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Elephant Wine Bar in Kingston 

Punk Tapas

click to enlarge A leg of jamon serrano on a jamonera in the kitchen at Elephant - AMBER S. CLARK
  • Amber S. Clark
  • A leg of jamon serrano on a jamonera in the kitchen at Elephant

Uptown Kingston is in a bit of a slump. Retail businesses have been especially hard hit, with vacant storefronts sprouting like so many daffodils. The bagel shop closed less than a month after it opened. Hickory BBQ, which took over a prosperous luncheonette from Jane’s Ice Cream, is gone. The billiard hall that never was is a glass mausoleum for two dozen pool tables. The city closed the Chinese restaurant with the 1950s “Chop Suey” sign for code violations. The parking garage at the corner of Wall and North Front Streets—always an eyesore, but a useful place to park—is ringed with a six-foot high chain-link fence and is being torn down.

Still, there are some encouraging signs that people haven’t lost faith in the possibility of Uptown Kingston entirely. One of them is the persistence of Elephant.

Elephant, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in late April, is the brainchild of Rich Reeve and his wife Maya Karrol, former owners of Brady’s Public House in Poughkeepsie. More recently the chef at 23 Broadway (late, lamented), Reeve has brought the passion for tapas he debuted there to his latest endeavor, giving it a decidedly punk edge.

First, don’t call it a restaurant. Elephant is a wine bar that serves modern European tapas, according to Reeve, who is emphatic on this point.

Second, don’t expect jazz. Reeve is emphatic on this point too. (Punk is a lifestyle, and nothing if not in your face. Take a look in the open kitchen at Reeve’s shaved head and tattoos.) The music, spun from a turntable behind the bar, leans loudly and heavily on punk and New Wave vinyl, though Edith Piaf or a side from the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar can sometimes be heard. “If you’re going out for a quiet, romantic dinner, we’re probably not the place,” says Reeve.

click to enlarge Inside Elephant - AMBER S. CLARK
  • Amber S. Clark
  • Inside Elephant

Third, Elephant embodies the DIY (do it yourself) punk ethos. Reeve apprenticed with two carpenter friends to renovate the narrow storefront, formerly a tcotchke shop, into an eatery. The bar, stools, banquette, and tables were all built from scratch. The walls were plastered and stenciled by artist friends. Instead of installing a commercial stove and ventilation system, an investment in the tens of thousands of dollars, Reeve made a virtue of necessity, planning a tapas menu around his limitations. “One day I sat down and came up with 444 dishes I could do without a stove or a grill,” says Reeve. This restriction has eliminated certain traditional Spanish tapas that need frying or baking—croquetas, for example—but it’s no liability; Reeve’s food dazzles with just a hot plate, a toaster oven, a panini machine, and a barbecue grill. (A note on the “444 dishes”: Reeve switches up his tapas array quite often; some of the food mentioned in this article will most likely have changed by the time you read this.)

The food at Elephant challenges, as much a provocation as a culinary accomplishment. On Valentine’s Day this year, Reeve introduced a dish of sautéed beef heart with caramelized onions, as a prank of sorts, but it’s remained on the specials board ever since. Texture-wise, the heart walks the fine line between liver’s sponginess and steak’s sinewy grace, managing a surprising tenderness that’s coupled with a mellow beefiness and a tiny whiff of organ gaminess. And because it’s a small plate, if you don’t like it, just leave it and order something else; it won’t ruin your meal, and heck, it’s only $8.

As you might guess, Elephant is no haven for vegetarians (much like Spain). Asparagus is served with a sunny-side up egg on top, runny and gooey on the semi-bitter spears tossed in truffle oil. Think of Elephant as adventure eating for jaded palates. The belly of this beast is on the menu, served with clams, sofrito, and thin Spanish noodles. The dish is an homage to the mountain-sea cuisine of Eastern Spain—the chewy, salty pork belly and briny clams clash at first, then establish a nuanced détente. The Chinatown steamed dumplings with blood sausage in ginger broth is along the same lines, the imported morcillo sausage’s metallic tang cut by the sweet note of the broth, infused with honey and soy.

A few personal favorites: One half of the “duck two ways” is messy-chunky duck rillettes on toast points; the other is a soft-boiled pickled egg on French lentils tossed in a light vinaigrette. (Reeve uses locally raised duck eggs, which, flavor-wise versus factory-framed chicken eggs, is like comparing Mozart to Madonna, or, better yet, The Clash to Green Day. It’s not just a matter of taste, but of subtly and complexity as well.) The steak tartare, made from ground filet mignon, is one of the least ambitious dishes on the menu and stays true to its classic preparation—Reeve substitutes hard-boiled for raw egg for a twist—but why mess with perfection? The snail toasts with bacon, mushrooms, leeks, and sherry cream are a close approximation of snail bisque, the snails a chewy vehicle for the sauce. The mixed swine-and-cheese plate is a sturdy standby to start: Try Reeve’s country pâté (the most recent incarnation a gooey chicken liver terrine) or the jamón serrano with some sheep’s milk Manchego.

The wine list reflects Elephant’s outsider philosophy, showcasing little known grapes—verdejo, grillo, mencia—from lesser-known appellations that bring quality to a lower price point. Reeve describes Elephant’s “ABC” credo: “Anything but Chardonnay, Chianti, or Cabernet.” The Can Feixes, Blanc Seleccio (2006), for instance, is a little known Catalonian white made primarily from parellada grapes that has a delicate lemon aroma with a fruity body and stony aftertaste, as if someone dropped pebbles in a decent Sauvignon Blanc. The small, 20-bottle list is focused on the southern Mediterranean, with every wine available by the glass, and no bottle over $40. “We wanted to make [the list] good, but poundable,” says Reeve, who chose wines not only for their ease of quaffing but also for their ability to play nice with the bright, quick flavors of his food. You won’t find any buxom Californian reds or buttery oaked whites at Elephant. The list is as iconoclastic as Elephant itself.

“What’s the point of trying to please everybody?” asks Reeve. “We can’t fit them in here anyway.”

310 Wall Street, Kingston
(845) 339-9310; www.elephantwinebar.com

Open from 3 to 10pm Tuesday through Thursday. Open from 3pm to midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

The intimate railroad-storefront space is a wood-ribbed hipster cave. The music, leaning heavily on Punk and New Wave, can be loud. A festive community clubhouse for the under-50 set.

Recommended Dishes
Roasted marrow bones, chorizo and chocolate, whipped salt cod crostini, duck two ways with French lentils, blood sausage dumplings in ginger broth, pork belly and clams, snail toasts, boquerones with salsa verde, sauteed steak heart.

A small, smart wine list consisting of little known grapes and producers from Spain, Italy, and France. Red or white sangria. One rotating draft beer, a half-dozen craft beers in the bottle. No hard liquor.

Price Range
Tapas vary in price from $4 to $12; panini, $7; specials from $12 to $25.

Credit Cards
Visa and Mastercard

Elephant does not take reservations.

Wheelchair access
Entrance, dining room, and restroom are on street level.

click to enlarge A leg of jamon serrano on a jamonera in the kitchen at Elephant - AMBER S. CLARK
  • Amber S. Clark
  • A leg of jamon serrano on a jamonera in the kitchen at Elephant
click to enlarge Inside Elephant - AMBER S. CLARK
  • Amber S. Clark
  • Inside Elephant
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