Busy Bee Cafe in Poughkeepsie | General Food & Drink | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
Busy Bee Cafe in Poughkeepsie
Angelika Rinnhofer
Debbie Didomenico,owner of Busy Bee Cafe.

Good restaurants use fresh ingredients, prepare their dishes with vibrant flavors, and seasonally change their menus. But the Busy Bee Cafe stands out from its peers by fulfilling the requirements above while changing its offerings every week or two. Frequent Busy Bee Cafe patrons anticipate that they will be able to choose from an array of new and appealing dishes. Its chefs, Charles Fells and Kelly Johnson, have a passion for cooking and innovation. Using Italian, Asian, and Cajun cuisine as their springboard, they love to mix and match and to experiment. They admirably succeed in turning out an intriguing diversity of consistently great-tasting dishes.

Located in an aging, primarily residential neighborhood in Poughkeepsie, not far from Vassar Hospital (where parking is often tight), the Busy Bee Cafe appears as unimposing as its setting. The rectangular dining room, surrounded on its facade by shaded plate glass windows brightened with two giant flower boxes, seats 35 to 40 people. A large, refrigerated deli-case, a holdover from the premises's former incarnation as a deli, divides the dining room in half. The case holds perishables, sauces, dessert components, and other assorted items that one would more appropriately expect to find stored in the kitchen. Tan-colored walls, decorated with photographs, complement the darker brown wood paneling that encircles the lower half of the room.

Despite this unpretentious backdrop, there are strong indications that one has arrived at a place of culinary distinction upon entering the restaurant. The staff project a professional demeanor. The tables are well-appointed and decorated with white tablecloths and high-quality glassware. Gleaming wine bottles and sophisticated cookbooks adorn the room. Most importantly, diners have a satisfied look. What counts here is not the ambience, but the food and the pleasure derived from eating it.

The person responsible for setting these priorities, Debbie DiDomenico, the Busy Bee Cafe's owner, spent much of her life in the food business. In the early 1970s, she and her then-husband owned a fish restaurant and then a fish market in New Paltz. After her divorce, she acquired advanced cooking skills in French cuisine at L'Europe Restaurant in the Westchester town of South Salem. She then gained catering and management skills working for Abigail Kirsch, a renowned full-service caterer operating out of Tarrytown. Upon its opening in early 1999, DiDomenico became the chef at 121 Restaurant & Bar in North Salem. Toward the end of that year, she purchased the Busy Bee Cafe, which had been a take-out deli, made some cosmetic changes, and opened what she envisioned would be a serious but affordable restaurant.

Chef Kelly Johnson chatting with patrons in the dining room

In 2001, DiDomenico hired Charles Fells to work with her in the kitchen. At the age of 15, Fells began cooking at the Italian Center in Poughkeepsie, then later served for two years as a chef's assistant at the Culinary Institute of America, followed by a stint in the army and a number of cooking jobs, including working under Daniel Smith, a past executive chef at the Beekman Arms Hotel in Rhinebeck. Soon after hiring Fells, DiDomenico acknowledged his talent by making him the Busy Bee Cafe's executive chef. In March 2004, Kelly Johnson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who had done her externship in New Orleans at Susan Spicer's Bayona, joined Fells in the kitchen. The two chefs presently work as a team and collaborate on putting menus together.

The dinner menu has included appetizers like white bean and roasted garlic ravioli sauced with a plum tomato ragout and garnished with shaved Reggiano Parmigiano; escargot with garlic and shallots infused with brandy and tarragon encased in puff pastry; soy glazed sesame- and panko-crusted tuna, sitting on a bed of cellophane noodles and baby greens lightly dressed with a wasabi crema; and cornmeal fried oysters and green heirloom tomatoes drizzled with a dill cucumber dressing.

Chef Fells' jumbo lump crab cake plays up the delicate lightness and natural sweetness of the pearly white meat while introducing a citrus accent and a gentle spicy kick. He folds the crab lightly with mayonnaise, chopped tarragon, and zest from a lemon, a lime, and an orange, and then adds salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste. The mixture is formed into a generous-sized patty and coated with white unseasoned bread crumbs and sautéed in butter. The chef accompanies this simple but elegant crab cake with a mango salsa and a chipotle aïoli. He succeeds brilliantly in orchestrating the balancing act among the sweet, picante, and tangy flavors that give this dish its character.

The Busy Bee Cafe is a popular, neighborhood restaurant with eclectic, imaginative cooking that provides a haven for discriminating diners.
Entrees have included penne pasta tossed with pancetta, peas, cream, and truffle oil; chile dusted ahi tuna sitting on an avocado, corn, tomato, and red onion salad accompanied by a cumin and lime dressing; hazelnut-crusted scallops with an arugula, Belgian endive, and radicchio Trevisano salad with an orange vinaigrette; French chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto, accompanied by roasted wild mushrooms, Madeira, and Boursin; pan seared, port-glazed Hudson Valley duck breast surrounded by an orange cranberry risotto; and grilled prime rib eye steak, garlic- and rosemary-rubbed, alongside Tuscan fries and asparagus.

The andouille-crusted rack of lamb with chipotle demi-glace and crawfish beignets represents the kind of entrée that makes the Busy Bee Cafe so special. Lamb enthusiasts who also crave Cajun-style food will have to travel to New Orleans to find a dish with comparable balance, depth, and complexity. Seated on the hot chile demi-glace, the pink lamb chops, coated with the spicy, garlicky, heavily smoked flavors of the sausage crust, itself infused with mustard, are perfectly complemented by the piquant and full-flavored beignets, whose creamy-textured center melts in a burst of flavor on one's tongue.

Chef Johnson makes the savory beignets by creating a batter out of sifted flour, salt, baking powder, and soda water, and after letting it sit for ten minutes adds minced garlic and green onion, diced red pepper, fresh crawfish, and lemon zest. She then deep fries a beignet-sized portion for two minutes.

Shimp bruschetta
The desserts are homemade and generally very good renditions of popular favorites. One can choose from a warm chocolate timbale encircled by fresh berries and whipped cream; New York cheesecake with caramel sauce; pecan pie; and rice pudding containing golden raisins and cinnamon. While the lemon cranberry tart brûlée tasted grainy in texture, the apple tarte Tatin was irresistible. In this dessert, invented by two French sisters from the Loire Valley, sugar, butter, apples, and caramelized fruit juices covered with pâte brisée are baked until the pastry turns golden brown. After cooling, it is inverted on the serving platter. The Busy Bee Cafe offers a generous slice of the tarte with vanilla ice cream.

The lunch menu features salads (with or without additions such as chicken, seafood, or meat), sandwiches, and special dishes of the day. The prices range from $4 to $14. During dinner, appetizers range from $4 to $13, entrées from $13 to $29, and desserts cost $5 to $6. While the restaurant offers wines ranging from $15 to $65 a bottle, you can bring your own bottle for a corkage fee of $8. Wines also can be ordered at $5 to $6 per glass. Reservations are recommended.

This popular, intimate, neighborhood restaurant, with its eclectic and imaginative cooking, provides a haven for discriminating diners who appreciate fine food offered in a casual setting at moderate prices.

Busy Bee Cafe

138 South Avenue, Poughkeepsie. (845) 452-6800.
Lunch: Monday to Friday, 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30pm-9pm.
Friday & Saturday, 5:30pm-10pm.
Busy Bee Cafe in Poughkeepsie
Angelika Rinnhofer
Debbie Didomenico,owner of Busy Bee Cafe.

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