If you listen to local radio station WKZE, then you’ve heard James Chapman, the Rhinecliff Hotel’s dapper owner and impresario…and his unmistakable British accent.
Tongue-in-cheek, Chapman hams it up while hawking the Rhinecliff’s myriad events over the airwaves, from the “Iron Grad” culinary competition among local chefs, and Karl Allweier’s Tuesday Open Mic Night, to, say, a Robert Burns dinner (complete with haggis); nor are we allowed to forget “The Famous Sunday Jazz Brunch.” Got a gap in your schedule? The Rhinecliff can fill it.
What is easy to forget, amid such a flurry of activities and special events, is the Rhinecliff’s restaurant, naturally called “The Bar” (British humor, I suppose), and its brasserie-style food.
On a recent — and event-free — Monday evening, Kathryn and I stopped into The Rhinecliff for dinner.
Inside, the decor is more British pub than French brasserie, with a handsome oak bar, wide-plank hemlock floors, cheery photograph-covered yellow walls and chunky pine tables salvaged from old beams during the extensive five-year, $5 million renovation James and his brother, David Chapman, oversaw (the Rhinecliff re-opened under the Chapmans in 2008). A notable recent improvement: the interior dining room used to have a partition in the middle, but that has wisely been removed, improving the flow of the space. The attractive stone fireplace at the back of the rectangular room remains a big attraction during the colder months.
At the end of August, however, the covered fieldstone patio beckoned, albeit with reservations on our part… about mosquitoes. Yes, Kathryn is a mosquito magnet, and the river is a stone’s throw away. The staff quickly brought over citronella candles and produced a spray bottle of “Off!” Fully armed, we passed the evening (mostly) unscathed, and enjoyed dining al fresco, punctuated by the rumble of the occasional train arriving at the adjacent Rhinecliff station.
Chapman has always been a ubiquitous, fun-loving front-of-the-house presence. But where was James on this night? Cooking, actually, because he now oversees the kitchen, too. A long-time restaurant veteran, both front and back of the house, James can—and does—do it all. And the comparatively streamlined menu truly reflects James’ background and sensibility: classic British pub fare, like the Ploughman’s Board (with local cheeses and house-made paté), bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), and Continental favorites, like steamed mussels, pan-seared salmon and penne pomodoro. Plus, classic desserts—lots of them.
From a roster of salads, Kathryn ordered mixed local greens, simply garnished with ribbons of carrot and thinly sliced rounds of cucumber and radish. Though not her preferred style of salad, all the ingredients were clearly fresh, and married well with a bright, citrusy vinaigrette. My chilled melon and cucumber soup (cup $5; bowl $8) was really a gazpacho in disguise—sans tomato. Emerald green and garnished with fresh mint, every spoonful was intensely refreshing, almost effervescent, with a spicy bite on the finish, a perfect late-summer first course. Turns out, some of James’ special ingredients in this soup include crumbled white bread, sparkling water and unnamed spices.
The Rhinecliff uses local produce in season and local meats, when possible. Kathryn went for the most “local” dish you can have on the menu—from pickle to patty—“The Burger” ($15). We have discovered many good burgers in the Hudson Valley, but this one, made from Meiller Farm grass-fed beef from Pine Plains and topped with Sprout Creek Farm cheddar, gets high marks. Kathryn offered me a bite—but only one!
I decided to go classic pub grub and ordered the Whitby Bay fish & chips ($16), deep-fried beer-battered cod, accompanied by home-cut fries, malt vinegar (naturally), lemon and tartar sauce. I’m always tempted by the idea of fish and chips, but more often than not, it’s too bland for me. While the cod was pleasingly crisp, I don’t fancy tartar sauce; and I needed something more than malt vinegar to wake up the dish (and my palate). Then, I spotted the horseradish sauce that came with Kathryn’s burger. Eureka! It was exactly what the fish needed for piquant bite (sorry, traditionalists!). A glass of Pacific Rim Riesling ($9) was the right call; its good acidity cut right through all that deep-fried batter.
In its many lives, The Rhinecliff has always been a popular watering hole. That spirit clearly lives on, with a nice selection of tap and bottled beers (including Boddington’s on draft, of course), a full bar and cocktail menu, a generous wine-by-the-glass selection and an impressive wine list at fair prices. James knows how to run a bar as well.
Dessert is rather curious. The focus is on miniature desserts (like chocolate pot de crème and fresh fruit tartlets), whereby one order consists of five mini desserts ($6), selected by the restaurant with no substitutes, always including one ice cream or gelato. For two people – or to share – you get 10 desserts ($11), and it goes up in increments of five, all the way to 20. If this is too much sweetness to contemplate, you can order a single, “legendary” sticky toffee pudding ($7), ice cream or sorbet ($6) or Greek yogurt with fresh fruits, honey and nut ($7), which was our satisfying, not-so-sweet finale.
The Rhinecliff is a unique, quirky and unpretentious place, with a colorful history, a sense of fun and a straightforward, well-executed menu.
The Bar at The Rhinecliff
4 Grinnell Street
Mon-Sun: 8am-10am; 5pm-9pm
Sat-Sun Brunch: 10am-3pm