At the moment, David DiBari, the acclaimed chef-owner with a firm grasp on pushing culinary boundaries in the river towns of Westchester County, is like a plate spinner. Good thing he’s adept, because those plates have become a lot fuller. Admittedly, there’s a talented troupe behind him, but this culinary force is leading the charge in the opening of two establishments creating a buzz in Westchester.
In the past year he acquired two new spaces, opened a restaurant in December, dealt with a fire and flood at another and, when I caught up with him in late January, he was in the throes of preparing to open the second. Oh, and did I mention his wedding, last May, to his beloved, Chickie?
The British invasion
In both cuisine and design elements, DiBari’s two newest ventures are noteworthy. First, an opportunity arose last summer for him to partner with his buddy and Dobbs Ferry native, Scott Broccoli, on a new place. Now, with its opening last December, DiBari is offering his loyal customers even more variety in the form an authentic British gastro pub, The Rare Bit.
Scott had returned to “Dobbs” a few years back, wanting to raise his children in his hometown. In his 17 years as a successful restaurateur in the San Francisco area, he had six places — one even named Dobbs Ferry in honor of his birthplace. He talks about “flirting” with his old pal for a while, finally convincing him that they could acquire the space of the former Cedar Street Grill, plus an adjacent storefront, diagonally across from DiBari’s popular pizza joint, The Parlor.
“I could open restaurants,” Broccoli says, “but not having an infrastructure in place here, I needed David to put it together. The timing was very tricky, but it ended up working out.”
The collaborative design team, as DiBari calls it, combined artful touches of classic and modern Victorian décor — precious chandeliers and an eclectic, kitschy assortment of Victorian-framed paintings, plus mirrors and sconces dotting the walls. There’s a tiled backstop and plant wall framing the space behind the grand-scaled wood bar in the expanded lounge area, where we find numerous banquettes and high-top tables.
As for the creative menu, my friend who accompanied me to lunch noted, “This place stretches your palete.” Yes, indeed, it does. With its focus on cuisine rooted in the gastronomy of England, Scotland and Ireland, the menu even plays with a nod to colonial times by offering a few dishes representative of India, such as a standout Chicken Tikka with basmati rice and naan bread, crafted with homemade dough from The Parlor.
Think about it. Where else will you find an artful and delicious Scotch egg in these parts? Or for that matter, bangers and mash and a cheesy Welsh rarebit — the namesake dish? There’s a scrumptious fish and chips — the batter is gluten free — prime roasts and a full English breakfast, replete with homemade sausage and beans. To my surprise, the one side that really tickled my taste buds was the mushy peas. The Rare Bit’s opening executive chef, John Poiarkoff, most recently of Restaurant North in Armonk, explained that a patron suggested this addition, plated with the Scotch egg and available as a side dish, and he really nailed it.
With an ancestry self-described as “Eastern European mutt,” Poiarkoff is humble and soft spoken, but clearly serious and knowledgeable about food, beverage and restaurant operations — no doubt, the reason that DiBari recently offered him the role of “culinary director” for all his locations. Poiarkoff, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, honed his skills in Manhattan at places such as The Modern and, in Brooklyn, he was the opening chef for a few establishments, so his prior experience, combined with Broccoli’s expertise, proved useful in enabling the quick, six-month turnaround of The Rare Bit space.
Poiarkoff was eager to help DiBari develop the ambitious food and beverage program and proud of bringing dishes not often found, such as fish chowder from the Isle of Skye, to the menu. And, they have been well received, Poiarkoff says that business has been more robust than they had anticipated and adding, “I think every British person in Westchester was in here in the first three weeks after we opened.”
A classic diner comes to Port Chester
Meanwhile, DiBari has been putting the finishing touches on Eugene’s, a diner-concept restaurant, in preparation for an early March opening. He committed to the space on Main Street in Port Chester last year, but to create what he envisioned required a total gut renovation. Yet not complete when I visited, I get it immediately, even though I enter from the rear of the restaurant. Hello, 1970s.
DiBari tells me that, for him, this was a passion project. “I always wanted to open a diner,” he says — this one named for his grandfather, Eugene. The creation of the space, as well as the menu, gave him the freedom and “license to have fun,” something that is not lacking at DiBari’s other places. His “brand’s” motto, adapted when The Cookery opened, is actually “Eat Serious. Have Fun.”
From his early days, DiBari’s goal was to have his own restaurant and it was his chief mentor, the accomplished chef-restaurateur Peter X. Kelly, who shored up any doubt DiBari had about the modest space on Chestnut Street in Dobbs Ferry becoming his first home. “He just looked at the place and assured me it would be perfect.” The cozy space has a bustling vibe and an even more imaginative menu, including its signature whole-roasted pig supper, available for groups of six or more on demand.
Once you get to know this talent, it all makes sense. He was, after all, classically trained at The Culinary Institute of America and did his time behind the stoves at renowned kitchens such as Windows on the World and Babbo in Manhattan before coming north to assume executive chef duties at Eastchester Fish Gourmet and then Zuppa, in Yonkers.
At Eugene’s, DiBari really stepped it up in the design department, working with Rocco DiLeo of RD Studio in Port Chester, though DiBari sourced a few items at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts, his go-to place for unusual décor elements. There is specially sourced wood paneling throughout the large high-ceilinged space, Tiffany pendants over the long counter, with teal-colored seats facing the open kitchen. Jonathan Adler pendant lights hang at the end of the front main bar with classic black bar stools.
There’s even a groovy loft space upstairs, “the shag room,” for groups of up to 12 or so, for lounging and dining. With its abundant seating and robust menu, DiBari hopes the place will be a draw, particularly with the nearby Capitol Theatre crowd and beyond. Their dining hours will be flexible, too — initially open for lunch, weekend brunch and dinner before eventually starting to serve breakfast.
The menu will offer something for everyone, but expect to see DiBari and team’s playful twists throughout. “I was into bringing back the big classics that create a celebratory experience…(diners) will be able to have caviar with their pancakes, together with a great bottle of French Champagne.” There will be a section on the menu called “having fun with eggs,” plus diner classics like matzoh ball soup, meatloaf, foot-long hot dogs and even a Thanksgiving dinner every day.
With a gleam in his eyes, DiBari tells me, “Look, at the end of the day I created four playgrounds for my chefs, and the best part of my day is stepping into one of my kitchens to cook with them.” The kitchen is outfitted with state-of-the-art “toys,” like a stunning rotisserie that roasts meats either vertically or on a traditional horizontal spit. At the entrance to the dining room, there’s a diner-classic, a glass-enclosed fixture to showcase their house-made desserts.
I ask DiBari how he will kick back after Eugene’s opening is safely in his rearview mirror. He tells me he would be happiest touring around the country following punk rock bands like The Bouncing Souls, or his favorite classic rock band, Pearl Jam. But, what about the honeymoon that had to be put on hold due to all the activity this past year?, I ask. “Yes,” says DiBari, “right, that first!”
For more, visit therarebitdf.com.