Michael and Vicky Zeph thought they were getting in on the ground floor when they leased a space in Peekskill’s old industrial section 10 years ago. The brother and sister team was taken with the handsome two-story brick building near the once bustling waterfront. A developer had drawn up extensive plans for new condos stretching down to the waterfront, private docks for boats, a prosperous new shopping area. Alas, the developer’s big dreams stayed…just dreams.
That would have been the death knell for many restaurants. But Vicky already had a reputation from her stints at other area restaurants, and her customers followed her to the new restaurant. “It wasn’t that hard to get started here,” says Michael, who presides over the front of the house with warmth and good humor. Customers knew the food would be good, so they came.
The surrounding blocks seem deserted, but Zephs’ cheerfully beckons with a flood of lights; you can’t miss it. From May through October, a small ornamental garden makes for a charming approach to the restaurant. Inside, the walls are painted a calming shade of medium green that lets you know you’ve entered an oasis of civility and comfort. Old-fashioned sconces made with deep green glass illuminate the wall, and wonderful old jazz tunes by “Satchmo” play loud enough to notice but soft enough to tune out.
Led by the affable Michael Zeph, the waitstaff here is exceedingly warm. A basket of very good foccacia and white peasant bread quickly appeared on our table, and the wine list soon followed. It has about 40 reasonably priced bottles, mostly from the U.S. The inexpensive but well-made wines of Australia’s Lindemans are available by the bottle or glass. Another nice feature is a couple of half-bottles, which we ordered. The Clos du Bois Chardonnay ($11) was crisp and oaky, and the Blackstone Merlot ($13) epitomized the softness that made this wine so popular.
A quick glance at the menu showed an international, eclectic approach to the appetizers and a more classic approach to the entrÃ©es. The selection is small—six appetizers, seven entrÃ©es and five desserts—but often that means that the ingredients will be at their best and the quality high.
Though many of the appetizers were described as “spicy,” a waitress told us that the only truly spicy one was baked oysters in a Mexican adobo sauce with ancho and chipotle peppers ($8). (The “spicy” label is just there to warn people who can’t take the barest hint of spiciness.)
Our waitress recommended the lamb manti ($7.75), a half-dozen “Armenian style-dumplings” stuffed with high-quality, mildly spiced ground lamb, and they were indeed delicious. They looked like won-tons sitting in a delicate tomato-flavored sauce, draped with sautÃ©ed spinach. The chickpeas were a nice addition. The dish came with a cool garlic yogurt sauce, but I enjoyed it without.
The goat cheese and pear “strudel” ($7.75) was less successful because the cheese melted inside the phyllo, the flavors were a little too simple, and the phyllo dough lacked the airy lift between layers. Other possibilities would have been the Vietnamese shrimp wrapped in a sweet potato fritter ($7.75) or caldo verde, the classic Portuguese kale and potato soup ($6).
For entrÃ©es, we again took our lead from the waitress. The menu is seasonal, and constantly changes but for one dish: the duck confit ($22). “It’s been on the menu for ten years,” she confided. “Some people come here just for that.” Duck confit is difficult to make at home, because the cooking process requires duck fat to start with—not something most people have in the pantry. It’s made by slowly poaching the meat in fat, making an exceedingly rich but flavorful dish. The cherry chutney was excellent, full of fruit flavor and sweet but not cloying. The broccoli with butter and leeks that came on both plates were bright green and done to perfection.
The roast pork tenderloin ($20) was wrapped around bread stuffing with apple and onion so exquisitely rich and good, it was hard to watch it disappear. The skin was crisp and golden, the meat flavorful and moist, the flavor-rich sauce clearly made from homemade stocks. On the side was a generous helping of spaetzle, a German dish of small noodles that have been boiled and tossed in butter. I loved how hot they were, their tenderness, the occasional golden edge from the sautÃ© pan. I would go back just for those.
For dessert we went off the beaten track and ordered a homemade cardamom and Cognac ice cream topped with Cajeta, a Mexican caramel sauce made with goat’s milk. I loved this dish, so unusual, fragrant and delicately flavored. The chocolate mousse cake had great flavor but was a touch dried out; the vanilla malted ice cream on the side was excellent.
My sense is that Vicky Zeph truly enjoys herself in the kitchen, experimenting with different flavors and cooking traditions until she finds something that genuinely works. The calm in the front of the house says her brother and his staff are having a good time, too. And it’s so nice to dine out when everyone in the restaurant wants to be there. No wonder people have been driving out of their way for 10 years.
638 Central Ave., Peeksill
Dinner, Wed. to Sun. from 5:30 pm on