“Nothing contrived by man has produced as much happiness as a good tavern,” observed Samuel Johnson (sort of) a couple of centuries ago. It’s a sentiment that I believe holds true to this day, and one with which I heartily concur.
Kingston’s historic Stockade District, with its stone buildings and charming architecture, is the perfect setting for an old-style watering hole — and several new ones have emerged in the past few years. The latest addition, Frogmore Tavern, opened last August in what used to be the Parent Teacher store on North Front Street. The owners, chef Niels Nielsen (who co-owns Duo Bistro nearby) and his partners, George and Emily Lewandowski, ripped out every trace of that retail operation in an eight-month gut renovation, and transformed the space into a cozy tavern-cum-restaurant. There’s recycled wood flooring, hand-hewn barn beams on the ceiling, dark green paint and wood paneling, a few tables, and some booths with backs high enough to provide privacy. There’s a grand mahogany bar with a brass foot-rail, and a dining counter overlooking the huge open kitchen for those who like to watch chefs doing their thing.
Posh touches include tapestry-upholstered banquettes, and bar stools with their backs wrapped in fabric tied with big, voluptuous bows, like a row of furniture debutantes. More folksy are the brown paper tablecloths and Mason jars for glasses. (Is it just me who thinks it’s time to retire the Mason jar fad?) The Edison-bulb light pendants look nice, and don’t cast much illumination, so the room is suitably dim after dark. Overall, the mood is pubby and congenial. The servers are congenial, too, and willing to accommodate grumps who refuse to slurp from a screw-top jar.
Waffling around: Chicken and buttermilk waffles (left) are topped with honey jalapeño butter and served with a side of braised greens; genuine maple syrup is drizzled at your discretion. At right, an oyster po’boy with slaw, lemon cuke pickles, and twice-fried French fries
Add a few house cocktails, a dozen or so wines by the glass, six or seven craft beers and several draft beers on rotation (plus beer flights for the brew connoisseur), and you’ve got the makings of a modern tavern.
What sets this one apart is the terrific food. Nielsen presides over the kitchen, producing dishes that are several notches above pub grub. Everything is cooked from scratch, and the chef deploys his smoker to make pastrami, pork cheeks, duck bacon, andouille and turkey sausage — even a few vegetables, including tomatoes that go into a nicely smoky tomato bisque soup. In fact, you’ll find smoky flavors adding depth in several dishes. (Barbecue fans, by the way, make a note: Monday is rib night.)
The menu is divided into bites, salads (with add-ons), charcuterie, and plates: small, medium, and large. Some dishes appear in more than one guise, as appetizers, or slightly reconstructed as sandwiches among the lunchtime choices, or in a larger incarnation as a main course. “Bites” include olives and house-made pickles, cheeses, steamed buns, and, to my delight, Scotch eggs, a British pub staple that reminds me of my happily misspent youth. Frogmore’s Scotch eggs come encased in andouille sausage meat with a mustard dip, and they’re delicious. Nielsen has also created two un-Scotch versions, one with a crab casing and the other with chickpeas, like a falafel.
Eclectic offerings range from a grass-fed burger (that you can dress up with pastrami, an egg, or smoked cheddar) to batter-fried frogs’ legs, mussels frites, linguine Bolognese, grilled ribeye, and pork and beans, as well as a daily fish dish. Southern flavors turn up often — the Hillbilly Banh mi is made with scrapple, pork cheeks, fried okra, and pickled carrot, for example. And I don’t know where else around these parts you’ll find poutine — Quebec’s contribution to fast food: French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Those who like to pile it on can get Frogmore’s Full Monty poutine, which adds fried chicken livers and pork cheeks. Specials during the bleak winter days included gumbo and boudin sausage with red beans and rice. It’s a hearty roster.
I’ve been to Frogmore several times, noshing my way around the menu with relish. My husband and I dropped in on a recent frigid day, in search of comfort. He found his in the form of chicken saltimbocca, which comes as a sandwich at lunchtime. It’s served on a good ciabatta smeared with spicy pimento cheese and dotted with crisped, house-made tasso ham rather than the usual prosciutto, all the flavors nicely modulated to set off the moist chicken. House-made slaw and a couple of pickle slices rounded it out.
Beignets with fig, honey, and mint (left); at right: Frogmore chefs Donald Clark, Siena Wright, and Aaron Martino
I’ve never liked the combination of maple syrup and meat, but I was tempted to try the buttermilk fried chicken and waffles. The lunch portion proved to be a juicy drumstick in a crisp golden batter, topped with a circle of jalapeno-honey butter. Braised greens on the side — in this case, escarole — were perked up with a sprinkle of vinegar. After I made short work of those tasty savories, I drizzled maple syrup (the genuine stuff) over the golden waffle and ate it as “dessert.” Then I ordered dessert: the signature Froggy Pudding, made with dates, walnuts, and raisins. Rather than the traditional Christmas figgy pudding, which is a booze-soaked job that’s steamed for hours and hours until it’s dark and dense, this was lighter, more like a rich cupcake. A super sweet toffee sauce and whipped cream carry it into the realm of decadence.
A word about the oyster po’boy sandwich. I’ve eaten them in New Orleans, and many times in Manhattan’s legendary Oyster Bar, and Frogmore’s is among the best. Plenty of plump, juicy oysters, lightly dusted in cornmeal and dressed with just enough spicy aioli to make a merry mess, it’s a winner. (Nielsen calls his signature aioli sauce ale-oli, because it’s made with a reduction of Keegan ale.) Add twice-cooked French fries and one of the well-chosen beers and that’s tavern-style happiness for me.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bites and salads from $4-$12; medium plates $10-$12; large plates $16-$28; desserts $7. Prix fixe weekend brunch is $20.
63 N. Front St., Kingston. 845-802-0883; www.frogmoretavern.com