The dining room’s walls are done in an adobe terra cotta hue, giving the interior a warm Southwestern ambience. To the right of the dining room sits an imposing Honduran Mahogany bar with a poured concrete counter top and back-lit liquor cabinet encircled with royal blue tiles. Cylindrical gray metal light fixtures are suspended from the ceiling over the bar area, while yellow and orange hand-crafted stained glass fixtures light the dining room. In addition to the bar’s nine stools, there’s table seating for 30 inside and another 20 on the rear deck. The deck affords a view of the spacious garden bordering the creek, and is accessible to the public. Created and nurtured by the previous owners, the stunning garden has grown even more lovely under the stewardship of Ullman’s mother, Mimi Labourdette, who has tastefully expanded its array of colorful annuals and perennials. (On summer weekends, the restaurant offers a light fare menu in the garden, prepared on a charcoal grill. Ullman has also wisely kept the Cement Company’s Airstream trailer bar, where mixed drinks can be bought. On a clear night, this is one of the most pleasant locations in the Hudson Valley to enjoy a bite or cocktail.)
Ullman had years of prior restaurant experience before opening the Bywater Bistro. In the Berkshires, he apprenticed in the kitchens at Bizen, a fine Japanese restaurant in Great Barrington and at the Old Mill, a restaurant known for its New American and Continental cuisine in South Egremont. Ullman wanted the Bywater Bistro to be a casual, middle-level restaurant that would serve well-prepared American food. He has designed his menu to entice and satisfy a broad range of palates. But the chef also has shown an inclination to draw on the full range of essential spices from around the world to give an exciting and sometimes unusual uplift to classic comfort food preparations. You can expect his food to be neither contrived nor overly composed yet still contain elements of sophistication; the food combinations are not extensively layered but utilize clean, complementary, and sometimes contrasting flavors to create well-balanced dishes with visual appeal.
You might start with the crab cake. A generous portion of Jonah lump crabmeat mixed with shallots, garlic, celery, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, parsley, chives, and panko bread crumbs is pan fried just enough to lightly brown the cake and retain the succulence of the meaty crab. The mixture results in an almost-weightless cake with a mildly spicy kick. Another seasonal appetizer is the corn chowder in which onion, celery, and garlic are sweated in rendered bacon fat for added flavor. Then fresh corn kernels and diced potatoes are added with flour, thyme, and chicken stock and simmered until the ingredients are cooked through and the liquid thickened. The chowder is finished with heavy cream and garnished with parsley and chives. No surprises here in the relatively standard ingredients, but Ullman shows his adroit way with marrying flavors. The natural sweetness of the corn plays off nicely against the texture and taste of the dairy-enriched liquid base with the garlic adding depth and the various herbs rounding out the chowder.
More off the beaten path is an Asian-inspired shrimp dumpling with kimchee accompanied by a dipping sauce. Here pureed shrimp seasoned with mirin (a mildly sweet Japanese cooking wine) and dashi stock is encased in a shumai dumpling wrapper and steamed, then served with hot mustard. Ullman succeeds admirably in balancing the sweetness of the shrimp dumpling with the seriously spicy but not overwhelming hot flavor of the kimchee.
One of Chef Ullman’s most popular dishes is a grilled hanger steak in a red wine shallot jus served with fries tossed with white truffle oil. Classic comfort food gets kicked up a notch by drizzling truffle essence on the fries and using house-made stock reductions to make a glance de viande, which when added at the last minute to the sauce gives it a richer flavor, a deeper color, and a smoother texture. This summer, the teriyaki grilled sea scallops were the bistro’s break out dish, utilizing large, wild dry scallops. When presented, the caramelized scallops were accompanied by jasmine rice and ginger-braised greens. While this dish is Japanese inspired, the use of jasmine rice instead of Japanese rice is nontraditional. Ullman has tweaked the ingredients to produce a somewhat unusual South Asian/North Asian fusion-style dish. By further cooking the jasmine rice with kir lime leaf and bay leaf, he makes the distinction even more pronounced on the palate. The chef’s most interesting entrées exhibit this kind of cultural diversity. (Ullman was finalizing his fall menu for an October debut as Chronogram went to press.)
The slow roasted pork in pineapple BBQ sauce exemplifies the restaurant’s signature style of basic, well-executed sauce construction. An intensified pork stock, Spanish onions, carrots, celery, garlic, tomato, fresh local peaches, and pineapple are simmered down, pureed, and then combined with sherry vinegar. The pineapple’s acidity gives the sauce a bit of a cutting bite and a summery touch. The pork, scored and rubbed with roasted garlic oil, cumin, salt, and pepper, is slow cooked for six hours at a low temperature and allowed to retain its natural flavor. Served with creamed corn and a spicy cole slaw, the pork is tender and succulent.
The braised short ribs are equally exciting, covered with an unorthodox spice rub, containing juniper berry, Szechwan peppercorns, cardamom seed, coriander seed, and pulverized bay leaf. Flavor is also enhanced by the use of a rich brown ale in the braise. For those inclined toward more classic American fare, the pan-roasted Murray’s half chicken, served with a lemon thyme pan jus, mashed potatoes, and glazed carrots is moist and tender throughout due to the removal of the thigh bone so as to not overcook the breast. Such thoughtfulness can transform a simple but good dish into an exceptional one.
The dessert offerings include a light, delicate bay leaf panna cotta. This elegant Italian custard comes with fresh peaches poached in a spice syrup and a cardamom-infused caramel sauce. It is an unusual and delicious way to end a meal. Another great but more conventional treat is the hot chocolate fondant cake served with cinnamon ice cream and whipped cream. A fondant is basically an undercooked chocolate cake with a molten center. The bistro’s version is made with extra-bittersweet Venezuelan El Rey chocolate, giving it an especially robust and intense flavor.
Appetizers average $7, entrees range from $19 to $25 (more than half are available in half sizes and priced accordingly). Desserts cost about $7. The wine list is relatively extensive and carefully chosen to emphasize good quality and value. Bottles cost from $15 to $80 with most falling in the $25 range. Wines also can be ordered at $5 to $12 per glass.
Among the more than a dozen white and red wines offered by the glass, the Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, 2004, is light, elegant, and fruity with just a trace of sweetness ($26/bottle, $8/glass). It is quite versatile and marries well with most of the seafood and poultry offerings. The Woop Woop Shiraz, 2005, is an Australian, medium-bodied red wine with strong black licorice, sweet and sour berry flavors, and spicy pepper accents. The finish is smooth and rich and it pairs well with red meat or duck ($26/bottle, $8/glass).
With Chef Samuel Ullman at the helm, the Bywater Bistro has deservedly carved out a niche in the increasingly competitive Hudson Valley restaurant scene. The restaurant’s ambience is comfortable and casual; prices are moderate; its well-executed dishes are loaded with flavor; and there is a nice selection of affordable wines. Here is a place well worth seeking out where you can enjoy contemporary American bistro-style dishes often prepared with an unusual and delectable Asian twist. It just could become one of your favorites.
419 Main Street, Rosendale
(845) 658-3210; www.bywaterbistro.com
Dinner: 5-9pm Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 5-10pm Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesday.