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B.A. Nilsson

Full Stream Ahead
By B.A. Nilsson

Cripple Creek Restaurant
22 Garden St., Rhinebeck, (845) 876-4355. Serving dinner Wed-Mon from 5 PM. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: nouveau eclectic
Entrée price range: $16.50 (vegetable risotto) to $26 (dry-aged strip steak)
Ambience: elegant intimacy
Clientele: fans of the good life

Probably the only thing out of place at Cripple Creek is the name of the restaurant, but even that, in the end, is fun. It already had been established as Cripple Creek when its owners decided to sell, at a moment most propitious for Patrick Hays, Bing Yang and Dennis Giauque.

“It actually started in Paris,” says Hays, who, as general manager, will greet and seat you, and even entertain you with his deft way at the piano. “I was at a bistro there with Bing, and we decided we needed to open a place like it in the Village. Then Bing and Dennis bought property in Rhinebeck and we began work on the restaurant there.” Just as the restaurant was about to open, five years ago, a devastating fire hit. It destroyed the building, but didn’t thwart their enthusiasm—and the trio bought Cripple Creek, reopening it a few months later.

Yang and Giauque have since ceded ownership to Hays, who notes that his former partners are on the verge of opening a more traditional banquet house on their Rhinebeck property.

Although Cripple Creek has a strip-mall kind of exterior, inside you’ll forget any such comparison. The ceilings are draped with a diaphanous cloth that diffuses the light; the walls are hung with Chagall lithographs. The tables are spanking white with crisp linens, although if lint is a worry, black napkins also are available. If you forgot your reading glasses, you can borrow a pair. They even have distractions (including Game Boys) for kids.

Each place setting sports a rose petal, which sounds more precious than it looks. It serves as confirmation that you’re going to be looked after as well as is possible in a restaurant. During a recent visit, I crept in late, delayed by a longer-than-expected concert, but Hays couldn’t have been more accommodating. He delivered my friend and me to our seats, and soon thereafter a soothing piano piece sounded. It was Hays at the keyboard, a treat he delivers several times nightly.

The Cripple Creek menu is offered in à la carte and table d’hôte versions, the latter a $32 three-course meal with an occasional surcharge. The dry-aged strip steak, for example, adds $2 to the fixed price; alone, it’s $26. And it’s worth the premium, because the aging process brings out the flavor. We’re accustomed to accepting the sight of a slab of meat on a plate as something desirable, when in truth it’s a nasty sight; here, the plates are so skillfully rendered that the meat—balanced atop young potatoes—actually did look good. Accompanied as well by an onion ragout, it mixed flavor components as artfully as does a fine wine.

So it’s also no surprise that this restaurant is a consistent winner of Wine Spectator awards for its varied list.

Chef Benjamin Mauk has been with the place for four years, first as assistant to chef David Bruno, who returned to the Culinary Institute, his alma mater, as an instructor. So now it’s Mauk’s show, and the prizewinning chef (he was also first in his class in two degree programs at the Culinary Institute) brings a tastefully creative spirit to classic cuisine.

A “taste of the day” is served before your appetizer arrives; on my recent visit, it was a small slice of fresh mozzarella cheese with half a cherry tomato, a pine nut, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar—just enough to perk the taste buds. A Nat Sherman’s cigar box yielded a trio of warm, crisp rolls.

Carrots and fresh ginger livened the coconut sauce around the mussels appetizer ($8.75)—the large, green-lipped variety—served on a handsome plate and with an accompanying finger bowl. Other starters, all in the $8 to $10 range, include grilled quail with avocado, tomato and corn salad; vegetable spring roll; lobster-and- mango salad with pea shoots; and a salad of asparagus and prosciutto. The fig and stilton cheese plate features a bed of baby spinach and a crunchy piece of pancetta to round out the flavors, a perfect blend of sweet and pungent.

A just-right serving of peach sherbet (no more than a tablespoon) followed as an intermezzo. It may seem ironic to pay more for smaller portions, but it means that diners like me, who lack the discipline to pace themselves through the starters, don’t arrive at the entrées minus an appetite.

Thus I was able to enjoy the slow-roasted halibut ($21.75) all the more. Thanks to one of the several recipe sheets available at the door, I see that chef Mauk bakes the fish in a 200-degree oven long enough to firm the flesh without losing the juiciness. And it’s served on a Mediterranean-flavored bed of garlic and olives, tomatoes and sweet pearl onions, with a basil purée drizzled around it. How simple it seems, but it’s a labor-intensive dish that yields a blissfully complex result.

Other entrées include free-range chicken breast with ratatouille; Hudson Valley duck breast with apricot ketchup; “crispy skin wild king salmon” served with red onion, cucumber and cured-lemon relish; and a multiple-mushroomed vegetable risotto.

Desserts tend toward the sweet and classic, such as crème brûlée or a towering portion of English trifle. And don’t overlook the chocolate truffles that decorate the check.

Service is so deft and polished that you’ll feel absolutely pampered. Of course, that’s what fine dining is supposed to be about—but how often do you find it?

With nearly 30 restaurants in the Rhinebeck area, this is becoming a highly competitive market. Cripple Creek has clearly positioned itself in the front lines of quality, enough so that this Sunday’s New York Times will weigh in with a piece about it in the Westchester section. I suspect that seats in this restaurant will be fairly hard to get for a while.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The North Pointe Cultural Arts Center (Route 9, Kinderhook) hosts its fifth annual Fabulous Wine & Food Fest at 7 PM on Saturday, Sept. 13. Returning for a third year as wine sponsor is Lewis Dimm of Fairview Wines and Spirits in Hudson; he will provide an international selection of wines. This year’s theme is Starry Starry Night. Enjoy the wine under the stars in the romantically decorated concert hall at North Pointe and taste an assortment of creations by local caterers and restaurants including Ca’ Mea, Chef Lisa, County Route Catering, Good Food Catering, Spice of Life, Olde Hudson, the Red Barn, Fay Prince Catering, Dutch Desserts and T’Rave About. A silent auction will be held in the coffeehouse with more than 60 items and services up for bid. Tickets for the event are $75 per person. Event sponsors giving $125 and above receive tickets to the champagne reception held in a historic home prior to the main event. Proceeds from the evening benefit the live performances and art exhibitions of North Pointe. To receive an invitation or make a reservation, call 758-9234. . . . Pot roast with cranberries, potatoes with rosemary, Sister Mary’s Zesty Carrots and ginger cake are among the Shaker specialties served at Hancock Shaker Village’s Shaker Suppers this fall. Enjoy a beautiful evening in the Shakers’ City of Peace, where you will relish a hardy Shaker dinner in the candlelit 1830 Brick Dwelling and delight in the beautiful sounds of Shaker music in the meeting room. A guided tour starts at 5:30 PM, and dinner is served at 7 PM. The price is $50 per person for dinner, or $55 with the addition of a tour of the village. Dinner will be served Sept. 13, 14; Oct. 3, 11, 12, 18, 19, 25; Nov. 28, 29; Dec. 27 and 28. The village is on Route 20, five miles west of Pittsfield, Mass. Reservations and prepayment are required. Call (800) 817-1137. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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