Upgrading Pub Grub
The neighborhood bar tries a new trendy, locally focused menu—but is it enough?
Do you know those restaurants where your eyes scroll up and down the menu in an increasingly frantic search to find something before the waiter reappears? Well, that is definitely not the problem at Birdsall House.
Birdsall’s locavorian menu is devised with an eye toward beer-drinking, though upgraded with trendy twists that elevate this food from pub grub. Starters such as a fragile, salt-dusted vegetable fritto misto with a whole, deep-fried leek make a welcome change from the usual Frialator fodder. (Plus, its firm quenelle of mildly garlicky aioli melts in the mouth like cool butter.) Locally made cheeses and cheerfully pork-centric sausages, pâtés, and charcuterie feel like classic beer pairings with an eye toward ethical eating.
This modestly appointed gastropub swings into Peekskill on a reputation built in the competitive world of Manhattan bars. Peekskill resident John Sharp and his partner, Tim Reinke, who’s from Blind Tiger Ale House, rated by New York magazine (and others) as the top New York City spot for craft-brewed beer. The move is mysterious to many, as is addressed on Birdsall’s site, where the phrase, “Where the Hell Is Peekskill” conducts (presumably urban) viewers to a Google map.
Birdsall is modestly, even minimally, decorated, and still retains the warmth of its 50 years as a neighborhood bar. Here are the waxed, linoleum floor tiles straight out of your high-school cafeteria, and there are the high, pew-like wooden booths from every college beer joint, ever. The bar is long and un-brassy and centered on the pumping heart of Birdsall House—a discreetly boxed 20-tap beer system that mostly features brews from within a day’s drive. Its ever-changing draft list is chalked on a board, and, at Birdsall house, this beer list is just as important as its menu. Look for excellent examples of all styles of beer, from Pilsner to porter, represented on the board.
Lighter salads are a big story at Birdsall and rarely disappoint. We loved crisp carrot fronds served with a deep-fried duck egg, whose melting, super-rich yolk makes a lovely sauce for the firm greens. Though the carrot tops were perfectly seasoned, the plate was drizzled with a too-sweet dressing—fine, so we kept our forks toward the center. A baby-beet-and-goat-cheese salad was absolutely flawless; the sweet root veg and lush, ash-rubbed Eclipse goat cheese were set off by slightly bitter sunflower sprouts and Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
Unfortunately, sometimes a thrilling menu makes a cruel prelude to disappointment We found that salt can be a problem at Birdsall House, as in its charcuterie plate, where a sexy-sounding roasted rabbit terrine was undetectable beneath its salt. The pork terrine was also briny, though a hops-brushed Brovetto Farm Tilset cheese was yummy. Salt (and grittiness) also marred a main of grilled lamb with rainbow chard, causing us to wonder whether saltiness is a device to sell more beer. (It may have worked—we loved our beeravorian pints of Captain Lawrence Kolsh and Porter.)
Though enamored of the idea of a Hemlock Hill burger, where the beef is pasture-raised only a few miles away in Cortlandt, we were disappointed in its execution both times we ordered it. On the second go-round, the lean beef was fired well past the medium rare that we requested, making the tough, shrunken orb practically a desiccant. Partnering fries, ordered separately, offered no relief—though richly brown, they were soggy and raw-tasting. A sugary, maple-glazed pork belly also was flawed, plated with taffy-like gobs of caramelized maple and clear pork fat. This is a dish that made us fear for our fillings.
Yet, subtle soups like cream of parsnip and cauliflower, served with herbed crème fraîche and cayenne oil, were redeemingly sophisticated, though perhaps not for the lactose-intolerant. (A smaller serving would help.) Also good was an equally dairy-rich bowl of mascarpone and soft, locally raised and milled Wild Hive polenta, whose focus was a perfectly crusted deep-fried soft-boiled egg—something that Birdsall does well and often.
Currently, desserts are limited to a fabulous cheese plate with aprium compote, pear chutney, and truly addictive spiced, toasted almonds, and one or two rather homey sweets. Best was an icing coil-topped take on a Hostess cupcake with moist, tender cocoa-rich cake and cherry preserves. Worst was a bundt cake mysteriously served with straight-from-the-jar marmalade—best to skip and head straight for porter (or bourbon) and cheese.
Here’s where this job gets tricky. Though it’s early, we can see where Chef Matt Hutchins is going with Birdsall’s menu, and it’s going to be a wonderful place. Right now, execution is a problem—but then restaurants are rarely born Athena-like, fully blown. I’ll certainly be checking back.
Birdsall House ★★ 1/2
970 Main St, Peekskill (914) 930-1880
Hours: Sun to Wed 12 pm–12 am, Thurs to Sun 12 pm–12 am.
Appetizers: $7-$14; entrées: $14-$20; desserts: $7-$8.
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
Caption: The locavorian and “beeravorian” Ploughman’s Lunch: country pork pâté, Adirondack black wax cheddar, sliced Gala apple, whole-wheat ciabatta crostini, assorted pickles, and mustard-seed caviar in a sherry vinaigrette.