The space is convivial, the servers knowledgeable and friendly, the bar menu extensive and interesting — and the food impressively heavy. It’s as though Chef David DiBari (The Cookery, The Parlor) took all the best of a British pub and fed it steroids.
On both our visits, the place was hopping, though we had no issue hearing our servers who had remarkably intimate knowledge of each dish. That helps when menu items include such names as “cullen skink” (smoked hake chowder), “bacon chop” (stop drooling — we’ll get to it), and “spotted dick” (not a typo). There were many more recognizably named dishes, as well, including the restaurant’s namesake, Welsh rarebit.
The Welsh rarebit was every bit the rich, robustly flavorful, cheesy classic, with a hint of the Worcestershire and spices for which it is known and a dash of Guinness for slightly bitter balance. The accompanying picallili was surprisingly tart, but helped offset the crazy-richness of the dish.
When that picallili showed up in an escarole-and-cheddar salad, every forkful tasted only of sharp vinegar. Not even the shredded cheddar could stand up to its fierce bite, and we left the salad barely touched. Not that it’s a bad thing, really: The food at The Rare Bit is mostly of the stick-to-your-bones variety, and as it was, we were unable to finish most plates.
An enormous plate of cabbage-and-bacon salad, while nothing special — cabbage, iceberg, bacon, apple, and surprisingly mild Stilton with a slightly sweet mustard-seed dressing — was a far better choice than the escarole, but more like a platter than a plate.
Fish ’n’ chips could also serve two. Unlike many of the entrées, this standout dish was not at all heavy — and is, in fact, the dish for which the restaurant should be known. After biting into the light, golden, crisp, rice-flour crust, you are rewarded with the contrast of tender, moist, flaky hake. The perfectly executed chips are made from small, round potatoes, browned and crispy on the outside and creamy in the center. If you don’t order this dish (though you should), fear not: The buttery, nutty, slightly sweet mushy peas that come with it can also be had as a side.
Yorkshire pudding is also available as a side: Order one for the table and share. The pleasantly chewy, eggy pudding is served fallen under spoonfuls of gravy: The purist at our table would have been happier without it, while others felt the gravy made this the British version of our biscuits and gravy.
When asked if the stout made the steak-and-stout pie bitter, our earnest and knowledgeable waiter was able to discuss the nuances of the dish in detail — and to rightly let us know the stout adds depth to the flavor but not a bitter edge. The edges of the crust, on the other hand, were bitter — thanks to the dark charring. Where the crust was not charred, it was flavorful, though chewy. Our real issue was with the overwhelming amount of fragrant spice in the filling, which obscured any other flavor, including that of the tough, dry beef. The pie’s saving grace, if any, was the side of rich, smooth, buttery mashed potatoes, which we would willingly eat daily (health considerations aside).
Those same luscious mashed potatoes accompanied the daily special of an enormous serving of beef Wellington. The tender but uncharacteristically bland puff-pastry-wrapped boneless rib-eye was coated in a layer of mushroom duxelles that did nothing to augment the flavor of the meat.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment on the menu was the bacon chop. It sounded so appealing. The server described it as a cross between slab bacon and pork belly but with a bone. In fact, it was a slab of pork that was a little over an inch thick and maybe 10-inches long — and, actually, boneless. The entire chop was covered in “lovely” gravy (their name for it) that tasted like stock reduction. Beneath the sauce, the smoke flavor was concentrated just below the skin, obscuring any meat flavor. Lower down in the chop, however, the smoke was barely discernible. It was served with a sweet chutney, which added to the cacophony.
Desserts were also a mixed bag. On one end, lemon posset, a hybrid of curd and custard, was smooth and just tart enough — but it was accompanied by cookies described as shortbread: three rectangles with as much buttery crumble as a sponge cake.
Spotted dick, steamed custard made with suet, was abundantly flecked with currants, which lent the slightly savory cake-like base sweetness. The dish, served warm, is accompanied by a small pitcher of warm vanilla custard sauce (crème anglaise); we shamelessly poured the entire pitcher over our dessert and relished the balance of flavors and textures.
Strawberries soaked in absinthe, along with shards of black-charcoal meringue, are an appealing twist on the classic Eaton Mess (typically strawberries in whipped cream topped with broken meringue).
In such a warm and inviting atmosphere, with well-trained servers, a broad and deep bar program, and an interesting menu, it is a shame that the execution of the food is so uneven. Given DiBari’s stellar fare at his other restaurants, we can only hope what we experienced were growing pains.
The Rare Bit
23 Cedar St, Dobbs Ferry
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Marge Perry and David Bonom are food writers and co-authors of Hero Dinners: Complete One-Pan Meals That Save the Day. Their work appears regularly in Rachael Ray Every Day, Fine Cooking, AllRecipes, Newsday, The Kitchn and many other publications as well as on their blog, A Sweet and Savory Life. Follow them on Facebook.