Fine American cuisine at CHAR, just across the Byram River
Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 PM
Char is the fifth restaurant to take up residence at 2 South Water St. (corner of Mill Street), which was for many years Amerigo's and most recently Greenwich Lobster House. This new eatery, which opened July 3, is not a steakhouse and does not have a wood-burning oven but instead serves contemporary American cuisine prepared in the kitchen.
General manager Jimmy Rucova (left) and brother Agron, the bar manager, share a moment behind the bar at Char Restaurant in Byram. The contemporary American eatery opened in July.
It's not perfect (few restaurants are), but there's a lot to like about Char, the fine dining establishment that opened just across the river in Byram, Connecticut this summer.
"We source local and seasonal and organic products whenever possible," said general manager Jimmy Rocova, adding that this concept is becoming mainstream.
The name has no real significance, according to Rucova, who owns Char with his father Elio and three brothers: Agron, the bar manager; Skel, who comes in two days a week to bartend and take care of paperwork; and Dean. Dad is the gray-haired host or "schmoozer," according to Agron, who walks around and checks in with customers about their dining experience.
The Rucova family has Albanian roots but now hails from Yonkers where they own the seafood restaurant Dolphin on the Hudson River waterfront and Café Hudson, the upscale bar next door. Elio started as a chef in Manhattan, later owned a restaurant there and was a bartender at Molino's in White Plains for 23 years before opening Dolphin.
Jimmy worked at a few restaurants in Las Vegas, including one in the MGM Grand, before joining the family business.
"I liked the short name," he said about Char. "It's a little bit of a mystery to people."
The menu of small plates and appetizers as well as a dozen entrées, all made with fresh ingredients, is appealing. Designed by head chef David Snyder, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who has worked in various restaurants and high end country clubs, it is changing Oct. 30 to the fall/ winter menu and will continue to evolve three times a year.
"His modern bistro style of food was right for us," said manager Rucova about Snyder. "We wanted to be modern but not too frou-frou that it was not approachable."
About 80% of the menu will be different, with some of the favorite items remaining such as the Hangar Steak Frites ($24.50), Bucatini with Lamb Bolognese ($21.50) and Crystal Valley Farms Pan-Roasted Boneless Half Chicken ($24.50), which Rucova called "the best chicken I have ever had." So, too, will the Char Grilled Octopus ($15), which my daughter loved and I sampled, as well as the Espresso Semifreddo ($10) and French Toast Style Bread Pudding ($10) desserts.
"Initially the regulars will be taken aback, but we want to keep the restaurant fresh and interesting so we can always have something new to become a favorite," he said.
I love that idea. Just as people like to try a new restaurant, they are intrigued by ever-changing dishes as long as they are made with high-quality ingredients and there are a few standbys.
Some restaurants keep interest with daily specials, which are also offered at Char. These include at least one appetizer, a "soup of the moment"-a welcome change of wording from the standard soup of the day, a few entrées and sometimes a dessert.
Speaking of desserts, everything down to the ice cream, sorbet and marshmallows is made by in-house pastry chefs, something I find refreshing. I'd rather have one or two small plates and a fantastic dessert than an entrée almost any day.
On my first visit to Char, I ordered the dessert special, a white chocolate and raspberry napoleon ($10), which three of us shared. It consisted of three pieces of flaky pastry with melted white chocolate and raspberries between each. It was decorated with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. Light, scrumptious and beautifully presented, this dessert was one of the best I've ever tasted, and I definitely could have eaten the entire portion myself.
While not exorbitant, the cost of food, wine and/or drinks at Char does add up, and a good meal for two is going to cost at least $125. That will give you plenty to eat, but you probably won't go home with any leftovers.
Rustic chic décor
The rustic chic décor at Char is noteworthy. "We're really proud of it," said Rucova, describing the four kinds of reclaimed wood used to create it. The walls of the bar are
covered with 100-year-old pine that was previously floor joists from a building in Brooklyn, the floor throughout the restaurant, including the stairs leading up to the dining room off the parking lot, are made of waterlogged white oak, the bar top of 40-year-old red oak, and the inserts in the bar front were crafted from 30-year-old antique pine.
"It is all really cool stuff that has character," he said. A family
friend who is a wood specialist located the four varieties.
Solid brass light fixtures- some simple chandeliers and matching candle-based wall lights-were made in America, as were the solid copper sinks
in the bathrooms which have beautiful designs in the metal. Check out the gorgeous textured stone in the ladies' room. Only the travertine tile on the floor in the bathrooms is from Turkey. The stone accents throughout the bar and restaurant remain from a previous incarnation of the space but were kept because they go with the rustic chic feel, said Jimmy.
"It's been four places," said the general manager. In the process of creating Char, "we saw all the different layers of construction like an archaeological dig."
Even the greenish gray-colored wall treatment with definite paint strokes visible in the dining room screams
extraordinary as does the metal lettering spelling out "Char" in front of the fireplace and at the entrance to the bar off South Water Street. The lettering is set in a concrete base and protected with epoxy.
Simple oak laminate tables are surrounded by silvery metal chairs with black seats, and gold benches line the walls. There are no tablecloths, just white napkins with magenta stripes.
The floor plan remains the same as in previous incarnations of the restaurant. The layout includes an enclosed room with windows looking out to the main dining room in one corner and a striking fireplace surrounded by raw stone.
Lit wine cabinets keep red wine at 58 degrees and white wine at 43 degrees in the vestibule between the 106-seat dining room and the bar, which seats 41. You can enjoy anything off the dinner menu or the bar menu (Char burger, Asian pork belly sliders, Potatoes Bravas and Chili Garlic Crispy Shrimp) in the latter. An elegant private dining room downstairs equipped with information technology can accommodate 85 for a meeting, shower or small wedding.
The main dining room can be noisy at the prime dinner hours on weekends even after sound proofing has been added. I recommend requesting the enclosed room, sitting at a table along the wall or eating early. My husband's and my meal was perfectly enjoyable when we started at 6 p. m. on a Saturday night, but we had to talk loudly when our party of three sat in the middle of the dining room at 8:15 on a Friday night.
Artist Deb Ryan of Deb Ryan Designs in Byram helped with the build-out of the restaurant.
Dinner for two
Everything I've eaten at Char has been exceptional. On my second visit, my husband and I sat at a table for two along the wall by the windows facing the street, pleasant as it was still light out when we arrived.
We prefaced our meal with a delightful Twisted Peach cocktail ($12) made with Absolut Wild Tea Vodka, peach purée, lemonade and fresh iced tea served on the rocks and a Greenwich Tea ($12), two more summery drinks which are going off the menu, at least until next summer.
Meals begin with a plate of warmed French bread brushed with fresh herbs and extra virgin oil-crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.
The butternut squash soup of the moment ($9), made with cream and topped with Vermont maple syrup and a dollop of goat cheese, was delicious and only slightly sweet, the goat cheese cutting the sweetness of the syrup.
Cannelloni stuffed with spinach, artichoke and mascarpone ($11), topped with crispy artichoke hearts, shaved parmesan cheese and a drizzle of white truffle oil and sitting in an artichoke butter sauce succeeded in creating an artichoke flavor throughout. However, this appetizer special came lukewarm and had to be returned for reheating.
For entrée, the Portuguese Cioppino ($26.50) brought two each of shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels in a savory red sauce with green and black olives and diced chorizo. It was served in a large white bowl with just the right amount of broth so the seafood stew wasn't too messy to eat and included three pieces of toasted bread for dipping. A small bowl for shells and a cocktail fork were also helpful. The only drawback: this, too, had to be returned to the kitchen for warming.
Another special, skirt steak ($28) over a yummy cubed potato hash with onions and chorizo and topped with a chimichurri sace of roasted red pepper, parsley, oregano, cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and a touch of olive oil was perfectly cooked medium rare and bursting with flavor.
To go with our meal, a glass of white wine-the Cantina Del Taburno Falanghina ($12) from Italy-was delightful and dry enough for our liking. A glass of red wine, the Tempranillo ($9) from Spain, was light and paired well with the steak.
While the extensive wine list concentrates on American, Italian and French wines, there are a variety of price points and a sampling of wines from around the world, including 15 different varieties that can be purchased by the glass as well as the bottle.
Our waiter, Ward Capeci, who recently returned to his native Port Chester, was friendly, helpful and offered knowledgeable suggestions when asked, which I appreciate. He apologized for our need to return items for warming and offered us complimentary dessert. The owner of the former Giorgio's Ristorante in Port Chester is also a waiter here.
Thank goodness the Espresso Semifreddo ($10) will remain on the menu as it affords a delightful mix of flavors and textures. The coffee-flavored frozen dessert features crumbled chocolate-covered coffee beans in the center and salted caramel drizzled around the bowl it is served in plus whipped cream with candied lemon twists on the side. This delicacy is both sweet and salty, smooth and crunchy.
My husband ordered the attractive cheese plate ($15), which brought four varieties of artisanal cheese, a spoonful of fresh raisins, another of apricot preserves and a third of delicious honeycomb. Chef Murray said he tries to offer a mixture of textures-hard, softer and a bleu-from different countries and from two or three animals. The plate, which came with six slices of French bread, was an overwhelming success.
Our meal without the desserts but with two coffees totaled $134. The coffee is expensive at $3.50, but you do get a large mug.
Sampling of fall/winter menu
Besides the items mentioned earlier that are being carried over, the fall/winter dinner menu includes such delicacies as Wild Mushroom Salad ($14), Roasted Baby Golden Beets ($13), Edamame Dumplings with sweet chili sauce ($9), Braised Oxtail ($14), and Farotto (ancient grains, asparagus, zucchini, grape tomato and wild mushrooms with a truffle butter at $13) for starters and Rigatoni Meze Vegetable Sugo ($19.50), Plum Wine and Miso Glazed Atlantic Cod ($28.50), Coriander Crusted American Red Snapper ($35) and Creole "Low Country" Jambalaya ($23.50) for entrées.
Lunch is being rolled out slowly, said Rucova, with a dedicated menu coming out Oct. 30 as well. It features many of the same starters at lower prices, burgers and salad or fries ($14 and $15), a Char BLT ($12), Hangar Steak Frites ($24), Organic Scottish Salmon ($24) and light entrées such as Grilled Chicken Paillard ($17), Market Fish of the Day ($18) and the Bucatini with Lamb Bolognese ($17).
Char will participate in Hudson Valley Restaurant Week (Nov. 4-17), a good time to try the new eatery while paying a fixed price for lunch or dinner, and Sunday brunch is on the horizon, hopefully starting by the end of November.
Hours, parking etc.
Char is open 7 days: Monday through Thursday from 11:45 a. m. to 10 p. m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p. m. and Sunday till 9 p. m. The dining room is closed between 2:45 and 5 p. m., but the bar is open.
The restaurant has its own parking lot for 54 cars, which definitely was a big attraction to the site, said Rucova.
Char has been well-received by the public, said the general manager, and has received great reviews on the restaurant web-site yelp.com.
"Today everyone is a food critic," concluded Rucova. They expect a lot, "and yet we're human. People are coming in rush hour traffic and expecting a Sunday morning drive."