On a recent afternoon in Uptown Kingston, the staff of Chleo were busy readying for a trial run of service, known in the trade as "friends and family." Hope Troupe Mathews, who runs the front of the house, was guiding the waitstaff through a wine tasting while her husband, chef Charles Mathews, was fine-tuning his culinary vision with the kitchen crew. The grand opening of the wine bar was just days away, and the couple, who have been working toward their vision for over two years, were excited and a bit gobsmacked as they neared the finish line.
"You know the scene in What Dreams May Come, when Robin Williams wakes up in one of his wife's paintings? It's like that," says Charles. "We've been looking at the design renderings for so long. It's surreal as hell in the finished space." Chleo opens it doors to the public on Tuesday, February 7.
Located on Fair Street, next to Le Canard Enchaine in the former Ecce Terra space, Chleo is not quite a restaurant and it's quite more than a wine bar serving tinned fish and charcuterie. The dishes are too small to be called entrees, but their slightly bigger than typical tapas portions—and too carefully crafted to be thought of as an afterthought to the drinks.
Chleo is like a scaled-down version of Montreal's iconic Joe Beef: casual, well-lubricated, delicious, carefully curated, and with a scrupulous focus on housemade ingredients, from XO sauce to rye soaked in butternut squash scraps to add sweetness to its Old Fashioned ($15), that looks insouciant.
The Mathews, culinary nomads have worked at restaurants across the country—Charleston, Austin, New York City, Denver, San Francisco—and most notably, the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, have created an idiosyncratic culinary clubhouse that suits their own tastes.
"We built the restaurant that we wanted to dine—and work—in," says Hope, referencing the wine bars of Paris where patrons can casually nibble on numerous small plates while they drink. "We built it for ourselves, and the menu reflects the way we like to eat and drink."
One standout dish I tried at a sneak preview tasting was grilled short rib served with duxelles mushrooms ($32). The beef, served rare with a toothsome char on the exterior, was some of the tenderest I've ever taste. When I asked Charles how he achieved it, he explained that before the beef was finished on the grill, it was cooked sous vide with aromatics for 48 hours. (Not a typo.)
Other dishes on the winter menu include salt-baked celeraic with truffles, brown butter, and hazelnuts ($14); bolognese bianco over lumache topped with aged gouda and honey ($21); and potato rosti with caramelized onions and buttermilk cheese ($12).
There's caramel apple cake with bay laureal ice cream ($7) and flourless chocolate torte with vermouth cherries and cream ($9) for dessert. (Not everything is made in-house at Chleo. The bread is from Kingston Bread + Bar, charcuterie from La Salumina, and cheese from Chaseholm Farm.
The beverage list, curated by Hope, features a number of natural-leaning wines, but not exclusively so. "We're working with a lot of small producers who treat their land real well," she says. "I want things to feel classic and fun and serves grapes that are recognizable."
This includes a Domaine des Crets Macon-Village ($78) and a Tenuta la Novella Chianti ($67) as well as a Seyval Blanc from Accord-based microproducer Accordion Wines. Most bottles are between $50-$70 and glasses are $11-$16. Hope is also a fan of vermouth and sherry as standalone sippers, and the list features a handful of each.
Although Chleo's design (courtesy of Brooklyn-based Islyn Studio) is low-key luxe, the vibe the Mathews are going for is casual. "We want Chleo to be a neighborhood place where people come for a glass of wine after work or on a date," says Hope. "We want people to feel comfortable in jeans and a tee-shirt or dressed to the nines."
Chleo will be serving Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 9 pm, and Friday and Saturday from 4 to 11pm, making it a rare late-night food destination in the area. And, Charles notes: "If you come in right at 11, we will still serve you."