Readers of this magazine — a discerning crowd, I’m sure you’ll agree — voted Kingston’s Duo Bistro both Best New Restaurant and Best Bistro in this year’s roundup. That’s no small honor, given the competition springing up across the region. Pressure, anyone? “But it’s good pressure,” says Niels Nielsen, one half of the duo of talented, self-taught chef/owners. “I like challenge. People have been pleasantly surprised, and now we’ve got this label, they’re expecting great things. We have to step it up even further. We’ve gotta bring it.”
On our recent visits to this charming little spot, they certainly brought it — both in the food and the mood.
Nielsen and co-chef Juan Romero met when they were cooking in Saugerties restaurants, and got along well enough that they decided to launch a venture together. (“We disagree on everything, but we don’t fight,” Nielsen says.) In April 2012, they opened up in a small storefront on John Street in Uptown Kingston, serving breakfast and lunch, and dinner on occasion. When the liquor license came through several months later, they added a regular dinner menu, Thursday through Sun day. Early in the day, Romero’s chef’s breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, jalapenÌƒos, goat cheese, garlic, raw spinach, and sprouts is a favorite. At lunch and dinner, the menu ranges from vegan soups to braised brisket hash and other bistro classics that are kept fresh and interesting with international touches, particularly those found in North African cooking (such as the use of nuts, fruits, and fragrant spices like turmeric).
Duo Bistro co-chefs Niels Nielsen (in cap) and Juan Romero; above right, the Korean burger is topped with country pork pâté and kimchee
The relaxed space is tight, but has a friendly, comfortable energy. There’s a small bar overlooking the open kitchen, and a dining room that seats about two dozen, with a couple of tables in the window, where diners relishing their food act as an ad for passersby (it looks particularly inviting at night). Works by local artists hang on sage green walls, and tea lights flicker on wood tables that the chefs made themselves during the renovation. Silverware tucked into napkin envelopes set on square white plates is a nice detail that hints at all the other nice details to come. The old tin ceiling seems about twice as high as the room is wide, which makes me wonder if sound rises, like hot air, because even with a packed house of chatty diners and light jazz in the background, we could still talk comfortably.
Two smiling servers in black dresses, their hair in buns, flitted about the room like lithe ballerinas, there when we needed something, but otherwise unobtrusive. When we went back a few days later, the black-clad staff on duty was edgier-looking, but the good- natured, efficient service was the same.
Before our first visit, we’d looked at the menu online, as one does these days, and I thought I’d decided what to eat. But just as we sat down, the couple at the next table were served their entreÌe: braised ribs, whose aroma was so mouthwateringly irresistible, it was either order the dish for myself or reach over and stick my fork in a stranger’s dinner. (I went with ordering it, in case you’re wondering.) The wine list offers reds and whites, only nine or 10 of each, but includes some interesting choices at good prices. You’ll find a selection of well-chosen beers, too.
Chewy, fresh-baked bread and sweet herbed butter got things off to a good start. The crispy avocado appetizer wasn’t all that crispy, but was delicious anyway. The wedge of fried fruit got some heat from berbere spice, while a few strips of preserved citrus added brightness and color. Mussels in a garlicky white-wine broth with a hint of lime were simply perfect, and so fresh and delicate that my husband, who doesn’t like mussels, wanted a second one after I gave him a taste.
My braised short rib tasted even better than it smelled, meltingly tender and about as deeply flavorful as beef can be. Sides were a savory mix of smoky, bacon-flavored white beans, braised celery, and Brussels sprouts roasted to caramelized sweetness. Altogether, it was the epitome of comfort food and a joyride for the taste buds. Hudson Valley pappardelle, a regular on the current menu, pairs luscious house-made noodles with a changing roster of local ingredients. That night, it came studded with chunks of lightly house-smoked chicken and sweet English peas in a light, lemony Mornay sauce. Cremini mushrooms added an earthy note. A standout.
Crispy avocado gets a kick from preserved citrus and berbere spice (left); at right, Applewood-smoked brisket is served on a bed of cheesy smashed potatoes, potlikker greens, and cider jus
There are usually four desserts, including a selection of house-made ice creams, and a daily special. A word of advice: No matter how satisfying your previous courses have been, don’t skip dessert. The chocolate cherry terrine served amid a swirl of baked meringue with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top is dense, rich, lip-licking decadence on a plate. Even so, I think I prefer the silky goat cheese custard and raspberry compote, which is slightly less sinful but an equally sublime end to a real treat of a meal.
A few days later, we went back with friends and sampled, among other things, cod hush puppies with spicy aiÌˆoli, and a cassoulet of duck confit with hefty chunks of lardon nestled among the baked beans. Purists might take issue with Duo’s take on cassoulet, but it’s a dish intended to be taken liberties with, and this pared-down version was delectable. Our friends shared the duck dinner for two — slices of duck breast, cooked to desired doneness, and served along with roast squash, Brussels sprouts, and cheesy croquettes. “That duck was so good, I’m still thinking about it,” our friend remarked days later.
Yes, Duo is definitely bringing it.
Breakfast dishes: $9-$10; lunch $6-$12
Dinner: appetizers $6- $12; entreÌes $16-$26