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Small-Town Demand

by B.A. Nilsson on June 20, 2012

Blue Plate Restaurant, 1 Kinderhook St., Chatham, 392-7711, chathamblueplate.net. Serving dinner 5:30-9 Tue-Thu, 5:30-10:30 Fri-Sat, 5-9 Sun (open Mon from July 2). D, MC, V.

Cuisine: nouvelle American comfort

Entrée price range: $10 (black bean burger) to $24 (grilled ribeye)

Ambiance: small-town elegant

If I could predict the elements that make a restaurant successful, I’d be obscenely wealthy. But I can look in hindsight. I can look at a place like Chatham’s Blue Plate, which is entering its 17th year under Judy Grunberg’s ownership, and attribute this longevity to a number of factors.

Location, of course. It’s in a charming old building that dominates the center of the village. It was Hess’ meat market when my wife was a kid in nearby Spencertown, and it went through a couple of food-based incarnations before John Gregory and Julia Pomeroy styled it into Hail, Columbia! in the early 1990s. So beloved was the place by the community that Grunberg, a passionate patron, bought it without having a lick of restaurant-biz experience.

But she knew how to put a chef and a staff together and turn them loose upon the public, and that’s the next factor: personality. The staff, which has considerable longevity at the place, bring an array of individual personalities to the place, and help make it feel as if you’re dining with a delightfully non-dysfunctional family.

The menu, which Grunberg and longtime chef Leo Castellanos put together, is a brilliant array of the traditional and unexpected, always with an eye to meatless offerings. From meat loaf and roasted chicken to a Turkish eggplant dish called imam bayildi, a pleasant variety awaits.

Dining room comfort is one of biggest intangibles, dictated by table size and dressing, room dividers, lighting, acoustics and so much more, and the look of Blue Plate’s ground-floor rooms is cozy and welcoming, despite the largish size of the place.

Part of the charm comes from a wall mural in that room, created by noted graphic artist Marc Rosenthal, commissioned by the previous owners and commemorating customers and servers and even a favorite mutt in a joyful, cartoony style. Rosenthal also designed the Blue Plate logo displayed on the outside sign.

Then there’s Grunberg herself. Nothing fuels a restaurant as much as the owner’s personality, and although she describes herself as one who gives her employees room, she’s the first to admit that she keeps a close eye on things. The chemistry works.

We enjoyed the bonus of music on our recent Wednesday visit. This takes place in a cozier downstairs room where white linen gives way to butcher paper on the tables. Pianist Lincoln Mayorga, internationally renowned for his classical performances, also has formidable jazz chops and, being a local resident, takes a turn at the 88 when he’s in town. He performed with bassist Otto Gardner, and the repertory ran from Scott Joplin to Bill Evans with stops for many standards between.

After generously decorating our table’s butcher paper with the supplied crayons, we started the meal with grilled corn and avocado gazpacho ($5), giving unexpected complexity to a classic hot-weather soup.

My daughter uncharacteristically chose a plate of nachos ($9) with which to start, trusting that the Blue Plate version might be different. It was. Most pleasing was the freshness of the chips, an immediate contrast to the out-of-the-bag stuff you’re usually served. What has become a slop-fest on the usual bar-food menu was here garnished with restraint with real cheese, good beans and a killer guacamole.

Other starters on the current menu include vegetable fritters ($8), crab cakes ($9) and steamed mussels ($10), and they’re supplemented by a specials list that featured calamari ($9) and smoked salmon ($9).

Part of my daughter’s dining strategy was entrée restraint, so her main dish was an appetizer salad—but it was an excellent mix of fresh arugula, feta, pumpkin seeds and some orange slices, topped with a dressing of vinegars and a pleasing presence of garlic ($8).

Entrée specials included grilled ahi tuna ($25), trout ($28) and swordfish ($22) and cheese-filled ravioli with shrimp ($21). On the regular menu you’ll find the meat loaf ($13) with a promise never to change it, roast half chicken ($21), polenta with shiitake mushrooms ($16) and the entrée I selected, pasta with broccoli rabe ($16).

I chose it with a chip on my shoulder, because I’m a huge fan of the vegetable and continuously search for effective preparations—especially now that it has gained enough popularity to appear, out of season and woody as hell, in supermarkets. Castellanos knows the secret. His broccoli rabe was tender and snappy, with hints of garlic and vinegar peeking through a quiet sweetness that seemed totally intrinsic to the greens. And the short, rolled garganelli pasta nicely conveyed the mix of sun-dried tomatoes, olives and pine nuts with which it was paired, with plenty of fresh garlic to bring it all home.

“My son Dan, who is an engineer in Boston,” says Grunberg, “does the cooking in his house. And he has a daughter who, at 11, became a vegetarian. So Dan was looking for creative dishes to make, and discovered imam bayildi at a Turkish restaurant. He got the recipe from the restaurant’s cookbook, and made it for me once when I visited. I immediately put it on the menu here.”

Eggplant is stuffed with tomatoes and garlic, with an accent of currants ($16). Grunberg decided it needed a grain as accompaniment and so it is served with bulghur, complementing the textures of the dish well. It’s a marvelous meal that well deserves its regular-menu status. She’s thinking of taking it off the summer menu but suspects that popular acclaim won’t allow it.

And that’s the final factor in Blue Plate’s success: popular acclaim. Chatham’s need for such a place was long ago established. It’s a testament to Grunberg’s skill and the talent of the people who work with her that its standards have been maintained for so long.