The Devil’s in the Details
Moving woes at Irvington’s new Hudson-side mega-restaurant
Like THAT OF an American diner, the menu of a traditional French bistro is comfortingly predictable. Walk into any bistro and you can expect a casual restaurant whose menu lists steak frites, frisée salad with lardons and poached egg, moules marinière, and country pâté. With bistros, predictability doesn’t hamper our enjoyment.
We frequent these restaurants for hearty Gallic comfort foods just as we revisit great diners for burgers and fries. And like the best diners, good bistros succeed by degrees: with nearly identical menus, what matters are the details. Are the frites (which appear on so many plates) golden and crisp on the outside, hollow, fluffy, and steamy on the inside? Are the steaks perfectly cooked to order? Are the pâtés rich and soulful? When bistro dishes are well executed, nothing beats their appeal.
Loving this food as we do, we were excited to visit Red Hat’s new space in downtown Irvington’s rediscovered riverfront, which, until recent redevelopment, had been almost wholly occupied by the Lord & Burnham greenhouse factory. (The 19th-century factory was responsible for the vast, Crystal Palace-like conservatories at Lyndhurst and the New York Botanical Garden.) The brick exteriors and outbuildings of the old industrial compound with their exterior hoists and pulleys retain much of their gaslight-era patina and charm.
Red Hat’s new site is in the factory’s re-purposed boiler building: a large space with a wide bar, a two-story-high ceiling, and an upstairs dining room. Red Hat’s location is even more seductive than nearby Restaurant One’s: with a huge riverbank patio, and, coming this spring, a lounge-like rooftop cocktail bar, Red Hat is poised to compete with that other riverside mega-restaurant, Harvest-on-Hudson.
But can Red Hat prove equal to its superb views? On each of our visits, Red Hat failed to deliver in both food and service, a huge disappointment given our hopes for the space.
After being encouraged by that newest bistro standard, a truly delicious yellowfin tuna tartare (whose creamy, perfectly seasoned flesh was nicely contrasted by daikon radish and crisp cucumber), we were baffled by a starter of odd-tasting braised-duck risotto, whose clumpy, pink grains had the sweet, tomatoey flavor of ketchup. It didn’t help that the dish arrived topped with a concassé of totally flavorless, out-of-season tomatoes. Our warm, wild-mushroom salad fared no better, arriving capped by a badly scorched fried egg whose bitter, burnt-albumen taste ruined the otherwise inoffensive dish. And while our house-made country pâté was fine, its accompaniments were simply uncomplementary. Partnered with two super-tart caperberries (instead of the usual, less aggressive, sweet-and-sour cornichons), and a sticky-sweet pearl onion relish (instead of the usual, palate-cleansing complement of mustard), we felt that the rich, mouth-coating pâté lacked its necessary counterpoints.
Frites are the make-or-break dish of bistros, a fact not lost on the best kitchens. Great frites require a laborious process that includes peeling the spuds, hand-cutting them into batons, par-frying them at low temperature to cook their insides, then finishing them off just before service with a quick, deep-fat dunk at high heat to brown and crisp them.
After careful salting, the frites are finally served—hopefully ultra-crisp outside and fluffy inside. In France, some bistros are known for frying their frites in horse fat (legal there), while others dry their spuds under continuously running fans—all for what is basically a side dish, but one that simply has to be good at a bistro.
We were surprised, then, when the huge stack of frites accompanying our hanger steak were golden, but bendy and raw-tasting inside—they had not been properly blanched and finished. Nor had the accompanying hanger steak, ordered medium-rare, been adequately cooked. Resolved to send the steak back, we waited for our waiter to follow up on our order. She never did. Meanwhile, rawness also marred a short ribs pot-au-feu, a dish usually characterized by slow-cooked meat and vegetables. Instead, it arrived sporting crunchy, wooden potatoes and barely warmed carrots.
Despite being accompanied by the same flaccid frites, our favorite main at Red Hat was the juicy burger, covered with smoked cheddar. We also liked our clean-tasting Maine scallops, which were well cooked, though slightly dried out from being held too long prior to serving. Desserts were equally mediocre, including an eggy, scantily poured crème brûlée (whose crust had lost its crackle), and a slightly more satisfying, though uninteresting, cheese plate.
There were consistent service problems during our visits. On one occasion, we had to flag down a waiter to get a dessert menu—our own waiter had abandoned us after taking the initial order.
Tough criticisms, but there’s reason to hope that Red Hat will improve. It is still fairly new. Some new staff, new operations, and a new location are obviously stressing this restaurant. But Red Hat’s Executive Chef since June 2007, Bruce Beaty, is certainly up to the challenge: his C.V. is peppered with many of Manhattan’s best restaurants, including Gotham Bar and Grill, Le Madeleine, and Le Bernardin. The kitchen goofs that we experienced are totally uncharacteristic of a chef cooking at his level, so we’re hoping that by summertime, the new kitchen and staff will be under his control. At that point, when the weather is fine and the patio is open, we’ll certainly be giving Red Hat another try.
Red Hat on the River â˜…â˜…
1 Bridge St, Irvington
(914) 591-5888; redhatbistro.com
HOURS: lunch, Mon to Fri 12-3 pm;
dinner Mon to Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri and Sat 5-11 pm Sun 5-9 pm
entrées: $18-$26; desserts: $8.
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good