Sophisticated — and Satisfying

Woodstock’s Red Onion offers diners healthy portions of internationally inspired bistro fare in a casual-but-fun setting



It’s Friday night, late summer, and the joint is jumping. It’s a cheery looking place, a large farmhouse flanked by trees and shrubbery, set back off leafy Route 212 on that stretch of road where Woodstock morphs into Saugerties. A few diners on the broad front porch, looking as though they’d spilled out of a packed house party, are enjoying the last of the day’s sunshine.

Step through the door and you leave bucolic behind. The red-glazed walls and the slim, black-clad servers; the low lighting; and the buzz at Red Onion all signal nightlife, easy sophistication, conviviality, and fun. The relaxed crowd is the usual eclectic Hudson Valley mix of weekenders and locals — some dressed up and some dressed down — spiced with a sprinkling of Woodstock chic.

The center of the action is in the bar dining room which is flanked by two other dining areas where the softly enfolding din — restrained enough for relatively easy conversation — is slightly less noticeable. Red Formica tables throughout let you know this a venue with no pretensions, while a display of mysterious large-format black and white photographs confirm that they’re serious about style.

The Red Onion opened in the summer of 2002 and whatever kinks it might have once had were smoothed out long ago: We’re greeted, seated, presented with menus, and have our drinks order taken in a matter of minutes.

Red Onion wild Artic char gravlax

Fish story: Red Onion’s house-cured wild Arctic char gravlax (top) is paired with American caviar, “baby” latkes, sour cream, and a hard-cooked egg

Sweet and savory: Beets from Tivoli’s Migliorelli Farm are roasted and tossed with shaved fennel, ricotta salata, red onion, fresh mint, and a citrus vinaigrette (below)Red Onion beet dish

The bar offers quite a few cocktails, ranging from classic to trendily dramatic, and 10 well-chosen wines are available by the glass. The intriguing wine list is about 100 vintages deep (including dessert wines and bubbly), with a dozen or so priced below $40.

Chef/owner Kevin Katz describes his fare as “international bistro cuisine” and the menu backs him up. International is represented, on this visit, by flavors and inspirations from Thailand, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Italy, and the good old U.S.A. The bistro aspect comes across in the vibrancy, hearty portions, and attractive but un-fussy presentation.

We tell the waitress that we’re first-time diners and ask her to steer us toward the real crowd-pleasers. My wife is partial to mussels and chef Katz must be too, as there are three versions of mussel appetizer to choose from, as well as a Thai shrimp and mussel soup. (Now that I think of it, mussels seem to be showing up on more and more Valley menus.) Under advisement, we opt for cast-iron skillet mussels, which are a revelation. We’re used to the steamed sort, a dish in which the broth usually takes equal billing with the mollusks. Skillet roasting concentrates the flavor, and although the mussels naturally dry out a bit, their accompanying butter and lemon dipping sauce more than makes up for it. Of course, a cone of crispy French fries with aïoli dipping sauce is a must with mussels, and these are flat-out great. They’re not French style “frites,” but chunky, hand-cut chips with plenty of flavor and crunch.

Spicy Thai beef salad is a house favorite, we were told, and now it’s a favorite of mine. An intense explosion of cilantro with hints of mint is balanced by deep flavor notes of silky, tender filet mignon to make a dish that borrows unashamedly from its ethnic source but takes it a happy step further.

Red Onion chef and owner, Kevin KatzRed Onion chef/owner, Kevin Katz

For entrées we continued in the beef-and-fish vein: My wife ordered seared jumbo sea scallops, and I went for the grilled ribeye steak. The scallops were jumbo indeed, arranged like plump little pillows around a mound of creamy risotto that was rich with porcini mushrooms and generously studded with chunks of asparagus. It was a very pleasing combination, with the earthiness of the mushrooms contrasting well with that slightly sweet taste of the sea you find in truly fresh scallops. A dollop of red wine reduction and a hint of truffle oil lent complexity to the dish.

The ribeye had a jumbo quality of its own. The thumping huge hunk of steak, hemmed in by a creamy white mountain of whipped potato and an equally large helping of sautéed spinach, would be a challenge to most appetites. I would have liked more of a steakhouse char on the beef, but a well-balanced bleu cheese butter and red wine sauce filled in any of the flavor that wasn’t achieved on the grill.

Sated as we were, we felt duty-bound to try one of Red Onion’s famed desserts. The ever-helpful waitress recommended affogato, a simple Italian classic that we could easily manage between us. The scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream drowned in a shot of espresso and a wallop of Amaretto proved the perfect ending, providing dessert, coffee, and after-dinner drink in one heady package.

Our only disappointment of the evening was that we hadn’t come with friends so that we could sample more of the menu, on which just about everything looked to be a winner.

Red Onion Restaurant & Bar
1654 Rte. 212 at Glasco Tpke., Saugerties
845-679-1223 or www.redonionrestaurant.com
Dinner nightly from 5-10 p.m., closed Wednesday until Labor Day. Appetizers and salads range from $6-$13; entrées from $13 (for a hamburger) to $28

 

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