My spouse and I have been to Locust Tree in New Paltz many times over the years, through its various incarnations in cuisine and décor. The first time felt like an adventure, because we stumbled upon the sign on Huguenot Street as we were exploring country roads outside the town. We drove up the long approach lined with (I assume) locust trees, and past the duck pond to arrive at the charming old stone house. Back then, in the mid-90s, the rooms were tricked out in country style, with wooden geese and such all over the place. It was a little cutesy, but the beamed tavern room in the 18th-century stone part of the house and the two circa 1840s dining rooms with fireplaces and wide-board floors were so thick with cozy ambiance, I loved the place before a single morsel passed my lips.
Subsequent owners did away with all the froufrou and went minimalist, with a high-end Italian menu. Even though I found the décor in that go-round a little severe, it’s hard to banish that much atmosphere. Then about five years ago, Barbara Bogart and Robert Khimeche bought the place. The couple refinished the floors, faux-painted the main dining room walls, added long draperies, and generally made it all more inviting without losing the casually elegant, historic mood.
As for the food: Bogart trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, then worked with big-name chefs — like Bobby Flay, and Drew Nieporent at the TriBeCa Grill — before heading to the Hudson Valley. Her Northern European menu at Locust Tree drew raves from the get-go. Even though it was a little pricey, you could be sure of a wonderful dinner, with unusual entrées.
We were looking forward to another fine meal when we visited recently, only to drive up and see a sign declaring “Stone Haus Tavern.” These are unsettling times, and I would prefer it if the remaining good things in life could just stay put for a while. As we drew nearer, though, we saw the words “at the Locust Tree” in smaller letters at the bottom of the sign, and hope was restored.
Sous chef Robert Nelson and chef/owner Barbara Bogart take a time-out in one of several dining rooms at the Stone Haus Tavern at Locust Tree Farm
It turns out that it’s the unsettling times that prompted Bogart to rename the restaurant and rejigger the menu toward what she calls “more approachable food at gentler prices.” The cuisine still has European influences, but the new lineup is divided into starters and casual American bistro-style fare — salads, soups, burgers, mac n’ cheese — and a finer fare section of seven or eight reasonably priced entrées. A few of her posher signatures turn up as specials to please regulars. It should be noted that even among the casual choices you’ll find treats like foie gras and artichokes with dipping sauces.
It was a midweek evening, so we decided to settle into the tavern room, where the Huguenot heritage is much in evidence. Dark wooden beams and paneling stand out against freshly whitewashed stone walls, and the nicely worn pedestal tables (sans tablecloths) exude a traditional taverny feel, while the big napkins and heavy silverware suggest quality.
As we were looking over the new menu, our pleasant, efficient server produced a chalkboard describing the “Stimulus Special,” a three-course meal for $20. That night’s trio was a Caesar salad, strip steak, and a honey-bee cake — a bargain that was so stimulating I decided to go for it.
The more-than-adequate wine list is also nicely priced, and includes a range of by-the-glass or carafe options. We decided on a bottle of Prosecco Lolita Brut, a dry sparkling wine that’s a pleasure to drink in summer because it goes so well with seafood, salads, and lighter dishes. (It’s not the ideal accompaniment for steak, but I’m willing to drink Champagne — and its less-costly relatives — with anything.)
We were pleased that wood-grilled Portuguese sardines, one of Bogart’s signatures, had survived the menu makeover. Their seasoning with preserved lemons was very subtle, but the wood-grilling sang out, giving the two good-sized sardines a deep, wild flavor and some very tasty crispy bits.
My savory Caesar salad was nicely balanced: crisp romaine; creamy-tangy dressing; and salty, plump white anchovies added a piquant note. Although it was missing the traditional croutons, it was garnished with a couple of pickled pearl onions for a vinegary crunch.
The steak, a generous 12-ounce New York strip, had been marinated in a traditional blend of garlic, red wine, olive oil, and herbs with Szechuan peppercorns, and I assume it was the last that gave it an interesting, if very faint, Asian overtone. The steak was tender, juicy, and prepared just as ordered. Creamy mashed potatoes and a little stack of fresh asparagus were arranged nicely on the plate — simple and satisfying.
Strawberry shortcake — with fresh berry coulis and Chantilly cream — is every sweet tooth’s dream
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There was one whimsically named finer fare dish on the menu that night: Birds of a Feather — two semi-boneless, plump little quail, touched with a light orange glaze that complemented the meat’s mild gaminess. They came served over a wilted arugula salad decked out with a few orange supremes, a scattering of pistachios, and a dollop of bacon vinaigrette. Because they have so little fat, quail can be tricky to cook, going quickly from not ready to dried out. These birds made it onto the plate barely browned and still succulent. The slightly bitter greens provided a fine counterpoint of flavors and moisture, while the nuts added little crunchy surprises. For $19, this sophisticated dish seemed like a remarkable value.
Like most of Bogart’s fare, desserts are determined by whatever fresh ingredients are available, so you’ll find shortcake with various berries and fruits and the like. I’m happy to report that the dense, super-rich chocolate ganache remains a staple. The Honey Bee cake that was part of my bargain dinner (and is not usually available) was a tasty yellow cake with a layer of butter cream enriched with honey. A little chocolate bee perched atop the honeycomb pattern on top.
Stone Haus Tavern (which to me will probably always be Locust Tree), nicely straddles the line between fine and casual dining. If you want an affordable bite and old-time atmosphere, choose the tavern room. If you’re feeling dressier, you can sit in the pretty dining room with its glazed coral walls. Another room now serves as a lounge with free WiFi, where you can hang out and nosh on bar snacks. And in warm weather, there’s outside dining on the covered patio. Stone Haus Tavern’s new, more affordable menu is a smart move that can help us all ride out the recession.
Stone Haus Tavern at Locust Tree Farm
â–º 215 Huguenot St., New Paltz
845-255-7888 or www.stonehaustavern.com
Dinner Weds.-Sun, Sun. brunch, $20 prix fixe, is served 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
American Express, cash, and checks only
Starters and casual fare range from $5-$13; entrées from $14-$28