Restaurant Review: YOLO Bistro

A Poughkeepsie eatery gives new meaning to living life to the fullest

For the uninitiated, YOLO (an acronym for “you only live once”) is best described as the ironic battle cry of millennials looking to justify risky behavior. But for Chef Joseph Barlow of YOLO Bistro in Poughkeepsie, it’s a simple reminder that you’ve only got one shot to enjoy your surroundings — even if it means logging off once in a while.

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“I’ve seen people sitting across from each other, not saying a word, but they’re texting each other,” Barlow laughs. “Just turn your phone off, sit down, and enjoy the company you have in front of you!”

Barlow, whose British parents immigrated to Dutchess County when he was four, spent much of his youth dashing between the Valley and England’s Greater Manchester area. Fueled by the energy of kitchen life, he cut his teeth in notable restaurants both across the Pond and stateside before returning to the mid-Valley. “Home is where the heart is,” he muses. “I always seem to come back here.”

“Here,” referring to Barlow’s latest culinary venture, is exactly where I find myself on a recent Friday night with a fellow millennial, phones safely tucked into purses, ready for a once-in-a-lifetime feast. Situated in the modest plaza between Marist College and MidHudson Regional Medical Center, YOLO Bistro offers a welcome respite for professionals on business lunches or hospital visitors during the day, while a younger, livelier crowd rolls in by night to take advantage of the daily Happy Hour and dinner specials.

Frosted glass camouflages a surprisingly spacious interior, dimly lit by bulbs set in striking, geometric frames suspended from the ceiling. The natural stonework and coffee tones, punctuated by bursts of color via fresh-cut sunflowers and a splashy accent wall, transported us to what felt more like a chic Tribeca hideaway. The mood is easy and intimate — a crooning Norah Jones added a nice touch — while the huge L-shaped bar allows views of the quaint clay oven in which homemade flatbreads are baked. (More on those in a minute.)

For a bang-up dish, try grilled salmon Napoléon with wontons, Asian slaw, and sesame soba noodles

Photographs by Teresa Horgan

sausage flatbread pizza chef joseph barlow

Hunger Games: Sausage flatbread (left) is a fan favorite at all hours of the day. At right: Chef Joseph Barlow

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We kicked off with liquid dessert (because, why not?) in the form of a Granny Smith-adorned Candy Appletini and a S’mores cocktail complete with a graham-cracker-lined rim and toasted marshmallow. Those with a lower tolerance for the sweet stuff can select from an extensive wine list (about 30 vinos are available by the bottle and glass); five craft brews on tap, plus the usual bottled brands; and an array of local bourbons and other whiskeys, which often make their way into Barlow’s dishes as glazes and the like. (“I’m Irish, English, and Scottish, so it’s kind of in my roots,” the chef explains.) The barkeep will gladly whip up a custom libation if you’re fussy or can’t choose from the list.

Surveying the appetizers, we immediately perked up at the sausage flatbread: A crusty pie that overwhelms the plate, it’s generously topped with slabs of hot and sweet pork, roasted peppers, savory onions, and gooey mozzarella. Pro tip: Opt for the specialty dough, if it’s available. That evening’s option was a garlic, spinach, and herb combo that gave the already-yummy dish an extra kick.

yolo bistro
Funky accents and natural stone add to the corner-cafe vibe

Our server smartly recommended the calamari — thick, tender rings of squid, deep-fried in a surprisingly light graham-cracker batter and served spilling out of a Chinese takeout box; an awfully cute presentation that demonstrated Barlow’s “edible art” philosophy. We happily took turns dunking into the tangy serrano apple jelly and zesty ancho chili marinara sauce, which balanced each other without once overwhelming the calamari.

Other small plates of note include vegetarian potstickers, crab rangoons, and a soup of the day. (That particular night offered a creamy cucumber, mint, and melon gazpacho with grilled shrimp, triangles of crispy tortilla, and tomato concasse.) Barlow’s favorite plate? The Bonsai Tree. “It’s a little time-consuming,” he admits, describing the meticulous process of planting cucumber-wrapped crab, avocado, and Daikon radish sprouts onto a luscious bed of seaweed to resemble a tree. ”But it’s those little nuances that make it more fun and appealing. For me, food is art.”

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Deciding on the main course is an art form, too. After a bit of squabbling over our myriad entrée options, I conceded to my companion the duck breast: a local bird that’s been pan-seared and sliced into tender medallions, with a crackled skin and perfectly pink center. It’s accompanied by a buttery sweet-potato gratin and veggie mix and finished with a drizzle of plum port wine sauce that, I’m not ashamed to confess, nearly tempted me enough to scoop it right off my partner’s plate.

I’m always wary when asked how I prefer fish to be cooked (correct answer: as the chef likes it), but my grilled salmon Napoléon — a spice-encrusted fillet perched atop a mound of soba noodles, Asian slaw, and two crispy wontons — was delightfully moist.

“It’s those little nuances that make it more fun and appealing. For me, food is art”

At that point, most satiated patrons would consider themselves down for the count and promptly solicit the bill. But upon review of the dessert menu — with its promises of rich crème brûlée, sticky toffee crumble, and creamy cheesecake — my pal and I were struck by another Gen-Y euphemism: FOMO (“fear of missing out”). We managed to settle on a decadent raspberry bread pudding (my partner called it “very filling,” but in that pleasant, almost euphoric way), and YOLO’s take on S’mores: a cushion of puffy marshmallow, lightly toasted and doused in warm ganache atop a graham cracker and scoop of vanilla ice cream, that nearly bested this infamous sweet tooth. This was next-level indulgence.

yolo bistro bar
The 12-seat bar, which overlooks an open dining area, encourages patrons to put away their cell phones and enjoy (actual) face time

“It’s about trying to live [up to] the name,” says Barlow, who hopes to launch food trucks and even a healthy-lifestyle outpost — dubbed YOLO Fresh — in Wappingers Falls within the next few years. “You do only live once, so why not get away from your normal routine and enjoy something different?”

We’ll certainly indulge in that notion — and, preferably, more than once.

If you go…

YOLO Bistro
Breakfast and small plates range from $7-$14, entrées $17-$27. Coffees and smoothies $2-$5; cocktails $12; desserts $8.
Open Mon.-Weds. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight. Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.
260 North Rd., Poughkeepsie

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