Spoiler Alert: The following review contains spoilers for Ernest Heminway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). If you haven’t read this chronicle of the Lost Generation yet and wish to avoid any plot details, please skip the following two paragraphs.
At the end of The Sun Also Rises, Jake, the war-wounded hero, goes to Madrid to rescue Brett, who’s been deserted by a young bullfighter. Jake and Brett are in love, but it’s the impossible kind, given Jake’s trauma (it’s in his down-belows) and Brett being Brett (a woman who seduces bullfighters). Once reunited, they head to the hotel bar and drink martinis. Three rounds of martinis. The pair then head decide they need lunch. At the restaurant, they're served roast young suckling pig—Brett smokes while Jake eats—and Jake drinks four bottles of Rioja Alta. Amazingly, Jake is still able to walk, and they head out into the street to hail a cab. (Ever wonder what a summer afternoon in Madrid is like? Hemingway knows: “It was hot and bright.”)
In the cab, Brett gets sentimental about their star-crossed love: “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” To which Jake replies: “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.” The line is a cynical cherry on top of Hemingway’s early modernist classic. And, in case you’re wondering why all the preamble, it’s also the name of a restaurant that opened recently in Rhinebeck.
Pretty to Think So reunites the youthful hospitality trio—Chef Mark Margiotta, Bar Director Madeline Dillon, and General Manager Eric Mushel are all in their 30s—behind The Dutchess, the secret hotel and restaurant in Staatsburg owned by app developer Rameet Chawla. When The Dutchess shut down in October 2021, the group decided to set out on their own. "Pure serendipity is how it came to be," says Mushel. "A chef, a mixologist, and an entrepreneur met on a secret farm and discovered ourselves amidst nature, and Pretty to Think So is the beautiful result of that encounter."
The restaurant is in downtown Rhinebeck, in the former barroom of Liberty Public House. The space is unrecognizable, however, as a gut reno has transformed the once-dark pub into a chic, minimalist dining room punctuated with touches of whimsy, like the faux taxidermied heads of bighorn sheep and antelope done in ceramics. (A subtle reference to a certain novelist/big hame hunter?) A lush, crushed velvet banquette runs the length of two walls. Marble-topped tables seat 24 with room for another 12 at the bar. When full, the room can be loud, but it never crosses over to uncomfortably loud. It's a lively space that's pretty but not fussy. The entire back wall is covered in a delightfully busy black-and-white wallpaper that weaves together visual themes from various Renaissance paintings.
Start with a cocktail. The cocktails are highly recommended, as is the Instagram feed of Madeline Dillon, which tracks her process in crafting some of the most interesting drinks in the region. While we waited for our own drinks to arrive, our neighbor was served a Miserable, Darling ($18), a black-as-night concoction in a collins glass made with white rum, grapefruit, lime, black peppercorn, cherry liqueur, and activated charcoal. Lead Me to the Garden ($18), made with dry gin, snap pea shrub, herb liqueur, golden honey is herbaceous yet restrained, and is cute as a button with a sugar snap clothes-pinned to the the coupe. The M ($20), Dillon's take on a Vesper martini, is also a subtle winner. The booze is fat-washed overnight in goat cheese and finished with goat cheese-stuffed olive.
There is a 13-bottle wine list (bottles: $70-$120; glasses: $15-$25) with some distinctive finds from women-owned vineyards. Both the Franck Besson 2021 Chardonnay ($80), a soft, citrusy, easy-drinking white and a lively and refreshing Nino Costao 2017 Roero Nebbiolo ($85) were food-friendly without being retiring. There are a handful of beers—Hudson Valley Brewery's Amulet Sour Ales ($13) among them—and three low ABV cocktails for the sober-minded.
When thinking about how to define the kind of food served at Pretty to Think So, the raw bar throws you for a loop because the rest of the menu is so rigorously farm-to-table. Margiotta, a CIA grad who was executive chef at Brasserie 292 in Poughkeepsie before spending two years working under Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, is committed to Humm's plant-first ethos. But let's talk about the raw bar first.
The raw bar at Pretty serves as both a point of pride and differentiation. Sure, you can get oysters in Rhinebeck at Le Petit Bistro (on the half-shell with mignonette) or roasted Pernod herb butter at Willow at Mirbeau. But until now, you couldn’t get a seafood tower in Rhinebeck. At Pretty, there’s both the Royal ($175) and the Deluxe ($90). The Royal includes a dozen oysters, six Little Neck clams, six shrimp, a lobster, and 30 grams of Pacific sturgeon caviar. The Deluxe is half of that and no caviar. There’s caviar service if you want it. The Marshallberg Osetra will set you back $300 for 100 grams. While I did not try the seafood tower or caviar, the oysters I ate on two occasions—both East and West Coast—were top notch ($38-$48 per dozen). The pink peppercorn/white balsamic mignonette was quietly superb.During a recent conversation with Margiotta, he mentioned that he'd spent the previous day planting his garden, purpose-built for future menu items. When asked what was going in the ground, Margiotta rattled off long list: four varieties of eggplants; hot and sweet peppers; Swiss chard; 16 varieties of cherry tomatoes, many grown from seeds he's saved over the years; the list went on. But no greens. He gets his greens from Kyle Nisonger of Maple View Farm in his native Poughquag. "The natural terroir of the area is very special," says Margiotta, "and so is the seasonality of what we’re able to grow. I’m trying to raise as much of our own produce as I can and supplement from local growers."
If you do eat at Pretty to Think So, you'll likely meet the chef, as the restaurant is small enough that he serves a fair bit of the food himself alongside the charming and professional wait staff.
Pretty to Think So is entirely gluten-free, and mostly dairy-free, though you wouldn't notice. The seeded butternut squash bread ($9), made with quinoa flour, is moist and contains a hint of sweetness without being cloying. Other starters include caviar frites ($23) and the twice-baked truffle potato ($20), which is what an average baked potato dreams of being when it grows up. Served in a cast iron skillet, the potato's skin is thick and crispy, the interior fluffy, and a touch of creaminess added from celery root cream. All this in concert with the sublime earthiness of the truffle. The dish is large enough to be a dinner portion.
A recent special was venison osso bucco ($32) served with Wild Hive polenta, sauteed spring greens, and grilled carrots. The tender venison was effervescently gamy, but it was the grilled carrots that stole the show. No longer than my fingers, these orange beauties embodied the Platonic ideal of carrotness, enhanced by a judicious application of fire for a touch of char. (This makes me excited to return for the barigoule—essentially a vegan cassoulet—as Margiotta switches ingredients with the seasons. The current iteration of the dish is carrot-focused.)
The duck confit ($29), served with pickled wild mushrooms, spring green salad, and duck fat sunchokes hit the spot, the acidity of the mushrooms and the greens working deftly with the the dish's fattiness. The half chicken ($30), served with romesco and pickled peppers, operates in a similar, if less interesting way.
Another special we tried on a recent visit—seared diver scallops ($38)—will be haunting me for awhile. I don't get excited by scallops as a rule, but I am now formally begging Margiotta to put this dish on the regular menu. It's been a long time since I had scallops seared so well, the crust this perfect, the inherent sweetness of the mollusk so clear. Now take that divine morsel and stack it on a wedge of potato fondant with celery root, leeks, and morels wedged in between. This is food of the highest order—Pretty to Think So has staked a claim as a restaurant to be closely watched and visited regularly.
Will Margiotta put the scallops in the menu? Probably not, but isn't it pretty to think so?