggy — shoestring fries. The ground beef and lamb comes from Meiller Josef Farms in Pine Plains. For the epicurious omnivore, there’s a roasted eggplant burger bound together with brown rice and topped with a slice of pecorino cheese. We were intrigued by the duck burger: Stafford debones the whole duck, grinds the meat, and saves the skin for crispy crackling that comes on the side. Crowned with a fried egg and those sweet onions, it is a unique and lovely sandwich.
The five cuts of steak (most of which are available in either petite five-ounce or full eight-ounce servings) range from the least expensive Flatiron to the serious 16-ounce, dry-aged, and well-marbled rib eye for two. We ordered the Flatiron, an increasingly popular and flavorful cut from the cow’s shoulder. The meat was served rare as requested, and was accompanied by a small salad and garlic croutons. A selection of sauces is available, including classic béarnaise, a house-made steak sauce, and a spicy habanero. All were good, but in this case, simple was best: we chose the house steak sauce so as not to overpower the flavor of the meat. From a list of reasonably priced sides ($4-$5), we opted for the classic steak house favorites — creamed spinach; potato gratin; braised collard greens; and a large portion of perfectly sautéed, lustily flavored mushrooms, which turned out to be a real winner.
Nonmeat-eaters can choose from items including grilled organic king salmon served with candied yams, pickled red onion, and fennel; or caramelized sea scallops accompanied by a cauliflower purée, golden raisins, and Marcona almonds from Spain (proof that Stafford is not stinting on his ingredients). In addition, there are daily specials planned around whatever is fresh and in season.
It turns out that Stafford worked as the pastry chef for part of the time he was at Beacon, and the desserts reflect that. We chose to share the frozen roasted pear souffle, a creamy, sweet pear mousse — more fruit than sugar — served with a light butterscotch sauce; and a gingerbread and Honey Crisp apple layer cake bathed in a custardy crème anglaise.
This is clearly not an easy time for a new restaurant to establish itself, but Flatiron certainly and deservedly seems to be doing so. Sure, it’s a bit off the beaten path, but more than worth the trip or detour.
As for me, I can’t wait to go back for that pork belly.
Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Brunch served on Sunday 12-3 p.m. Appetizers range from $6-$14; entrées from $10-$38; desserts $8.
7488 S. Broadway, Red Hook. 845-758-8260 or www.flatironsteakhouse.com