Just over the Jersey border

Eating in Philadelphia: Parc and oysters and white wine

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There was no doubt about it. I knew Parc (shit music autoplay alert!) was a completely uninspired choice for a meal, especially given Philadelphia's phenomenal food scene. But, it was our first afternoon in Philadelphia, we had just rolled into town, it was a beautiful day, we wanted to sit outside, the idea of a seafood tower was appealing, and we were staying in the Rittenhouse Square area. Given this set of circumstances, Parc seemed as good a choice as any.

Thinking about it, I can't recall a time that we've been in Philly and not stopped into Parc. Typically for a drink and to take a load off.  A lively and large Parisian-style bistro, outdoor seating for as far as the eye can see, with a great view of Rittenhouse Square, there's much to draw your attention to this Stephen Starr restaurant. As much as I try to avoid Starr restaurants, as to my mind they are cookie-cutter contrived affairs--and some are--, they tend to be well-run and can be quite decent. Parc seems to be no exception in this regard.

With no seats available outside, the hostess took my cell number and said she'd text when one opened up. Perfect. We went next door to Devon Seafood Grill, which I have come to learn is a small chain, to have a drink. I've had some food and drinks here in the past, and thought it was just fine for what it is. Anyway, before we could order a drink the text came in from Parc, so back we went to claim our spot facing Rittenhouse Square.

This is riveting stuff here, I know. I'll get on with it.

But first, a cocktail....

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New York Italian Style Bakery: Tomato Pie in Philadelphia, PA

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On our way out of Philadelphia, we stopped at New York Italian Style Bakery to get a few slices of tomato pie. I knew I was going to try a slice when I got in the car. I didn't think I'd be eating two in quick succession. Maybe the excitement stemmed from this being my first experience with tomato pie (a style of pizza that seems to be unique to Philadelphia and its suburbs), but this pie really made an impression on me.

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We would have never considered this stop or knew about New York Italian Style Bakery if not for a conversation with a lovely bartender at the pretty-damed-good Lolita during lunch one afternoon. We got to talking about food, as I do, and she recommended this small bakery that makes bread, and also this tomato pie. "Just get a few slices and bring them back to the hotel for later tonight," we were advised. That sounded like a fine idea, but once I saw they open at 6 am on Sunday, stopping on the way home seemed like an even better idea. Now I can't imagine visiting Philly without incorporating this stop into the itinerary.

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They are giving this stuff away. A slice (about 6 inches in length) is about $1.50. We got four, and the pleasant girl dutifully laid two slices together, sauce side to sauce side. The other two packed into the paper the same way, perfect for taking this stuff to go. Indeed, there is nowhere to sit at New York Italian Bakery. It's a strictly to-go operation. And don't expect a hot slice from the oven. It seems that this pizza is served room temp.

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I tried a slice as soon as we got into the car (well, soon after I laid the slices on the backseat and snapped a few shots). Frankly I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed that first slice. As we were making our way to the Turnpike, I couldn't get it out of my head. I finally caved and had to grab a second slice. It was, just as good as the first.

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Straight Up New York Craft Spirits Festival: Warwick, NY

 

 
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It was a beautiful day, and the idea of trying some cider and wine and gin at Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery seemed like the most perfect way to spend an hour. After a great lunch at The Grange, we headed on over to the winery.

As we pulled in, there were a few parking guys who asked "Are you here for the [inaudible to me] or the winery." Well, I was there for the winery, so that's what I said. I figured the inaudible part was a wedding or something. "Just park over there then." As I started pulling away, the missus turns to me and says "distillery event?"

"Wait, what?!?!?!?!" I threw the car into reverse and backed right the hell up. I got so excited I'm not even sure I looked in the rear-view mirror.

"Distillery event!?!?!?" I frantically asked the guy. "Yeah, there's a distillery event up on the hill. Twenty distillers, live music, food."

"Uhh, yeah, we're now here for that."

It's a good thing my wife's ears work better than mine, or we would have completely missed the first Straight Up New York Craft Spirits Festival.  And this was an event not to be missed (although you probably did). Indeed, even a more perfect way to spend an hour (or two) than the cider-wine-gin thing I was looking forward to at the winery.

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We paid the admission fee ($40), got our little glasses, and entered the tent. Distillers lined both sides, as far as the eye could see (probably an exaggeration--in addition to my ears, my eyes suck, too). We were giddy.

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Lao Dong Bei: Chinese in Flushing, NY

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There's no shortage of Sichuan food in New Jersey. And we've also got a good number of Shanghainese restaurants. But if you're looking to explore Chinese cuisine outside of those two regions, for the most part you're going to have to look elsewhere. Thankfully, that elsewhere isn't all that far. It's Queens, New York.

Somewhat related, I don't think it would be very difficult to make the argument that Queens has the most diverse food scene in all of the country. Or the world.

Back to Chinese food...

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Craft House: Gastropub in Suffern, NY

Craft house brussels sprouts

It's a rare thing for me to spend more time going over the beer and wine lists than going over the food menu. That's what we found ourselves doing for the first ten minutes at Craft House, the new "gastropub" in Suffern, NY. With glee.

Craft house wine list
Craft house wine list

The wine and beer list immediately grabbed our attention. In my part of the world, cookie-cutter wine lists are the norm. Craft House's wine list is anything but cookie-cutter. In keeping with Craft House's "local" ethos, many of the wines are from New York State (mostly the Finger Lakes region). Also represented are Austria, Spain, and Portugal. Thank you, person who put together this list.

The beers? Local as well. In fact all of the draft offerings were from New York State. Knowing little about beer, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to learn by drinking many. I mean to say, order a flight of four.

Craft house beer

Two of the four of the flight made a very big impression. The Keslo Industrial IPA (10%) was the monster you'd expect it to be. A huge hoppy beast, with a nose which reminded me of walking through a flower shop. It's amusing to me that something that smells so pretty can knock you on your ass. 

Awestruck hibiscus ginger cider

On the other end of the spectrum was the Awestruck Hibiscus-Ginger cider. Ciders are more like wine than beer, I've come to conclude. Yet for years I dismissed cider as some sort of crap for people who don't like beer. It didn't occur to me until a trip to Applewood Winery in Warwick, NY--where I first tried their Naked Flock cider--that cider is a complex, compelling drink, and one which pairs wonderfully with food. This Awestruck business fit squarely into that mold. The color is irresistible. Taking your first sip you're confronted with lots of acid balancing out a bit of sweet. Not much more than a hint of ginger in this one, leaving me wanting a little more of that spicy kick. I often compare ciders to German Rieslings: acid, fruit (apple), and a bit of sweetness. Perfect for morning drinking, summer drinking, and spicy food. This Awestruck cider is no different.

We would have been perfectly happy sipping wine and beer and cider and whiling the afternoon away, but there was eating to be done. We were looking forward to the food, knowing Chef Levy can cook. He first made an impression ten years ago, when he opened RoCCA in Glen Rock, NJ. It was time to get on with it.

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Eating in Philadelphia: Abe Fisher: Jewish cuisine

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It's a rare occurrence that every single aspect of a restaurant and every element of our experience resonates deeply with me. I'm here to tell you that Abe Fisher, in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philly, presented one of those occurrences.

Somehow this restaurant, which serves food "inspired by the cuisine of the Jewish diaspora," didn't come up during our pre-Philly-trip planning. Had it not been for a morning walk to Dunkin' Donuts (the missus likes the iced tea there, what can I tell you), we would have totally missed out on Abe Fisher. She noticed the restaurant during that walk, and from the street saw kitchen staff hard at work, early in the morning. After some quick research, we knew we had to give this place a shot.

The extent of my experience with Jewish food pretty much starts and ends at pastrami on rye. I haven't enjoyed much else. Lox on bagels? Not my thing. Smoky fish? Nope. Why? I have no idea. But I've never warmed up to the cuisine. And, I'm not a big fan of dill.

Everything I wrote in the above paragraph, I'm happy to report, can now be retired, and shoved into the ignorant pit of despair that is my past. I feel reborn, thanks to Abe Fisher.

We arrived about 45 minutes early for our reservation, hoping there would be some room at the bar (at which there are about 10 stools). No luck. After mentioning to the hostess that we were hoping for a bar spot, but would come back at our scheduled reservation time, she cheerfully suggested that she could text me when the bartender drops the next check. Right through OpenTable, apparently. Off we went for a quick drink down the block. After a quick 15 minutes we got the text that the bar had opened up a bit, at which point we broke into somewhat of a jog back to the restaurant. I was intent on not losing this bar spot.

With two bar stools secured (and secured, to the floor, which I like), we got to it. The bartender was super friendly, offered the menu (which contains everything), said she'd answer any questions, asked if we wanted still or sparkling water (house-made) and presented a carafe of our choice, and asked what we wanted to drink. We were immediately feeling comfortable and well-taken care of. This is how all transactions should start.

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Let's talk about cocktails. First, they're all 12 bucks. Nice and easy. Second, the list had only a single vodka-based cocktail. So, right away, I was pleased. The rest of the concoctions relied on interesting spirits. You know, like rum and tequila and rye and bourbon and Scotch. Scotch. You don't see many Scotch cocktails, and I like Scotch about as much as I thought I liked Jewish food.  Well, at least that's what I thought.

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Best dishes: of 2014. Some were even in New Jersey.

Everyone loves a list. Especially when it contains pictures and brief, vague descriptions of food that someone else ate over the course of a year. Someone you don't even know. I mean come on. That's about as bad as suffering through a slide show of a coworker's vacation. But that won't stop me.

This is a list of the most memorable and exceptional dishes that my body processed into p**p during 2014.



Ramen
Ramen Sora
Las Vegas, NV

Ramen sora spicy

I have to think this was my first “real” ramen experience. I guess I've had ramen in the past, but never gave it the serious consideration that it deserves. Ramen Sora changed my opinion on ramen, and got me thinking about it, a lot. Ramen just may be the perfect dish. Those gyoza were no slouches either.


Spaghetti with fennel pollen sausage and Calabrian chiles

Local Seasonal Kitchen
Ramsey, NJ

Spaghetti

I've been a big fan of Chef Steve Santoro since the late 90s, when he was producing fantastic and exciting food at the long-gone Dish in Passaic, NJ. He left Dish, and disappeared from New Jersey, for a good amount of time. I figured he'd never return. Recently, he did return to open the awkwardly-named Local Seasonal Kitchen. And once again he's producing fantastic and exciting food. At first bite I knew this dish would be on some sort of “best” list. And whaddayaknow, I was right. Clean clean flavors of spice, meat, and heat. Awwwww, yeah.


Cheeseburger
The Black Pig
Cleveland, OH

Black pig burger

I'm still thinking about this burger. It remains one of the best burgers that I've had. Anywhere. DB Bistro Moderne, The Spotted Pig, Blue Smoke, Minetta Tavern, J.G. Melon. All of them take a backseat to this burger. Cooked to a juicy medium rare, an appropriate and delicious bun, house-made pickles, great melted cheese. The execution was flawless, and the burger simply outstanding. I hate this picture because it mocks me. It sits there, and mocks me, as I cannot eat it right now.
 

Chilean Seabass
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

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Everything about this dish screams 1990s. The fish itself, the potato wrapped shrimp, the vaguely Asian preparation. But maybe the 90s weren't so bad after all? That potato wrapped shrimp, which I assumed would be a throw-away garnish, was excellent in its own right. Maybe nostalgia plays into it, but this dish is really fun. And visually appealing. Chef Ciszak is doing some very good work at Chakra. You and I should be going there more often than we do.


Ox tongue and tripe
Joyce Chinese Cuisine
River Edge, NJ

Tongue and tripe

A newcomer to the North Jersey Sichuan scene in 2014, and Joyce is bringing the goods. Their version of ox tongue and tripe is a good a version as I've had anywhere, with the added bonus of being slightly better for some reason I cannot explain. A great restaurant overall.   


Fat Gangnam Boy Hero
Kimchi Smoke BBQ
NJ-based Southern and Korean BBQ vendor

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That Kimchi fella is apparently known for his brisket, but don't let this sandwich slip through your paws. Bulgogi, pickled vegetables, scallions, processed American cheese, BBQ sauce, on a perfect hero roll. This thing is silly-good. Next time, I'll make sure a get a cold beer from neighboring vendor, which would just go so very, very perfectly.


Fish with carrots
Le Relais Des Trois Mas
Collioure, France

Fish at hotel

We had fun listening to the server describe this multi-component dish for 10 minutes, each of which had carrots incorporated some how some way. “Blah blah wis a puree of carrots, blah blah scented wis, ehhh, carrots, the feesh is blah blah wis carrots, a small glass of juice, made wis, ehhhh, carrots.” He wrapped up his explanation in his best possible English, sounding exhausted from saying “carrots” so many times, with “it's just a lot of carrots.” It's a good thing we like carrots. And sichuan peppercorn, which, to our surprise, made its way into one of the components.

The dish was a work of art. The view, sitting at Le Relais Des Trois Mas, overlooking the bay at Collioure, topless sunbathers and all, was glorious. This restaurant was very, very good. And every one of those carrots was perfect. I should also note that the hotel is just lovely as well.


Cassoulet (and ravioli)
Auberge du Vigneron
Cucugnan, France

Cassoulet Auberge du Vigneron ravioli

If you find yourself tooling around the Pyrenees, exploring ancient Cathar castles, and why wouldn't you, you'd do well to stop in the small commune of Cucugnan, nestled in the shadow of Chateau de Queribus. There didn't seem to be a whole lot going on in this tiny, tiny place, but Auberge du Vigneron is well worth a stop. Or even a detour. Especially if treacherous mountain roads lacking safety rails are your thing.

It seems unfair to include two dishes from a single restaurant, especially when I couldn't figure out what made one of them so good, but I will anyway.

Not sure what the sauce on the ravioli was, but it was ethereal. Each of those ravioli was filled with a different meat product, including foie gras IIRC.

As for the cassoulet, well, what can I tell you. It was probably in the top 5 dishes of the year. Filled with various sausages and duck confit, this dish could have, and may have, warmed the stomachs of a Cathar slaughtering army. Hints of genocide never tasted so good.


Paella
Merendero de la Mari
Barcelona, Spain

Paella

It wasn't the only paella we ate in Catalonia, but it was first, and it confirmed my suspicions that what passes for paella in my part of the word is simply absolute crap. As I said here, “Every bite revealed a little piece of tender seafood or vegetable. Stuff I didn't recognize. I'm having a hard time thinking about this dish at this moment, because it was so outstanding, and I'm so hungry right now, and I know it will be some time until I have anything remotely as good as this. I don't know what else to say other than it was a revelation.”

 


Seppia
Gelonch
Barcelona, Spain

Speia

Gelonch wasn't the only place where we had seppia that was sliced into pasta-like ribbons during a trip to Barcelona, but it was my favorite. Linguini's got nothing on seppia. If anyone knows where to get a seppia ribbon-maker, or seppia for that matter, do let me know.


Slow roasted salmon
Cucina
Woodstock, NY

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I rarely order salmon, because typical Atlantic salmon is largely unexceptional. Wild Pacific salmon in season, of course, is an entirely different beast, and should be ordered whenever it's available. The slow-roasted salmon with corn pudding at Woodstock's Cucina, however, made me rethink everything I thought I knew.


Scallops
Escape Montclair
Montclair, NJ

Escape scallops

Chef Bryan Gregg has continued to impress the hell out of me in 2014. His commitment to seasonal, pristine ingredients squares nicely with the way I like to eat. One brunch at Escape included three scallops over corn. I believe this dish captured the essence of Escape Montclair. Simple, pure, perfect. A proper brunch, indeed.


Cauliflower ravioli
The Cookery
Dobb's Ferry, NY

The Cookery cauliflower ravioli

The Cookery has really impressed me with some dishes, while others have landed a bit flat. The cauliflower ravioli was one that impressed. Brown butter, of course.

 


Lion's Head Meatballs
Fu Restaurant
Fairfield, NJ

Lions head meatballs

A new Shanghainese restaurant in New Jersey, brought to you by the folks who run the excellent Chengdu 23 in Wayne. Maybe it was due to the fact taht I hadn't had this dish in close to 6 years, but diving into the Lion's Head meatballs were like nuzzling into the soft bosom of an old lover. Or something like that.


Cocktails
Stockade Tavern
Kingston, NY

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Stockade Tavern is a world-class cocktail bar run by a super nice husband and wife team. Every cocktail I had during various visits was interesting, mostly new-to-me, and eye-opening. There's a lot of craftsmanship here. No messing about. They've got ingredients that I've not so much as heard of, which is not easy to pull off. This is a great experience, and not to be missed. I cannot envision a time when I'll be near Kingston and not make time to spend an hour or two at Stockade Tavern.


Cocktails
Park West Tavern
Ridgewood, NJ

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80s cheesy laser treatment courtesy of Duong L.


Andrew at Park West Tavern continues to grow and push the envelope with his cocktails. I rarely order anything specific here, and given my status as a semi-regular irregular, he generally has time to surprise me.  Just recently I had a new concoction. My comment after the first few sips was the somewhat absurd “this tastes like Christmas.” "That's what I was going for," he replied. Impressive.


Anchovies
Casa Leon
Collioure, France

Casa leon collioure anchovies

Collioure is known for anchovies. It has been argued that the world's best anchovies come from the waters here. Who am I to argue? I didn't even think I liked anchovies until eating them during almost every meal during a visit to this colorful, beautiful coastal town in the south of France. Before I left, I was a convert. Anchovies are magical.

Casa Leon is a lovely little restaurant serving pristine seafood, local wine, and, thankfully, anchovies. This plate of anchovies stood out, and went quite well with the bottle of Collioure rosé. Seek out Collioure AOC wines. You may be quite pleased.


Clams
Los Toreros
Barcelona, Spain

Los Toreros clams

Clams aren't generally my thing, but the big bowl of sweet, tender, briny clams at Los Tereros in Barcelona filled me with joy, and reinforced my understanding of simple Catalan cooking. Los Toreros is a quaint, not-very-touristy Barcelona gem.


Northern Style larb
Lotus of Siam
Las Vegas, NV

Lotus of siam northern larb
This horrible photo hurts my eyes. Sorry.


I haven't missed an opporunity to visit Lotus of Siam since my first visit in 2002 or so. When we returned this year, we were surprised to see the place has more than doubled in size. And it is more popular than ever. So much for a little hidden secret.

The selection of German wines remains impressive (and those wines go perfectly with the spicy Thai food), and the Northern-style larb remains delicious. And powerful. This dish is much different than the typical larb you'll find on most Thai menus. It's a deep, dark, rich, masculine affair, probably made with some liver and blood, and doesn't include the acidic bit that its cousin does. And boy oh boy, is it spicy. If you go to Lotus of Siam, consider their separate Northern-style menu, which is filled with rare and exciting treats.


House-cured pork with leeks
Lan Sheng
Wallington, NJ

Lan sheng smoked pork

A version of this dish can be found at most Sichuan restaurants, but I recall really, really enjoying the dish at Lan Sheng. Slightly smoky, a bit salty, pure and porky. Lan Sheng's liquor license will likely keep me from ever returning, but if I do, I'll order this dish again.


Fried chicken
Peck Peck Chicken
Teaneck, NJ

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2014 marked the start of a more serious exploration of Korean food at the t:e organization. While one might foolishly dismiss fried chicken wings as being nothing more than a snack, Korean fried chicken is certainly one of Korea's greatest gifts to our collective food culture. Move over, southern states.



Crab cake
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

Chakra crabcake

Two dishes on this list from Chakra, a restaurant to which I really haven't given much consideration over the years? I'm more surprised than you. There's not denying the crab cake at Chakra is the tops.  The dish is perfect, right down to the lightly dressed snow pea shoots. There's a bit too much vodka on their cocktail menu, though.



Pasta with clams
Confetti
Piermont, NY

Confetti clams linguini

It's not easy finding a decent plate of pasta with clams in the North Jersey area. It's really not. All of those Italian-American restaurants really don't do a very good job.  Most versions suffer from any number of flaws. But not the dish at Confetti. It should be the standard to which all other restaurants aspire. Beautifully and functionally plated, as well.



House-made sausage
Mill House Brewing Company
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mill house sausage

As I've noted, several times, Mill House Brewing Company has really impressed me. Elevated pub grub, great cocktails, excellent staff, a beautiful room. Every town needs a Mill House Brewing Company.  The house-made sausage made an appearance on my plate on our most recent visit. Juicy, flavorful, cooked just north of that's-too-raw, and a great version of bangers and mash.



Breakfast taco
Destino II Cart Tacos at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market
Rhinebeck, NY

Destino taco

On a whim and just because, I ordered a breakfast taco from Destino II during a quick run-through of the Rhinebeck farmers' market. And I'm glad I did. Was this a perfect breakfast taco? I don't have much experience with breakfast tacos, but I'd venture to say “yes, this was a perfect breakfast taco.” Fluffy eggs, ground chorizo, fresh corn tortillas, hot sauce, salsa. What's not to LOVE.

 

So there you have it. I'm sorry I put you through that. I hope this helps someone, somewhere, at some point.


tommy:eats is a freelance food writer, photographer and curmudgeon, based in North Jersey. When not making lists he can usually be found putting together slide shows of his trips.



Mill House Brewing: Poughkeepsie, NY: another great meal

Mill house sausage

It's becoming a habit. Whenever we're near Poughkeepsie, we stop at Mill House Brewing Company. We do this because the place is simply outstanding.

Our first visit made a real impression on us, and we were looking forward to returning. A recent trip to the Catskills gave us a reason to jump on 87 and detour across the river for lunch. We were a bit hesitant, only because the first meal was so exceptional. Too often, a second trip doesn't live up to the first. I'm here to tell you that this was not the case at Mill House. Our second meal was outstanding as well.

I think I said it all in my first post, so I won't repeat myself or go on too long. I did, however, fail to mention (or notice) the outlets under the bar. Along with hooks for bags, there are outlets. I love this attention to detail.

Here's a quick and dirty run-down of our recent meal:

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Eating in Hudson Valley: Cucina: Woodstock, NY: brunch done right

Cucina woodstock exterior and porch

Cucina was a restaurant that kept popping up in searches and when we were asking for advice on where to eat in/around Woodstock. Plenty of rave reviews everywhere we looked. Frankly, I was a little skeptical. Why would I want to eat "Italian" food in Woodstock? Didn't seem to make much sense to me. It probably still doesn't make much sense to me. However, we did stop at Cucina for "brunch" one afternoon, and were really impressed.

The place is really gorgeous. It's set in an old farmhouse, complete with a wrap-around porch (used for dining). The interior has been completely renovated--with more of a modern twist than you might expect. The front door leads into a large barroom, with a small lounge attached. On either side are dining rooms. The one to the right is quite large and runs the depth of the house. Lots of natural light flows in from all directions.

You can't eat the architecture, so let me get to the food.

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Mill House Brewing Company: Poughkeepsie, NY

Mil house brewery exterior

While I received some excellent recommendations from readers for a restaurant in the Rhinebeck/Kingston area, we landed on this newish brewpub in Poughkeepsie, which we found via google. Off we went.

Mill House Brewing Company is in a beautifully restored mill, with lots of exposed brick, a private room upstairs, a large bar, and outdoor seating on the second floor. And a parking lot, which is nice. A really sharp looking place. Take a look at what it looked like before:

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 4.08.04 PMImage courtesty of Google

Greeted by a large and bright bar, we grabbed two stools by the window and started reviewing the menus, with “We Built This City” on the soundsystem in the background. How the band that recorded that God-awful dreck is even remotely related to the band that recorded “Miracles” is beyond me. Thankfully the 80s music that was on quickly segued into excellent stuff like Squeeze and Dexys Midnight Runners and INXS.

Mill house brewery bar booze copy

While I fully expected to see a focus on beer, what with this being a brewpub and all, I was a surprised to see such a thoughtful cocktail program. The selection of booze was well beyond that of an average restaurant. It was exceptional. Fresh juices, infused syrups, barrel aged cocktails—someone gave the cocktails deep consideration. And I'm not one to let that attention to the good stuff go to waste. Those beer-drinking heathens don't know what they're missing.  We got right to it...

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