It was not an auspicious beginning.
A week before our Friday night dinner, our party of four made a reservation at Arielle, the most recent addition to Rhinebeck’s thriving restaurant community, which opened last summer in a late 1800s storefront building on Market Street. My husband and I arrived first and were immediately offered a table for two. “No,” I said. “We have a reservation and are waiting for another couple.”
There was no acknowledgment, no quick glance at the reservation book for confirmation, and no effort to push two small tables together. Instead, we were offered seats at a communal table in the center of the dining room. When we demurred, we were escorted upstairs and seated in an empty room. There we waited for our companions.
Mind you, if you have to wait, this is a great place to do it; the room is decorated with such care that it deserves more than just a casual mention. It reminded me of a Louis XIV-era bordello, although our friends later likened it more to a seraglio. Why they are so familiar with the details of a harem, I don’t know (although it did provide for some lively dinner conversation). But I do know that the French toile-covered banquettes, the deep plum-painted walls which highlight the colors of the stained glass windows, the black marble-topped tables and soft lighting, all make for a comfortable, attractive, and yes, subtly seductive room. Noise level? Obviously, I can’t report on that since our party remained alone in the upstairs room for the entire evening.
Once we started eating, however, it was clear that any unhappiness we had experienced with the front of the house did not extend to the back of the house. Executive Chef Darek Tidwell, a March 2008 Culinary Institute graduate, performs splendidly. Our waiter was also knowledgeable and efficient, with just the right balance of friendliness and formality. And despite the fact that he had to run up and down stairs and probably was serving tables on the main floor as well, he seemed always to be right there when we needed him.
The menu is a single thick page with separate sections devoted to appetizers, entrées, plates (a variety of pastas), steaks (from steak frites to a cote de boeuf for two), and daily specials (such as grilled calves’ liver with onions and balsamic vinegar on Tuesdays, and braised short ribs with soft herb polenta on Saturdays). Arielle also lists vegetables and other side dishes separately (following the footsteps of a growing number of restaurants in this cost-conscious climate).
At first glance, the wine list seemed a little too cute, with wines categorized by price as “pretty good” ($32), “very good” ($46), and “exceptional” (priced by the bottle). On second thought, though, it is an easy, user-friendly, and effective way to make your pick. We chose a Cote du Rhone Blanc “Les Trois Chemins” 2005 from the “pretty good” list; it was such an excellent value, we ordered a second bottle.
Brain trust (from left): Arielle Sous Chef Robert Kistner and Executive Chef Darek Tidwell in the downstairs dining room, which was extensively renovated to evoke the peaceful simplicity of a French country house
Unfortunately, four people can only eat so much. It was difficult to pass on the soup pistou — a thick vegetable soup flavored with garlic, basil, and olive oil — and the grilled sardines served with a warm shallot vinaigrette. But we were not disappointed with the choices we did make. The night’s special appetizer was Moroccan spiced salmon cakes. A well-blended mix of salmon, red and green pepper, onions and a house-made, cumin-based spice, the cakes were coated in a brioche-crumb-and-panko mix and sautéed. Served with fresh lemon, we could happily have made a meal of them. An appetizer of grilled octopus basquaise was just as described: tender, not-too-chewy pieces of octopus sautéed in olive oil with sweet red peppers and onions. The pâté de campagne was a well-made classic, a smooth mix of ground pork and fatback accompanied by cornichon, mustard, and crisp crostini. An unexpected delight was the crispy sautéed artichoke hearts with a lemon-caper yoghurt sauce. Who would have thought that a simple sauté in peanut oil would result in such a tasty, caramelized crunch?
Restaurant proprietor Nikola Rebraca also owns the Belvedere Mansion in Staatsburg, the site of many weddings and formal celebrations. With Arielle, Rebraca returns to his restaurant roots, planted years ago in New York City where he owned and operated Panarella, an informal Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I missed everything a small restaurant has to offer,” he says. “This brings me back to my youth where we had a great time on Columbus Avenue. I wanted a menu that is simple, and I wanted to have a place where friends can come in and eat. This is like mixing business and pleasure.”
Arielle describes itself as a French/Mediterranean restaurant, although the menu has some Moroccan, Greek, and Italian flavors mixed in. The presentation was noteworthy: everything was a pleasure to look at without being overly fussy. Take the branzino, for example. A chef favorite because of its flaky, white flesh and relatively mild taste, the fish is boned in the kitchen, reassembled, and attractively served atop a mound of Tuscan beans with a tomato vinaigrette. Aficionados of duck confit won’t be disappointed, either. Luscious is the perfect word to describe the duck leg served with herb-laced gnocchi and a contrasting fall fruit compote. The pan-roasted salmon (yes, farm raised) was flavorful and accompanied by parsnip purée and tiny Brussels sprouts (which were roasted to a mouthwatering sweetness). But if forced to single out one entrée for special mention, it would be the Friday night seafood paella special. A combination of rice and an assortment of seafood (mussels, shrimp, clams, scallops, and cod), each component retained its unique texture and flavor, which was heightened by the saffron rice mounded in the center of the plate.
The house-made ile flottante (“floating island”) is a popular dessert
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Desserts are made in-house, and although the list is small — just five selections — each of the three we tasted provided a satisfying finish to the meal. We sampled the warm apple tart tatin served with vanilla ice cream and ginger; an orange blossom scented cardamom crème brûlée; and an ile flottante, a poached meringue surrounded by creme anglaise. A menu rarity these days, the intermingling of soft meringue with rich custard made this last dish an especially happy finale.
Arielle offers great food in attractive surroundings. Dining out is not just about the food, however: enjoying an atmosphere of community is just as important. Sadly, that was missing the evening we were there. But if these folks pay the same attention to customer relations that they do to the menu, food lovers from near and far will likely head to Rhinebeck with increasing frequency.
Arielle: Lunch & dinner Tues.-Sun., Sun. brunch. Appetizers range from $7-$14, entrées $18-$32, desserts $6-$7.
51 E. Market St., Rhinebeck. 845-876-5666 or www.ariellerhinebeck.com