14 Mount Carmel Place
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
Essie’s Restaurant, a new bistro style eatery in Mount Carmel in downtown Poughkeepsie, is the newest addition to the city’s growing list of upscale dining establishments. Essie’s is located a few doors down from La Deliziosa, directly across the street from Mount Carmel School. The space most recently was home to Cafe Bocca, and those of a certain age will remember Sardi’s grocery, which operated there for over seventy years. We started hearing about the new restaurant months before they opened, in part because of the reputation of the proprietor, Brandon Walker.
Chef Walker appeared on my radar years ago when he was working with the Peraza’s at Panzur in Tivoli. He also worked with the Deluccia family when they opened their Nic-L-Inn Wine Cellar on Water Street a few years back. He is the quintessential Hudson Valley culinary storybook character, complete with a CIA pedigree, stints in some of New York’s finer eateries like Oceana to sharpen his skills and pad the CV, but ultimately drawn back to the valley he had fallen in love with when he came to study at the Culinary. And the vacant space at 14 Mount Carmel, just a stone’s throw from legendary eateries, Nick Beni’s | Joseph’s | Caesar’s, beckoned. The restaurant was named to honor Chef Walker’s grandmother, Essie, who hailed from Virginia. We should not be surprised to learn that someone who met his future wife, LaTrevette, at a church service while attending the CIA would name his first restaurant after his grandmother.
The restaurant has exactly twenty-eight seats, seven more if you count the barstools. It is, in my mind, the perfect size for an upscale bistro. With just twenty-eight seats you can strive for perfection with every plate that comes out of the kitchen. With 128 seats you can’t. With twenty-eight seats, a restaurateur will not get rich, but they can really do it right. Twenty-eight seats also allow you to run the place with two people on slow nights in February. The problem, of course, is that twenty eight seats fill up fast, and based on our dining experiences at Essie’s, I predict that two months from now we are all going to be begging for one of those fourteen tables. It’s that good.
We started, as is our custom, with a glass of wine at the bar. The restaurant had just opened, at 5:30, and technically they were still in “soft opening” period. The official grand opening is not until Friday, July 15th. Five minutes later we were joined at the bar by a gentleman who turned out to be Chef Walker’s father (and Essie’s son in law), Donald. He introduced himself and ordered a round of drinks for us from our new favorite bartender, Janine. It seems hospitality is a genetic affliction within the Walker family.
The small but thoughtfully chosen selection of wines and locally brewed beer choices were posted on a blackboard behind the bar and included some of our favorites. We started with a French chardonnay, a Macon-La-Roche, offered by the bottle for $34, or by the glass at $11.
The bistro style menu is eclectic, offering updated techniques and global riffs on some familiar classics. One of my favorite bistro dishes is octopus, standard Mediterranean fare, especially on the Iberian Peninsula. The traditional plating would be grilled with a simple complement of white bean (in Italy) or potato (in Galicia). Here they added fennel and preserved lemon and a vinaigrette dressing to finish the dish. Very nicely done.
Do you know what’s better than grits? Fried grit “croquettes” piled on a puddle of garlicky aioli. My favorite kind of “breakfast served all day”. Chef Walker’s grandmother, Essie’s influence was also apparent in a small plate offering of southern style mini corn muffins, spiked with Virginia ham and cheddar cheese.
Thirty minutes later another couple had joined us at the bar, and a few tables in the dining room were occupied. Chef Walker emerged from the kitchen and did a walk-about, checking in with each of the patrons, making sure that each dish was prepared as expected. It’s something else that you can do with just twenty-eight seats, and something that can add so much to the dining experience.
The main course offerings included chicken and dumplings, a flatiron steak, and monkfish – one of my favorites. Here the kitchen poached the fish in a coconut-curry “nage” before pan searing the filet to a perfect crispy finish. The fish was plated on a bed of sweet and sour braised collard greens that would have been at home in any Savannah kitchen, tossed with chayote – a Mexican squash. It was one of the best dishes that I’ve had this year.
Flatiron steak is another bistro staple, given star treatment at Essie’s. Take that inexpensive butcher’s cut of beef, grill it perfectly and add some cheese infused whipped potatoes, wild mushrooms, onions and pan juices infused with a hearty ale and you have a new poster boy for savory.
The Walkers have taken their fifteen years of restaurant experience and designed what is one of the premier dining experiences in the City of Poughkeepsie. Chef Walker has worked in enough good restaurants to know exactly what is needed to make that happen. Take talent, experience, and a natural gift for hospitality, and add the enthusiasm of a teenager with their first car. Everything about their first restaurant is thoughtfully planned, from the locally sourced menu to the quality of the flatware; from the local beers and ales, to the “Resy” reservation text that diners receive 24 hours in advance, and again exactly thirty minutes before your reservation time. If that sounds a little over the top and structured, rest assured that that is not the case. The experience is most professional, yet casual, and comfortable, and fun. Regular readers might be thinking that this is the most enthusiastic review of a new restaurant that has ever appeared on this blog. You would be correct. Go try it while you can still get a seat.