For many, January is a month of moderation. Following December’s excesses—maxed-out credit cards, office parties, family gatherings and too much of everything too often—it’s hard to even think of going out to eat. But, as spring beckons and New Year’s dieting resolutions are forgotten, it’s time to try something new. Judging from the host of new restaurants that debuted in Westchester last year—from places offering lovely décor and delicious food to those offering convenience and bargains—more than a few new dining experiences are still to be had.
Some of these restaurants became instant favorites, while others promise to evolve into hot spots. In most cases, the trend is new fusion, whether “nuevo” or “neo,” and the result is tantalizing fare that’s packed with flavor.
Cheers for Zuppa Restaurant & Lounge, for its smart design, terrific food and pioneering spirit (it’s the first premier dining spot to open in Yonkers’s waterfront district, now under rapid revitalization). From appetizers to desserts, carefully designed dishes are light and delightfully inventive; chef David Regueiro describes the menu as “New-Age Italian cuisine,” offering designer flat breads, squid with spaghetti alla chitarra and crostatas. Even porterhouse steak, a risky choice outside of the very best steakhouses, is a winner here. Live music, usually on weekends, echoes softly through stylish, soaring spaces warmed by terra-cotta walls, generous draperies, bright linens and clever lighting. Valet parking is a plus.
Valet parking is a must on busy Friday and Saturday evenings at Pacifico, a noisy, “nuevo Latino” seafood restaurant crammed into a narrow lot on busy Boston Post Road in Port Chester. Baby back ribs will satisfy meat eaters, but most people come for the seafood items, which include chowder, fresh oysters, yucca-crusted monkfish, lobster and seafood dumplings. The informal dining room and bar are usually jammed with diners who know the work of owner and chef Rafael Palomino from his first Westchester restaurant, Sonora, also in Port Chester. The creative menu and charming, attentive service couldn’t be better. A cheerful oceanic theme is worked out in the décor, with brightly painted fish and shells scattered over a background of blue and green. Caveat: on weekends the restaurant is mobbed.
Also filled to noisy capacity is Koo, which opened under the banner of “neo-Japanese cuisine.” A meal in this stunningly designed place, which merges the natural serenity of birch trees and river rocks with the high-tech of burnished steel, requires a fat wallet. But diners get what they pay for: pristine fish and shellfish, lovingly presented. While sushi and sashimi are top-notch, this is also a place to try unfamiliar, nontraditional dishes, the “neo” seafood creations that might be touched, surprisingly and delightfully, with truffle oil, coconut or tomato. It all works.
If neo-Japanese is just a bit too austere for the occasion, there’s The Cheesecake Factory, which has had no trouble settling into White Plains (in the same building as Fortunoff). And why not? The chain has cloned itself before, 72 times nationally. Big bar, big menu, big portions and, although the big space seats 390, there’s usually a big wait in the big lobby. The menu caters to all tastes. Decent dishes are priced reasonably, and efficient service from a well-trained staff ultimately helps soothe the impatient.
Another new restaurant offering a mammoth menu is Jackson & Wheeler. Every day, from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on weekends; on Sunday, brunch is available until 3 p.m. and dinner starts at 4 p.m.), this multi-faceted establishment is equipped to deliver tasty international fare with a marked Pacific Rim spin. The location couldn’t be more convenient—just a few steps from both the Pleasantville Metro-North railway station and the JacobBurnsFilmCenter. Eat in or take out. A kosher retail bakery opens at 6:30 a.m. and features a new French-trained pastry chef, and the handsome little bar and lounge lead to a boxy, informal dining room ready to dish up snacks, sandwiches, pizzas and hefty entrées.
Half-hidden on a tiny lane off busy South Moger Avenue in Mt.Kisco, Temptation Tea House has found a niche. With its unusual waterfall and small koi pond, Temptation is an engaging neighborhood destination for those wanting Asian teas and the little dishes of dim sum that go with it. The long menu includes regular and tapioca pearl teas, smoothies, coffees and fruit juices; noodle dishes and dim sum, such as dumplings, meat buns, satays and rolls. The dozens of choices are reasonably priced. Diners interested in heartier items might consider one of the entrée-sized dishes that have been added.
Also in Mt.Kisco is newcomer Mango Café, opening just in time to warm patrons on frosty winter days with sunny décor done in hues of deep salmon, orange and mustard, and with the vibrant tastes of Guatemala. Although rooted in the Mayan empire, post-Colombian Guatemalan cooking is closest to that of the Yucatan. Mango’s menu offers more, however. Diners craving buffalo wings and burgers will find them here, too. This young restaurant needs a bit of focus and, hopefully, will find it in 2004 but, right now, diners can enjoy such items as adovado tipico wrap containing marinated pork; shrimp ceviche; mildly spicy chicken steamed in banana leaves (chicken tamales); and chicken enchiladas Guatemaltecas (with cheese and eggs). Patrons can have a late-night drink along with a snack at the beautiful, big bar in back of the restaurant, where an adjoining hardwood dance floor sometimes has music and dancing. Salsa and merengue lessons are available. Call for details.
Lovely, restored and renovated, Olde Stone Mill (the original stone structure has been there since 1805) offers lots of parking, a necessity on this stretch of Scarsdale Road near the Tuckahoe railway station. A generic main dining room has been added, but more atmospheric is the creaky bar and lounge, tucked into the original mill building. The bar can get loud, especially on weekends, but many customers enjoy the liveliness here and manage to carve out a space to have a drink, a snack or a full dinner.
The Red Hat, located on Irvington’s main shopping street, has already become part of village life and is usually noisy and crowded with locals. The basic menu is bistro-inspired—moules or steak frites, boudin blanc, salads, omelettes, pâté—but there’s plenty more to choose from, enough to be assembled into a complete dinner.
Newly opened Aberdeen, just south of Harrison’s railway station, has occasional glitches in service that need addressing, but the restaurant is a welcome addition to the very few authentic Cantonese restaurants in Westchester. Dishes are mellow, ingredients fresh and healthful. Tofu appears in myriad ways, and swimming fish are just moments away from the steamer, after they’re scooped from a tank. Round tables accommodate large parties of families and friends. The place is particularly popular at midday on Saturdays and Sundays, when dim sum lunches are served.
Cradled in a small hollow, Pound Ridge has been short on restaurants with staying power. Spy Rock Grille may turn out to be the exception. The tidy restaurant has a big bar, where patrons can wait for tables (reservations are not taken), and a high noise level. The kitchen is still fine-tuning the menu of eclectic contemporary fare, but given the convenience and pleasure of having a pretty dining spot in this sleepy little town, refinements at Spy Rock Grille deserve noting.
After a complete gutting of an old bar and grill, Grappolo has opened quietly in downtown Chappaqua. This new restaurant is feeling its way, but so far the decor in the dining room and bar is bright, cheery and sparkling. The largely familiar Italian
menu has a few interesting spins such as shrimp Gorgonzola, stuffed pork tenderloin with pear and prosciutto and roasted Atlantic salmon with a whole-grain mustard sauce. Street parking can be difficult, but there’s a large lot behind the restaurant.
It’s not easy to find F.I.S.H., formerly The Pearl, which is situated on Fox Island Road in Port Chester (The initials stand for Fox Island Seafood House). The route to the restaurant winds through an industrial area and ends at a serious working waterfront littered with boating and fishing gear. Service hobbles a bit and sometimes timing is off. But what to try? Fish of course: chowders, salmon, cod, swordfish, grilled or marinated shrimp and octopus, ahi tuna and shad roe. Most dishes are designed with interesting vegetable garnishes. Diners without a sense of direction might want to wait for summer to head here, when they can navigate by the sun and enjoy a seat on the restaurant’s small, breezy deck.
Freelance writer and editor M.H. Reed is food critic for the “Westchester” section of The New York Times.