506 Piermont Ave., Piermont / 845-365-3250
Like a culinary Siren, Peter Kelly has lured countless voyagers across roiling waters. But while Homer’s call signaled demise, Kelly’s signals reward. His French-based cooking has made Piermont’s Xaviar’s an epicurean mecca for 17 years, and the adjacent Freelance Café & Wine Bar has followed suit—or crewneck and jeans, to be more accurate.
Arriving at the miniscule, intimate space is to enter a cocoon of subdued grays and swaths of dreamy landscape canvases. But on a recent Friday night, all serenity ended there. Freelance Café doesn’t accept reservations (note: it doesn’t accept credit cards, either), and though we arrived early, around 6:30, there was still a crush inside the door. Not terrible, since apparently there’s often a crush outside the door. But manager, and Chef Kelly sibling, Ned Kelly, floats between the knot of tables and the hungry horde with the preternatural calm of a Zen master. “Just a few minutes,” the words accompanying his cherubic smile promise, and we believe him. Sure enough, a corner table foursome soon drains their cocktails and departs. If the kitchen is this charmed, we’re in luck.
And in luck, it seems, we will be. The menu promises food as vibrant as autumn’s color, as bracing as its wind. Pan-seared diver scallops are moist and silken pillows beneath a thatch of mache, their mildness amped by candied ginger and rivulets of champagne vinaigrette and scarlet beet reduction. Chef Kelly and his chef de cuisine David Martinez, have an inventive triumph in their crabmeat-studded asparagus flan, though I yearned for a little more asparagus, a little less custard. No gripes about the Caesar salad, a dish of ubiquitous mediocrity that, in Chef Martinez’ hands, soars to anchovy-fueled perfection. And an appetizer of wild mushroom ravioli is autumn incarnate, its truffle juice essence lingering long on my palate, longer on my mind.
When nature breaks out the cold, chefs break out the beef short ribs. Freelance Café’s come glistening and tender in a cassis-spiked mahogany braise, with parmesan polenta and a robust 2002 Lodge Hill shiraz their inspired partners. That shiraz did double duty with the Hudson Valley quail, expertly grilled to amber beneath a tuft of frizzled leeks. More expert still: the nuanced port demi-glace napping its tiers of spinach and gruyere-potato gratin.
Listed under “Large Plates,” another ubiquitous dish has surfaced: seared tuna served—you got it—rare. But, by golly, this one trades the tired (exhausted?) sesame-seed crust for a deep wasabi sear, and the resulting heat against the rich, mineral-inflected meat is a welcome jolt to the palate and predictability. We choose an ideal toast to such inspiration: an herbal 2003 Jacques-Yves Sauvignon Blanc.
The notation of “farm” on the menu’s Stone Church Farm chicken conjures one of my culinary revelations, a dinner in the backroads of the Loire Valley of a barnyard bird that had been pecking and clucking just a few hours earlier. Could Stone Church’s bird match—okay, approximate—that near-gamey intensity, that fierce shock of flavor? Leave it to say my revelation remained unrivaled. I got mild and delicate, not deep and intense. But even my farmyard bird wouldn’t have withstood the tart, piercing acidity of this dish’s pomegranate glaze. What I will remember, besides the lush German Riesling in my glass, was the accompanying risotto, its lemon and sage suffusion elevating it from mere grain to grandeur.
Dessert induced, if not revelation, certainly shock to my chocoholic fidelity: seduction by pineapple. More accurately, roasted honey-macadamia-crusted pineapple. Even pitted against a Croesus-rich chocolate pecan tart, the fruit’s caramelized juices, coconut sorbet and mint chiffonade prevailed. A molten Callebaut chocolate disc rimmed with crème anglaise and pistachio ice cream almost had a chance, but those honey-roasted macadamias had me at hello.
Image credit: Xaviers