Restaurant Review: Artist's Palate in Poughkeepsie
The restaurant that kicked off the farm-to-table movement in the Hudson Valley
Take comfort: Lobster macaroni and cheese — a grown-up version of a childhood staple — at Artist’s Palate
Photographs by Teresa Horgan
My memory’s not what it used to be, but I quite vividly recall a dinner at Artist’s Palate soon after it opened on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street in 2006. We were there with friends to write a review for this magazine (read it here), so naturally we paid particular attention — but still, the experience was notable. For one, it was the first time any of us had encountered lobster mac and cheese (which was chosen by this magazine’s editors in 2008 as “best designer mac and cheese”). I remember we ate hearty wild boar; and fabulous duck confit ravioli; and stuffed breast of chicken that impressed the CIA chef-to-be who was with us. We liked the stylish room; we appreciated the good service. In all, it was a fun night out.
It’s well-known that a high percentage of new restaurants go bust quite quickly. Whatever the formula for success, opening a place in an iffy neighborhood is probably not part of it. So it was a brave move when chefs Charles Fells and Megan Kulpa, undeterred by boarded-up storefronts nearby, launched Artist’s Palate in a building that once housed the ritzy M. Schwartz clothing store. (“My suit for church and my Boy Scout uniform came out of this building,” says Fells, a Poughkeepsie native. “There’s a big piece of me here.”) Over the past eight years, other ventures on Main Street have come and gone, and we’ve all been clobbered by the recession. Fells and Kulpa got married, and had a baby, Olivia. And Artist’s Palate endures.
We’ve often been back for lunch, but hadn’t journeyed from our side of the river for another dinner until we were assigned to see how things were holding up. “Compare some of the same dishes,” my editor suggested. So off we went, on a frigid night, in hopes of the same agreeable experience we’d had before.
Family business: Above, a view of the restaurant’s modern interior; below, owners Charles Fells and Megan Kulpa, along with daughter Olivia
The interior, designed by architect Alan Baer, feels buzzy and modern thanks to a mix of vintage and industrial materials, with sleek furnishings and a distinctive bar by Jeff Johnson. The original ornate tin ceiling is intact. One long wall is brick, banded by mirror; the facing wall, with pearly alcoves framed in slate gray, serves as a gallery for a changing display of works by local artists. You can watch Megan, in her trademark baseball cap, bopping competently around the open kitchen in the rear. Everything looks fresh, too, not least because the paint gets a full touch-up every few months. (“I put in 12 years in the military,” Fells says. “I’m very particular.”)
It’s a nice room to be in with an energy that suits all ages, and lighting flattering enough that even if you’re facing the mirror, it’s not too jarring. (Or so my husband tells me; I draw the line at watching myself eat.)
The New American menu is creative but not a challenge to navigate, and the food is presented in an appealing way without being chichi. “We don’t put anything on the plate with tweezers,” says Fells. Many of the dishes we enjoyed eight years ago are still on the roster, which changes every couple of weeks. The signature lobster mac and cheese, fried tofu, Caesar salad, onion soup, and the charcuterie plate are fixtures. Many meats come from heritage breeds, and game has been a constant, with exotics showing up from time to time. You might find boar, kangaroo, or yak, but Burmese python made a single appearance. “Never again,” Fells says with a wry laugh. “I did it for a wine dinner, cooked it for 14 hours, and it was like eating a shoe.”
The wine list has grown into something Fells is rightly proud of. “We’ve broadened our horizons, and added a whole Bordeaux list, and some phenomenal wines from small producers in California, Oregon, and Washington State,” he says. “They’re approachable and priced right — we want people to choose something they haven’t had before.” There’s an array of cocktails, of course, and if you’re in a beer mood, you can choose from six draughts and 20-something by the bottle. The “must try” beers are noted on the drinks menu.
You can often judge a restaurant by the quality of the bread they trot out. Here, the staple is a good Italian white, sliced thick, grilled, and served with a delicious sun-dried tomato pesto. You could easily fill up on it. (“That’s why we wait until you order before we bring it to you,” Fells remarks.)
That night’s amuse bouche, served on a Japanese soup spoon, was a morsel of goat cheese, fig jam, and pancetta layered on a nickel-sized piece of pita bread. It delivered a surprising amount of flavor, considering its teeny size.
Simply satisfying: The heritage-breed pork chop (above) is grilled and served with sautéed Tuscan kale. Sheepshead — also known as convict fish (below) — comes with braised white beans and stemperata
We were sharing appetizers, and wanted one of them to be light and un-wintry. The tuna tartare with wakame salad and wonton crisps proved just right. A generous portion of silky tuna, served on an oblong slate platter, came with a dainty helping of well-spiced wakame salad along with crispy, slightly salty, wonton skins — a pleasing mix of flavors and textures.
Duty demanded that we resample the famed Maine lobster mac and cheese. Tiny pasta shells studded with little chunks of lobster came bathed in a mild Fontina cheese sauce — a grown-up comfort dish that had me cooing, although I couldn’t discern the sherry drizzle on top. Is it an in-house invention? “I’m sure there were versions somewhere, but we’d never seen it before,” Fells replies.
No wild boar that evening, but the venison was a treat. Because it’s so lean, venison can be dry, but these two hefty rounds of tenderloin were done to a perfectly juicy medium-rare, and came dressed in a well-balanced demi-glace. With delicious roasted fingerlings and sautéed beet and carrot tops on the side, it was essentially a meat and potatoes dish, made special by its execution.
The lamb bolognese was highly recommended by our friendly young server, who assured us that leftovers are equally good next day. This turned out to be true — and, by the way, if you don’t want such a chatty relationship with the help, it’s easily discouraged; they appear trained to follow diners’ cues. Fresh, delightfully slippery pappardelle noodles are made in-house; the ample bolognese sauce was aromatic and truly tasty, although I’d have liked the ground lamb a little better integrated into the sauce. But it was the restaurant’s first night after a short winter break, so perhaps cooking time was shortened.
To finish, we nibbled our way through the dessert sampler, which was an assortment of pretty confections: a lovely apple crisp; a creamy-crunchy crème brûlée; a divine flourless chocolate cake, and a tangy lemon torte. Mmmmm, to put it mildly.
Here’s the verdict: Main Street may still be a little ragged around the edges, but Artist’s Palate remains a consistently bright spot, serving terrific food in a convivial setting. And that’s certainly part of the formula for success.
If you go...