Start with the oysters. On Sunday, they're a dollar all day. Same during happy hour Wednesday through Friday. On a recent visit to Liberty Street Bistro, I was served half a dozen Mystics, already dressed with a light mignonette—Chef Kelly does not like cocktail sauce, I was told—and those briny beauties were an inexpensive kick-off to the best meal I've eaten so far this year.
There are about a dozen or so restaurants in the region that are operating at the highest level, and Liberty Street Bistro, unexpectedly located in downtown Newburgh, is one of them. Opened by 20-something culinary wunderkind Michael Kelly in 2016, the restaurant draws on Kelly's experience working in some of Manhattan's finest kitchens under the likes of Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, and Markus Glocker. French-influenced but not a French restaurant, Kelly and his staff execute technically masterful, memorable food.
Brunch is served a la carte, but dinner is structured as a series of courses with choices within each course. Your choice: two courses ($39, plus $16 for wine pairing), three courses ($53, plus $20 for wine pairing), or four courses ($61, plus $24 for wine pairing). For the first course, you might try the frisée au liptauer, a winter salad with a fried six-minute egg on top. The man sitting next to me at the bar ordered it and exclaimed, "This is the best six-minute egg I've seen in my life," as the gooey yolk ran over the lettuce. The second course is pasta: I suggest the pork sugo orecchiette—a spicy twist on an Italian classic. The third course is protein, and the adventurous should order The Importance of Offal, a plate of braised beef tongue, served with fried sweetbreads and tripe that elevates the offcuts above their usual lowly status. For dessert, while I'm a fan of cheese plates, fans of decadence should try the chocolate pavlova, served with a smores-y toasted marshmallow ice cream.
Attention should also be paid to the drinks. I ordered Life with Lucy ($12), an homage to red-haired Lucille Ball, who made her stage debut in Newburgh in 1941. The cocktail takes its orange hue from carrot juice, an ingredient I'd never had in an alcoholic beverage before and a welcome addition to this well-balanced gin drink. This was made by head bartender Dave Garrett, who also oversees the well-curated wine list. (The dinner pairings are thoughtful and well worth the surcharge.) Garrett recommended a glass of the Gregory Perez Brezo Godello ($11), an unoaked Spanish white as fresh and clean as a summer morning.
Liberty Street Bistro's next-door neighbor, Caffe Machiatto, which helped to anchor the neighborhood as a culinary destination when it opened 15 years ago, closed in January. Kelly has taken over the space and is in the process of expanding the bistro from 44 to 70 seats. Lucky for us. Liberty Street Bistro is the kind of neighborhood spot every place wishes it had. It makes you want to move nearby so you can become a regular.
I spoke to Michael Kelly at his restaurant in February about his time in New York City's best kitchens, culinary style, and expansion plans.
Brian K. Mahoney: Where did you eat out growing up?
Michael Kelly: If it was a really nice night out, we'd go to the Ship Lantern Inn in Milton. It's really cool. It's like a time capsule. We also used to eat at this Italian place on Broadway here in Newburgh, Chianti's. At the end of your meal, you always got sorbet. That was my introduction to what I assumed was a nicer dining experience.
BKM: You started out working in restaurants in high school.
MK: Yeah, I started working at Canterbury Brook Inn. Bus boy, dish washer, prep work. Then I worked for Painter's Tavern for a while. They're both still there in Cornwall, going strong.
BKM: These were positive experiences?
MK: Yeah, definitely. Hans Baumann is the owner of the Canterbury Brook Inn. He's just like your quintessential European chef character. He just pushes, pushes, pushes. Doesn't matter that it's old town Cornwall, and that it's just a bedroom community. He just wants to put out a consistent, quality product all the time. You either love that idea, or you hate that idea, and I love it.
BKM: I would hope that all chefs aspire to that standard.
MK: This business has a way of grinding people up and spitting them out. You either are going to adapt to it or you're going to fight against it all the time.
BKM: What was your big takeaway from going to the CIA?
MK: The CIA is a really great rudimentary institution. It's going to teach you the right way to do things, and then how much further you go beyond that is really up to you. It's very much the old saying: You get out of it what you put into it. I don't think there's any place that's more true than the CIA.
BKM: You've worked in kitchens with culinary titans. Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller. What was it like working in those kitchens?
MK: Those were obviously formative moments in my career. Those institutions are on such a scale that I don't think I could ever operate on that level, where they are just at the peak of their game all the time in the middle of the most competitive cities in the world. There's something desirable about that, but also, I got to a point in New York where I could probably be the executive sous [chef] of a really great restaurant down there right now, or I could get married and have a life. You can't really do both in New York City. But I also think running a fine dining restaurant in the Hudson Valley is, in some ways, a lot harder than in the city.
MK: Because I know that we deliver a consistent quality product all the time, and if we have the clientele to come here every day of the week that we're open, we would never want for anything. In the Hudson Valley, there are definitely people looking for this type of cuisine, this type of dining experience, but it's that bedroom community thing—it's moms and new families. It's hard to get those people out on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night. But I don't think that doesn't mean they don't exist. We just have to be creative in getting people to see value in a night out during the middle of the week.
BKM: So, getting back to Ramsay and Keller—What did you learn working in those kitchens?
MK: So the Ramsay kitchen is just full steam ahead all the time. Boom, boom, boom. You're just cranking out numbers, because it's mostly hotels. Really high-volume hospitality. Keller kitchens: Certainly, the grind is there. We are running around. You're starting at seven in the morning and finishing at 11 o'clock at night. Those are some crazy, crazy days, but if my pepper mill was in the wrong place, somebody was letting me know.
That's kind of the one thing with Keller restaurants and Keller-alumni restaurants. You either get into that mentality, so to speak, drink their Kool-Aid, or you don't. There's a lot of people who can't. If you didn't create the label on your container the right way, and someone calls you out on it. That's not fun for some people. But for me, and for anybody who got into it, it's like, "Okay. I'm in for the ride."
BKM: So that's how you run your kitchen?
MK: I try to as much as possible. It's hard to have my eyes on all the places, and here I wear a lot of hats—chef, plumber, electrician, cleaner, and everything else as needed. I have no problem with that, but it can be hard to keep track of every little detail as much as I would love to.
BKM: How do you describe the food at Liberty Street Bistro?
MK: That is the hardest question to answer because I don't find it particularly French. I mean, there's certainly French technique in our food, but I think it's distinctly American, Hudson Valley-driven food. We're trying to be as seasonal as possible, as local as we can be within reason, while offering value and not charging $100-a-head because it's not practical. That is the hardest part, because I would love to use grass-fed everything from 20 miles away, but it's impossible. You can't do it at this price point.
BKM: What brought you here to open this place?
MK: That's a question I have a really hard time pinpointing a specific answer on. I like the idea of being able to move the needle a little bit for anything, whether it's some sort of a way to improve a neighborhood. I think we do play a hand in that. I think you've seen good news come out of Newburgh recently, right? Lowest crime rate in 10 years. Did Liberty Street Bistro do that? No, but it didn't hurt it either.
BKM: You sort of jumped passed my question a bit. You were working at Batard in Tribeca for Marcus Glocker, right? Pete Wells reviews it and gives it three stars in the New York Times. Pretty impressive. But then you come and open up a place in Newburgh. How does that happen?
MK: When Batard got its three stars, shortly thereafter I had a conversation with Markus Glocker. He was always sizing you up for something, and I was very straightforward with him. I said, "Hey, I really want to go home and open up something." I didn't know whether that meant Newburgh or Cornwall or Beacon. I hadn't really been home for a sustained period of time to know what was going on either.
Cornwall sucked because I felt that it couldn't sustain a restaurant like this because it's a bedroom community. Beacon sucked because the prices have just skyrocketed and would have made it difficult to open and sustain a restaurant within the budget we were working with. But I had become really, really good friends with the owners of the Newburgh Brewery. We're still good friends. My wife and I got married there. It was actually [Newburgh Brewery brewmaster] Chris Basso who said to me, "Hey, you know there's this antique store up the street that's closing. The space is for rent, and I know you've been looking for a restaurant space." This is the spot.
BKM: And it was a blank slate?
MK: Blank slate. Much to my surprise, I told the landlords what I wanted to do back there, which was pretty involved, and they were like, "Just go for it. Whatever you want. Just do it. Because nothing else is coming in here right now." It had been sitting empty for a little while. It's all history from there, really.
BKM: The menu is structured so the food is served in courses. Diners can choose two, three, or four courses. Why courses? Why not an a la carte menu?
MK: The first time I saw the course structure was at Batard. Just operating through that menu and being a cook in that kitchen, it just made sense to me because we didn't spend very much time talking about food costs. I realized it was because this course menu allows us to kind of balance out food costs based on the average diner ordering in different ways. So somebody's chicken paid for somebody else's lobster, in a way. I thought that was just a really smart way to go about controlling the cost of doing business, and it also allows you as the restaurant operator to take pressure off your cooks, to not be so concerned about whether we can afford to put lobster tail on the menu.
BKM: It also creates a structured journey for the diner.
MK: Yeah, that is the obvious second part. I think the courses allow you to just say, "Okay, I'm here. There's basically a ticket at the top that I'm selecting, and I'm just going to say we're going here first, here second, here third, and here fourth." But then you can do whatever you want within that realm. I think it's a fun way to try new things, too, because we very rarely have a steak on the menu, which can really piss some people off.
BKM: What's the favorite thing that you guys are cooking right now?
MK: I love the offal dish that we have on right now. It's all those foods that everybody thinks they're going to hate. You know, sweetbreads and tripe and beef tongue. I think that's a lot of fun.
BKM: It's the only dish on the menu that is not a description. It actually has a title. "The Importance of Offal."
MK: It's taken from a chapter title in The French Laundry Cookbook. I refer to that book constantly. We love that book. It's from 1994, and it's still as relevant as it was the day it came out. That chapter is amazing. It just goes into so much depth about washing tripe. How long can you talk about washing tripe? I love that book. That was like my little homage to TK [Thomas Keller]. That's a really fun dish.
BKM: Why did you open a bakery?
MK: When we started the bistro, I had no intention of making bread at all, zero. But I couldn't get any bread. I just kept trying to find a nice dinner roll, just anything simple. I said, "To hell with this. I'm just going to pull out an old recipe and roll with it." It's been a giant pain because we don't really have the oven space for it, but it's a really good product, and people were really loving it.
So, then this space opened up down the block. It's a union hall that was built in the `20s. It had been sitting empty for a couple of years, and then for about a decade before that it was a church. We asked ourselves, "Should we do a bakery?" I feel like there aren't really any bakeries around here, certainly not higher-end artisan bakeries. If I want to go get a macaroon today, where am I going? The answer was nowhere. Or, do I want to get a really good croissant? I don't really know, if I'm not going to drive an hour away. So, there is certainly room. Somebody described this area to me as a bread desert. I think they're absolutely right.
BKM: Why dollar oysters?
MK: We don't have it easy being in downtown Newburgh. If you're from the Hudson Valley, probably every older person in your life has told you not to come here. Convincing people to get here is probably our biggest challenge, but once they're here, they come back. The dollar oyster thing was like, "Come to the bar. Have some oysters and a cocktail," and maybe that's our first date. And maybe I'll ask you for a kiss on the way home. We'll see what happens.
Liberty Street Bistro, 97 Liberty Street, Newburgh. Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday; brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Libertystreetbistro.com.