On June 5, I spoke with Brandon Walker, chef/owner of Essie's, about his upcoming plans for the restaurant as the Mid-Hudson region readies for Phase 2 of reopening on June 9. While restaurants were not initially slated to reopen until Phase 3, pressure from Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro and other officials persuaded the state to allow outdoor dining in Phase 2, pursuant to stringent safe-distancing protocols. (Complete SLA guidance for outdoor dining can be found here.)
Walker has been operating Essie's as a takeout and delivery operation with a limited menu since mid-March, when restaurants were forced to close their dine-in business. For Phase 2, he'll be adding six tables on the sidewalk in front of his Carmel Place storefront, with the possibility of adding more tables once he receives municipal guidance as to how much he can expand beyond his normal footprint. "I'm hoping to put out more tables and boost capacity," says Walker. "At the moment, we’re working with what we have just see how things go. We'll play it safe and see what’s gonna happen until we progress to 100 percent capacity." (In addition, Walker will be bringing some Essie's favorites back on to the menu for his Phase 2 reopening, including grit croquettes, crispy plantains, and jerk ribs."
Walker is following state guidelines for sanitation and safe distancing and is minimizing contact whenever possible. "Our primary goal is to keep everybody safe," say Walker. "It’s in our best interest to keep out community safe, our staff safe, and myself safe so we can continue to create great memories here at Essie's."
Opened in June 2016 by a CIA grad who worked in a number of upscale Manhattan restaurants before relocating to Poughkeepsie, Essie’s is named for Walker’s grandmother. This Poughkeepsie eatery is squarely in the farm-to-table, New American tradition, but with a nod to Walker’s Caribbean and Southern heritage. Expect to see plenty of grits, along with and the tropical flavors like tamarind in the dishes of this cozy spot in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Southern Comfort at Essie's
A good place to start are the grit croquettes ($8), a delightful Southern twist on fried yum. The grits are flavored with garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper, finished with cheddar, and served with garlic aioli. Another starter worth trying is: the jerk ribs with Sherry-tamarind glaze ($12), which marries the flavors of Southern BBQ to the sweet-yet-sour taste of the tropical fruit.
The MGG ($15) is a tasty pile of mush, mixing mushrooms, cheddar-scallion grits, collard greens, and bacon. (And I use the word “mush” with all love in the world for delightfully mushy textures.) A recent fish special featured buttery escolar, rarely seen on Hudson Valley menus. Grilled and served with saffron risotto, the fish showcases the chef’s assured technique. Other recent special include duck pho, with Thai basil noodles, poached duck egg, bean sprouts, and broccoli rabe; and sea scallop under quail egg with the squid ink grits.
For brunch, chicken and waffles ($16) are a no-brainer, as is the shrimp and grits ($17). (The jerk ribs and grit croquettes are also on the brunch menu.) Pair one of these dishes with a light breakfast drink like the Trinidadian, an herbaceous rum cocktail.
Drink UpSpeaking of cocktails, it’s worth noting that Walker takes his drinks as seriously as his food, and his passion is notable in his crafted sour series: 14 sours that run the gamut from a classic, featuring Evan Williams to a mango habanero sour with infused mango-habanero vodka (both $11). The wine list is small, about 25 bottles, but well-curated and reasonably priced with bottles from $36 and up.
Walker is featured in the recently published Toques in Black: A Celebration of Black Chefs, by award-winning photographer Alan Battman. Sales of the book help fund The Chef’s Connection Line Cook Program, a free training and placement program to get people of color restaurant jobs.
Essies is open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday.