Restaurant Review: Oscar

Country cookin' at Ulster County's Oscar



Table Talk

 

Cozy cuisine in Kerhonkson

Oscar serves up country cookin' in a comfy, down-home atmosphere

By Lynn Hazlewood

 

With its shingled exterior, the roadhouse that is now Oscar restaurant in Kerhonkson, Ulster County, still looks like the old Ukrainian lodge it was when this neck of the woods flourished as part of the Borscht Belt. Until a couple of years ago, the place was known as the Log Cabin, dishing up hearty Eastern European and German food to locals and Minnewaska visitors who’d pile in after a day of hiking or hanging off the face of a cliff.

 

In August a couple of years ago, brothers Jesse Cummings and chef Bart Greenbaum took over, renamed the place Oscar (in memory of a little brother), and set out to live up to their motto: “Cozy Cuisine.” They brightened up the interior, but it’s still rustically comfy. If you go in winter, you get a warm welcome from a blazing fire that faces the door. The fireplace is flanked by bookcases, chairs and a couch where you can have a drink or eat dessert (or read a book, if you want). To the right of the dining room is an invitingly dark,’70s-style bar with a pool table, and pinball and Pac-Man machines.

 

Walls are wainscotted, pedestal tables in the dining room are of hand-hewn wood, and the napkins are paper, so the mood is casual. The water comes in canning jars with little handles, a rather heavy-handed folksy touch for the likes of me — sipping without slurping from a screw-top rim demands a technique I apparently lack. “Contemporary country cooking” declares the menu, but on a first visit you can’t help but wonder if a place this laid-back could deliver the kind of sophistication that’s now becoming the norm for the Valley.

 

The wine list features about 20 labels, with a focus on moderately priced wines from the southern hemisphere. More interesting — and somehow more fitting — was the well-chosen selection of beers. Kingston’s own Keegan Ales are on tap, and among other choices are a Yuengling lager from America’s oldest brewery, and a wonderfully chewy Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale from England. A good sign. Another was the background music: lots of ’30s Django Reinhardt Le Hot Club sounds setting a cheerfully gypsy-ish mood.

 

Any misgivings we had about food dissipated as we began eating. I started with steamed mussels, a heaping bowlful — I counted more than 30 and might have ordered the half portion if I’d known (although I’m a glutton for mollusks, so maybe not). These were sumptuous: plump, juicy, tender, and piled in an aromatic garlicky white-wine broth tinged with thyme and rosemary. Two triangles of homemade toasted garlic focaccia perched on the bowl were really tasty but not adequate to sop up all that broth, so I used a spoon. Off to a good start.

 

The Caesar salad was modest in flavor — not bland but not full of gusto, either, and anchovy fans might find it erring too far on the side of caution. But the creamy dressing, crisp leaves and crunchy croutons were an enjoyable mix of textures.

 

Short ribs, a ubiquitous and year-round dish these days, are made here with a coffee and Guinness reduction. Neither brew was discernible, but the sauce was deep, rich and satisfying, and the velvety meat was falling off the bones. The ribs came piled on a mound of creamy mashed potatoes just as comfort food should. Contemporary touches were the sprinkling of sautèed mirepoix (usually a blend of minced carrot, celery and onion, but this time including flecks of sweet red peppers) and sweet, blanched carrots. 

 

Perhaps given the history of the place, the excellence of the pierogi platter should have been no surprise. The deep-fried pierogi were delicious, with a silky, mildly spiced potato and cheese filling and a horseradish cream topping adding pizzazz. The braised red cabbage that accompanied them was cooked to that perfect point where it’s still slightly crisp but satiny and redolent — a far cry from the Eastern European boiled-to-a-pulp rendition that gave that fine vegetable a bad name. The spicy pork sausage lived up to its billing and was a very good contrast to the other tastes on the plate.

 

We finished up with an apple crumble, one of the five desserts on offer that evening. It came topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream; sweet, simple, old-fashioned, and just right.

 

The menu is surely broad enough to please anybody. Other “Big Dishes” that night included a pork chop and a hanger steak for modest prices. But if you want an even better deal, there’s a $15 prix-fixe dinner ($17.50 with dessert) that includes entrées like pasta fra diavolo with mussels and sausage, linguini carbonara, and salmon ravioli — all served with soup and a side dish.

 

“Little Dishes” for kids (or those who eat like a bird) are $5, with favorites like macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, and pizza on a homemade crust. There’s a vegan burger among the sandwiches, all served with fries; “Noonsies” (aka brunch dishes) include the Lumberjack Platter, a hefty plateful of scrambled eggs, braised greens, grilled potatoes, bacon and sausage. And for diehard bargain hunters there’s the $25 Bohemian Brunch on Sundays: all you can eat and drink, all day long. Sounds too good to be true, right? “Ask your server for limitations,” the menu advises. “It’s meant more as a promo,” says Jesse Cummings, but the only limits are that you order just from the brunch menu, which is served all day, and you’re allowed only three alcoholic drinks (after that it’s juice or soda). So yes, it’s a real deal.

 

With so many restaurants straining to do something new, it’s refreshing to find a relaxed retreat like Oscar. Here you can kick back and enjoy good, honest, carefully prepared food with a dash of sophistication — and at really reasonable rates. Cozy indeed. N

 

Oscar

5945 Route 44/55, Kerhonkson.
845-626-9838, www.oscarccc.com

Appetizers range from $4-$10; entrèes $15-$18; desserts $5; Kids' menu $5. Dinnner: 4-10 p.m. Mon, Tues, Thurs. to Sat; Brunch all day Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Weds. Reservations suggested.

 

Caption: An Oscar specialty dish: grilled lamb chops accompanied by mashed potatoes and grilled tomatoes with beet reduction sauce.

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