Photographs by Steven Newman.
Just as in the Man Bites Dog aphorism, when a suburban restaurant does well and makes a play for the big time in the city, that’s not news. But when a successful city restaurant branches out to the burbs, well that’s news — or can be. So I was intrigued to see that Manhattan’s whiskey-focused Rye House had launched in Port Chester — although the literalist in me couldn’t help thinking it would have made more sense to open in, er, Rye.
The restaurant is located over two floors on a sunny corner site on Port Chester’s flinty Main Street, the first floor being home to a long bar that fronts an area with high tables. These face a long (and comfortable) banquette, which in turn leads to a more restaurant-y area beyond. The large, lounge-y space below stairs, meanwhile, with its sofas and coffee tables, is being used for parties and tastings, and a Friday night music event program, with great acts like the mellow John H. Smith and Band, is already underway.
You may or may not like Rye House’s slightly masculine look, with its preponderance of dark oak and its TV screens on either side of the bar playing wall-to-wall sports (and blow me down if that isn’t Tiger Woods back from oblivion, filling the screen and looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth), but co-owners Michael Jannetta, Rob Lombardi and Dan Forrester clearly know their Dad’s Hat from their Charred Oak. The list of rye and bourbon, neatly subdivided into headings like Fruity, Floral & Grassy or Tobacco, Leather & Spices, runs to nearly 100 varieties, and there are another 50 or so single malt or blended Scotch and Irish whiskies waiting in the wings if American whiskey is not your thing. The list is no slouch when it comes to other spirits either, what with its Hayman’s Old Tom English Gin and its Rhum Clément VSOP from Martinique — and it also has a fine selection of craft beers.
While Chef Anne McKinney’s menu trumpets the great American culinary canon, the kitchen cleverly avoids getting caught up in clichés. McKinney does sweet, unctuous chicken wings with a choice of three sauces, an oh-so-pretty salmon crudo with a zesty citrus dressing, and an umami-rich, truffled grilled cheese sandwich that alone is worth coming on down for. In a dish of drunken mussels, the plump bivalves are given a moules marinière treatment, the more typical white wine replaced with Allagash White, a New England pale ale. It’s a corker of a dish, as is Carolina shrimp and grits, beautiful, firm shrimp with cheddar grits, the texture of a molten polenta. Buttermilk fried chicken is another classic properly done, the chicken’s golden overcoat delivering on crunch, with further bite coming from mustard glazed Brussels sprouts. A great dollop of herby cornbread enhances the comfort factor.
You can’t reinvent the wheel with this kind of American cooking, but by using prime ingredients and respecting the seasons, as McKinney seems to do, you can certainly elevate it. If you don’t believe me, try the Rye House Oreo chocolate with salted caramel, which could be a “same old, same old” kind of dessert, but in fact is quite thrilling in its combination of textures, as well as in the density of the chocolate and its sophisticated, salt-tinged sweetness.
Service is able if not hugely willing. On one visit, for weekend brunch on one of the first warm days of spring, I had the distinct impression that the two servers looking after the room would rather have been elsewhere. One was intent on examining her split ends while the other texted feverishly on his cellphone – and at frequent intervals, what’s more. To their credit, both looked sharper as the restaurant started to fill up.
In contrast, on another visit, we sat at the bar, where a cheerily professional bartender deftly mixed me a “Wake Up Call” cocktail (no matter that it was so strong it nearly put me to sleep), and multitasked as she attended to the needs of other guests. She laughed and joked naturally, putting everyone at ease – hospitality clearly in her blood. If the restaurant were mine, I’d put her in charge of staff training, pronto.
Final verdict on the Rye House? If you like whiskey and honest American fare, this one’s a go-go.
Rye House is open noon to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and noon to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. The bar stays open later.
We recommend drunken mussels, the truffled cheese sandwich, buttermilk fried chicken and the Oreo chocolate dessert. To drink, you might choose a flight of rye or bourbon whiskeys, as recommended by the bartender. Most cocktails are priced at $12 and the Mountain View California Chardonnay is not aggressively marked up at $40 a bottle.
Rye House is at 126 Main St., Port Chester. For more, call 914-481-8771 or visit ryehousepc.com.