In mid-June last year, pedestrians on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street watched as a seven-foot tall, two-ton carved Thai Buddha was hauled through the doors of a building in the midst of renovation — an event that added yet more buzz about the restaurant in the works. After local foodies endured months of giddy anticipation, the Bull & Buddha finally opened in early September and made an immediate splash. The carved Buddha, impressive though it may be, is just one of many snazzy aspects of this very snazzy new enterprise.
The roomy space (old-timers will remember it as a clothing store) is divided into three areas, for three kinds of Asian-fusion dining: small plates, sushi, and steakhouse. There’s the 80-seat lounge in the storefront, where the Buddha (with suitably lowered eyelids) presides over a bar made from honey onyx that’s lit from within to glow softly gold. Iridescent glass tiles that line the wall behind the bar sparkle in the reflected light. Leather chairs and banquettes invite you to linger, perhaps sip a house cocktail, and nibble a selection from a small plates menu which includes steamed Chinese pork buns and tuna tataki as well as that American steakhouse favorite, double thick-cut bacon. It’s all very hip.
In the wide corridor between the lounge and the dining room there’s a sushi bar, also made of illuminated honey onyx, where sushi master Makio Idesako presents the pristine delicacies he’s known for. (Idesako was most recently running Amici Sushi at the DePuy Canal House in High Falls.) A wall of water serves as the backdrop here, should you want a little extra drama.
The dining room is chic and comfortable. The original steel beams and brackets on the ceiling are painted black; the walls are charcoal; and the floors are clad in black galaxy, a glossy granite with gold specks. Matching granite tabletops set off the white dinnerware and napkins with their silver rings. (Yes, napkin rings. When was the last time you saw those in a restaurant?) Diners can sink into cushy half-moon banquettes or comfortable plush chairs, all custom made. A spray-painted mural by the Chilean graffiti artist Dasic Fernandez covers one wall and adds to the high-energy urban vibe. The mural alone must have cost a bundle.
East meets West: The Bull & Buddha’s sesame crusted tuna tataki comes on a mini black rice cake along with passion fruit syrup and daikon sprouts
“We spared no expense,” concurs Alex Libin, who owns the place and designed the interior himself. Libin is all of 23 years old and a third-year law student in addition to being a hands-on, budding restaurateur. (“I’m an insomniac,” he says by way of explanation.) His investors were “keen to let youth take over,” a keenness he met by surrounding himself with a team of enthusiastic 20- and 30-somethings to help manage the place.
Even the softly lit loos are noteworthy. Like a long, wide trough, a shallow stone sink links the men’s and women’s rooms — the wall above it stops short by a couple of inches. Flat-screen TVs showing Kung Fu films are mounted on the ceiling above the sink to entertain you should you be lying on the floor, over-wowed by it all.
Oh yes, the food. Chef Joseph Kirtland, a Culinary Institute grad (and also young), says the concept behind the Asian-fusion menu is to please as broad an audience as possible. That includes the meat-and-potatoes crowd — so if you prefer your filet mignon without the crab and shiitake mushroom crust, say, he’s happy to oblige.
The lunch menu, a work in progress, offers spring rolls, wontons, and noodle dishes as well as wraps and a burger. Brunch includes dim sum along with Kirtland’s twist on eggs Benedict, which he serves on a fried pork bun instead of a muffin. “Some people are perplexed by it, but that’s how we are here,” he observes. An array of dinner entrées runs from pad Thai to wasabi-pea-crusted salmon; soy caramel glazed chicken breast; and grilled specials like Korean BBQ short ribs, ribeye steak, and the filet mignon mentioned above.
The dry-rubbed, 21-ounce ribeye is served with sweet potato allumettes, pickled long beans, and shiitake mushrooms
When I was there on a Friday night in fall, the clubby lounge was packed, and every seat at the sushi bar was taken. Cheery servers dressed in black were bopping around, and I was twice greeted by hosts offering to take my coat as I looked for my companion, who’d managed to nab a corner table in the dining room. Despite the excited hum of patrons and background music, conversation was still possible (I mention this for the over-40 set).
As for dinner: Things got off to a good start with a complimentary edamame hummus (made with green soybeans rather than chickpeas) and addictive sesame wonton chips to scoop it up. A small plate of skewered peanut-crusted shrimp was small indeed — it was two shrimp — but they were good, as was the green curry-mandarin orange dipping sauce.
Crispy wontons filled with goat cheese and crab were winners, with the sweet-tangy flavors coming through in equal parts. A golden soup of kabocha squash (similar to buttercup squash) got sweet notes from coconut milk, Asian pears, parsnips, and a touch of crab in the relish that garnished it. Thick and comforting, it nonetheless could have used a little kick. The porter-teriyaki marinated flank steak was tender and nicely charred on the edges. A side of lightly sautéed bok choi was a good choice; but the steak fries, served alongside in a little bowl, seemed like they’d wandered in from another restaurant.
A generous serving of ahi tuna, cast-iron seared on the outside and rare in the middle, came sliced and fanned over soba noodles and red cabbage with a carrot ginger-butter broth. The tuna was good quality and the noodles were tasty, but this dish, too, could have used a little more oomph. For dessert, our server recommended a mascarpone cheesecake that was as good as he’d said it would be. Even so, I preferred the delicious banana wontons with chocolate ganache and toasted hazelnuts.
The restaurant’s urban-chic back dining room
Despite the Manhattan-esque vibe, prices are affordable (just beware the small-plate approach if you’re ravenous). The thoughtful wine list has some good deals, too, including bottles under $20. It was early days when we visited, so a real critique isn’t quite fair — a kitchen needs time to hit its stride, and Kirtland was still tweaking the menu. “If I hear someone’s happy, I’m glad, but I’m more concerned with the ones who aren’t happy,” he says. “I’m perpetually looking for what customers want.”
Ambitious as the tri-part eatery is, when I stopped back for a second look in late November, the manager showed me a work in progress on the second floor: a 4,000-square-foot night club called Orient, scheduled to open on New Year’s Eve, where live and DJ music of all kinds will be presented. Judging from the bolts of embroidered silk fabrics awaiting installation, this will be another deluxe space. The idea, Libin said, is that patrons can have a drink in the lounge, eat dinner in the dining room, then head to the club for some late-night romping.
If the response of the crowds so far is anything to go by, this winning new spot will ratchet up the revitalization of Main Street by several notches. And that’s good karma.
Bull & Buddha
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Appetizers, soups, and salads range from $6 to $9; small plates from $4 to $9; entrées from $12 to $26. Desserts are $7
319 Main St., Poughkeepsie. 845-337-4848