Sometimes it’s fun to go to a trendy restaurant where you can marvel at how the chef has taken the carrot to dizzying heights of gastronomy, or explored the culinary marriage of rutabagas and rhubarb. Usually, though, when I go out for dinner, I just want a comfy place to sit with my friends, where the food is tasty and well-prepared but doesn’t hog the limelight. I like bistros. And taverns. So when new owners of the shuttered Northern Spy in my home town of High Falls recently hung out a shingle saying “Murphy’s,” with the words “bistro” and “tavern” underneath, I’m there, no matter who Murphy might be.
Chef Brian Murphy hit the ground running at this new venture, which he launched with his wife, Marie, in January. That’s partly because he’s no stranger to the kitchen. Thirty-some years ago, when he was a teenager and the place was called Top of the Falls, he washed dishes and worked as a prep cook there — a stretch that inspired him to become a chef. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he was back in the kitchen during the short time in the ’80s when the place was known as Good Enough to Eat. In more recent years, he and Marie ran the restaurant at the more dressed-up Inn at Stone Ridge a couple of miles away. Now, Murphy is back in the onetime farmhouse for the third time, preparing what he calls “casual, everyday food,” made with local ingredients when feasible. Marie handles the business side of things, and their eight-year-old daughter, Emma, occasionally stands in as the region’s youngest (and possibly cutest) meet-and-greeter.
The Murphys saw no need to change the interior of the simple red building, which had been spruced up shortly before they took over. There’s the angled bar to greet you as you walk in the door (you can eat there, too), and a casual dining area behind a half wall. The main room has an uncluttered country mood, with wood tables, stenciled plank floors, and a big fireplace. Photo portraits of some of Murphy’s dishes hang inside rustic-wood frames on the gray-green walls. There’s also a screened porch that’s most people’s first choice in warm weather.
Left: Murphy’s dinner offerings include whitefish chimichanga (in the background) and Hudson Valley duck with dark cherry demi-glace. Above right, bartender Matthew Cole prepares a margarita
On the late winter night we stopped in with friends, a gaggle of raucous Noo Yawkers were presumably celebrating having escaped the city; but tables are spaced well enough apart in the dining room so that, even when the crowd gets lively, you can still have a conversation without shrieking.
At dinner, the lineup includes small bites (turkey meatballs, Cajun grilled shrimp pinwheels, mozzarella sticks, and such), which could be either a nibble with a drink or a stand-in for an appetizer; lighter fare (burgers, wings, fish and chips, and other tavern favorites that also appear on the lunch menu); and entrées that run from pad Thai to meatloaf, beer-marinated pork tenderloin, roast duck, and a ravioli of the day that comes in half or full portions. There are 10 to 12 choices in each category, including some vegan and vegetarian options, along with a few Mexican standbys — enchilada, quesadilla, nacho, tamale and chimichanga. The menu is flexible enough that you can create as light or full a meal as you wish.
While we were deciding what to eat, our group made short work of the good bread and spicy red bean dip. I was looking forward to trying the chef’s signature beef Wellington Béarnaise, but when I ordered it, our server warned me that the beef would likely be rare, and (though I’m aware how scandalous this is) I like mine no bloodier than medium. Could I get one made to order? Not on short notice, apparently. Luckily, I had no trouble finding a second choice.
Salads of mixed greens come with a selection of the usual dressings, including a snappy house balsamic vinaigrette. Our friend who’s eating healthier food these days chose the vegan soup of the week, a broccoli and potato that proved to be thick and flavorful. His white fish chimichanga in a whole wheat tortilla was simple, and spiced gently enough that the clean, fresh taste of the fish — in this case flounder — shone through.
A wild mushroom ravioli in cream sauce was earthy with the flavors of porcini and cremini; although the full portion wasn’t a heaping helping, the dish was so rich and satisfying, it was plenty. Buttermilk fried chicken didn’t come across as anyone’s treasured family recipe, but it was a good, nicely crispy rendition, and there was plenty of it. Sides that night were mashed potatoes and wilted, still-bright broccoli rabe, which together added creaminess and some bite.
The shepherd’s pie was quite hearty, considering it was listed under Lighter Fare, with the usual medley of ground beef, carrots, peas, and corn. But rather than a crust of baked mashed potato, it came with a circle of mashed potatoes in the middle, which disappointed the traditionalist who ordered it (although she ate every bite).
I truly enjoyed my terrific half duckling, which was moist beneath its crispy skin, and bathed in a deeply flavored, dark cherry demi-glace — a classic pairing that’s survived decades of food fads for good reason. (“I learned to make it here when I was 16,” Murphy told me later.)
Above left: Cole’s margarita. Right: Brownie à la mode is one of Murphy’s tempting desserts
Typical American bistro desserts include crème brûlée and what Murphy describes as cheesecake “boozed up with a little Bailey’s to give it more flavor.” Our traditionalist was delighted with her two big scoops of refreshing raspberry sorbet. The chocolate mousse was good, but closer in texture to pudding and not densely chocolaty — unlike the brownie, served à la mode, which had its recipient murmuring contented little sighs and refusing to give any of us a taste.
Friendly servers, who always seemed to be on hand, buoyed the room’s happy mood. In all, Murphy’s is what I want a bistro and tavern to be: a relaxed, cozy neighborhood spot for well-prepared, unfussy food at affordable rates.
Postscript: When I called Brian Murphy later, I told him my husband and I would be coming for dinner again, and talked him into making me a beef Wellington done the way I like it, even though he warned me the beef might get dry. It didn’t. The meat was tender, the duxelles savory, the pastry flaky, the Béarnaise buttery-smooth. It was delectable. It’s almost too fancy a dish for a bistro, but mashed spuds on the side brought it nicely back to earth.
If you go…
Murphy’s Bistro & Tavern
Open Tues.-Sun. for lunch and dinner. Small bites and lighter fare from $5-$13; entrées $15-$26; desserts about $6.
155 Main St., High Falls. 845-687-7298; www.murphysbistroandtavern.com