People tend to speak in superlatives about Columbia County. They go for drives and fall in love with the most wonderful historic properties even when investments drain bank accounts and minor renovations become full-scale rehabs. It happened to Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg, founders of the Fresh soap and skin care brand (part of the luxury Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy group), and partner Damien Janowicz, who fell for a vacant 19th-century former railroad hotel during a drive upstate.
On Route 66 in Ghent, Bartlett House is a striking, three-story, standalone brick building with frothy cornicing, its name boldly lettered in white paint, and a porch — a guaranteed must-sit in fair weather — spanning its width. The owners undertook a nine-month restoration, salvaging sills and floors along the way, to open a bakery-café focused on the bounty of local growers and makers. Future ambitions include cooking classes, guest chefs and a test kitchen upstairs, community gatherings, even farmer’s markets on the lawn. Underpinning it, their six-point mission statement reads like a self-actuating vision board.
To accomplish it all, they secured Brooklyn-based executive chef Amy Stonionis, who, with sous chef Rachel Freier, lives on the top floor, and head baker Craig Escalante, a California native who turns out loaves that are featured on the dinner menu and croissants and pear-rosewater muffins that anchor the café. You’ll inevitably linger on the porch stairs once you catch sight of the flour-topped counters and kitchen action through raised basement windows.
2258 Route 66
Reservations: Highly recommended.
Credit cards: All major.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Parking: On-site lot.
Disabled access: ADA parking spot and elevator from side entrance.
Attire: Casual to smart.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $12; entrées, $16 to $27; desserts, $6.50 to $10.
Food: (***) Simple, traditional hearty fare given modern upgrades. Scratch kitchen showcases locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and the excellent in-house bakery.
Beverage: (***) European and Chatham Brewing beers, $7 to $11. Lovely little wine list, most available by the glass. By the glass, $7 to $8; by the bottle, $40 to $68.
Service: (***) Friendly and attentive.
Ambiance: (***1/2) Cozy, buzzy little vintage dining room with tightly spaced tables.
Personality: (***1/2) Busy, vintage charm with wonderful attention to preservation and modern interpretation.
Overall Rating: ***
Café branding is beautifully woven in. Labels on local jams, wax-sealed maple syrup and pastry boxes link past to present with the Bartlett House tagline: “Built 1870. Revived 2016.” Then, last November, two weeks after a write-up in The New York Times, they finally opened for weekend dinner. Word has spread. Dinner reservations are tight, and weekend nights the parking lot is a sea of Audis and Beamers.
Stonionis researched old menus for dishes befitting the hotel’s historic roots, and she shoots straight with wholesome dishes mixing nods to the past and to current kitchen trends. In screaming hot cast-iron skillets, a pressed half chicken ($23) — flesh moist and skin crisp — is bathed in its pan juices, buttery lemon, garlic and softened leek; slow-braised short ribs ($27), lubricated in a red wine pan reduction, collapse under fork pressure into a luxurious bed of sunchoke and potato puree.
But it’s not only hearty railroad dinners of meat and mash. We demolish silky, boozy chicken liver mousse ($9), cracking the fat cap and mounding it on grilled sourdough bread with pickled red onions. And we cackle inanely over a Madeira-fumed mushroom toast ($12) piled with glistening hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. In a peppery double act, horseradish creme fraiche and Starling Yards arugula cleverly partner with a violent puce beet-cured salmon ($16); the bright orange-cured egg yolk nestled beside it is more proof of a kitchen hell bent on creative things.
Working alongside the curing, pickling scratch kitchen is a bakery putting out artisanal breads with irresistible crust and crumb and an Old World flavor. They’re rightfully proud to put a sampler basket on the menu as an appetizer ($5), so don’t look for complimentary bread. Decisions to set out tiny-footed trivets for skillets or to make an exception to sell the clearly un-local San Francisco Sightglass coffee and Hudson Valley Jane’s Ice Cream all show careful intent. Even the wine list steers clear of precious affectation, with a relaxed selection popping with fairly priced treats.
It’s no surprise to find seasonal ingredients in the spotlight, but simplicity sharpens focus. An unpretentious mass of shaved Brussels sprouts and kale ($11) is hardly taxing swept into a leaf pile, but it’s woken up with tiny bursts of juice and crunch from pomegranate arils and toasted pecans: A festive scene. Roasted baby carrots are reunited with their severed tops in carrot-greens yogurt sauce, and fries are the crispy, skinny kind. And Stonionis’ cavatappi macaroni and cheese ($9.50) gets its magic from house-made crumbs and an unusual blend with a scintilla of nutmeg sweetness in its gooey, cheesy depths.
The few rough spots are well-intentioned: Whole seared brook trout ($23), though moist, is missing the depth of flavor its gleaming body suggests and swims with bok choy in an uncomfortably oily skillet, and a vegetable and grain bowl ($19) dominated by rye berries and little else is desperately unexciting.
Desserts are largely rewarding little blinders. The hot apple cider affogato ($8) is a brilliant higher calling for caramelized apples and ginger ice cream, given a tableside bath in warm local apple cider; and honey-pecan pie ($10) is couched in dreamy softness though we choose vanilla over the paired chocolate ice cream.
There’s admirable cohesion in the menu and interior, as if you get the whole story through what you eat and what you see. Attention to detail has created the platonic ideal of a 19th-century railroad hotel dining room that likely exceeds its original glory. Die-cut metal sconces shoot sepia light up the walls, shelves stocked with pottery are fashioned from salvaged stair balustrades, and I lingered by the bathroom peering at the tightly crimped newsprint wallpaper with its bidirectional modern and vintage flair.
That duality is reflected in other ways. The average age of weekend diners is easily 60 — an elderly gentleman in a tweed suit wafted the scent of mothballs my way every time he moved his arms — while supplemental dinner staff are youthful, keen types who might leave a plate of chicken bones on the table through dessert.
Bartlett House is reveling in regained love, embraced by the community, locals and weekenders alike. There’s a welcoming, hive-like energy as coats are hung and retrieved, coffees poured and café purchases tied up with string. Whether you fancy coffee and pastry, weekend dinner or their rather smashing-sounding Sunday brunch, you should pop in and see.
Dinner for four — including four appetizers, three entrées, three desserts and a $49 bottle of wine — came to $325.09 with tax and 20 percent tip.
Susie Davidson Powell is a freelance writer from East Greenbush. Follow her on Twitter, @SusieDP. To comment on this review, visit the Table Hopping blog, blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping.