Ryan Quinn of Beacon behind the bar with its hand-carved late 19th century wood centerpiece and stocked with an array of the 200 spirits offered at Rye House in Port Chester. The upscale American bar and restaurant opened Dec. 26. Richard Abel|Westmore News
Ryan Quinn of Beacon behind the bar with its hand-carved late 19th century wood centerpiece and stocked with an array of the 200 spirits offered at Rye House in Port Chester. The upscale American bar and restaurant opened Dec. 26.

Richard Abel|Westmore News
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The long-awaited Rye House is finally open with its full menu in the impressive Stratmar building, long ago Zemo's men's store, at the corner of North Main Street and Willett Avenue. The beer, wine and cocktails are set, but the menu is still evolving.

Rye House, with its smart, rustic, comfortable décor designed by John Nyomarkay, a former New York film set designer, is a welcome addition to the upscale drinking and dining scene. It serves American comfort food from various regions of the country, 200 different spirits by the glass, many you won't find elsewhere in these parts, craft beer, wine and cocktails.

A focus on craft cocktails, beers and domestic whiskeys

At Rye House there is a focus on remarkable cocktails and, in keeping with the name of the establishment, a strong selection of domestic whiskeys and spirits. Craft cocktails "are a major part of what we do," Michael Jannetta, one of three owners, said when construction was just getting started on the Port Chester version of the New York City gastrobar. For those, Rye House uses international whiskeys, scotches, gins, vodkas and tequilas with different kinds of bitters and fresh juices, syrups and specialty conserved fruit as well as special ice that is physically colder and more solid so the drinks don't get watered down.

I have tried quite a few of the craft cocktails and see why the 17th Street Sazerac, which "pays homage to the other restaurant and features the spirit that defines our concept," according to General Manager Jeff Skiba of Port Chester, is a signature cocktail. This complex mixture of Templeton Rye, Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac, Demerara, Peychaud & Angostura bitters and absinthe wash fills about half of an old-fashioned glass, comes very cold but without ice, has an orangey aroma and taste, obviously tinged with the anise flavor of the absinthe, and a wonderful, warming effect. It is a variation on the Sazerac cocktail which dates back to 1830s New Orleans. Sipping one of these ($14) and munching on some "bites" or "small plates" before or in place of dinner make for an enjoyable evening.

Another signature cocktail, the Main Street Melting Pot ($14), made with three types of whiskey--a scotch, a rye and a bourbon--and syrup, is a tribute to Port Chester, Skiba said. I do recall enjoying one of these on my first visit, the restaurant's soft opening on Jan. 9, but not as much as the Sazerac I had most recently, which had a real impact.

Rye House cocktails aren't all made with whiskey. For instance, The Jeeves ($12) is a variation on a margarita, a combination of Cimarron Blanco tequila, lemon and honey enhanced by smoked sea salt around the rim of the glass, a nice touch.

I'm a cocktail kind of gal, not one who sips good scotch, bourbon, rye or whiskey, but those who do will relish the huge selection in all price ranges, from $8 to $38 for 21-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon from Kentucky or $40 for Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch.

There are 11 craft beers on tap from six states plus the currently featured draft, Founders Breakfast Stout from Michigan, brewed with flaked oats, bitter and sweetened imported chocolates, Sumatra and Kona coffee. Served in a large snifter, this thick brew tastes of chocolate and coffee kissed with sweetness. The limited edition stout

has an 8.3% alcohol content, more than many beers. In order to keep the price at $7 for the beers with higher alcohol content, "we change the pour size so as not to increase the price," Skiba said.

An additional seven craft beers come in bottles and there is an exclusively domestic wine list of reasonably priced whites, reds and even a rosé, mostly from California and New York and all available by the glass or bottle.

Menu is evolving

Rye House actually opened at 126 North Main the day after Christmas with a limited menu and each day would add to it before presenting a full bill of fare on Jan. 9. Still, however, it is developing. There were less salads the last time I visited than the time before and the ribeye steak had been removed, for instance, perhaps because of the difficulty of getting it properly cooked to order. Case in point: My daughter had ordered the ribeye, and it came too well done, so she had to send it back.

"It's just a natural process finding out what works and what doesn't," Skiba said, within the constraints of the smallish kitchen. "At some point it will stabilize and then change here and there." After that, chef Anne McKinney, the NYU and Institute of Culinary Education graduate who opened Rye House in the Flatiron District in October 2009 and was hired back to develop the menu for and open this one, expects the bill of fare will vary with the seasons four times a year. She also plans to add weekly specials--one appetizer, one entrée and one rotating dessert that changes twice a week.

A larger space in Port Chester, 'the place to be'

Rye House in Port Chester is a large space seating 100 upstairs, including the bar and lounge area, with 60 seats exclusively for dining, and another 75 on the lower level, which will open strictly for private parties this weekend. Both the space and menu are much larger than Jannetta and longtime business partner Robert Lombardi's New York City gastrobar where the focus is on the bar. In Port Chester the emphasis is on both food and drink and thus the menu has been expanded to include more entrées.

"It has given the chef a chance to be a little more creative," Skiba said.

For this new venture in Westchester, Dan Forrester of Rye Brook has joined Jannetta, who lives in Putnam County, and Lombardi, who is from Manhattan. Forrester, said Jannetta, "is unwavering in his belief that Port Chester is the place to be now and exponentially so moving forward."

Tried and true

The most popular items on the menu, divided into "Bites," "Small Plates," "Sandwiches" and "Large Plates," so far have been the White Bean & Kale Dip served with baby carrots, celery sticks and warm pita ($14), Maplebrook Burrata ($14), an amazing soft cheese made at a farm in Vermont, the Cuban Sandwich ($14) and the Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($22).

Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream. According to chef McKinney, the cheesemaker at Maplebrook Farm hails from Italy and brought all his Italian equipment with him. She said "there is nothing else that compares. It is the closest to the Italian in the U.S. and is amazing."

Together the two Rye House gastrobars are taking half of Maplebrook's stock each week, and that is their limit. Because of the demand, the new restaurant was out of the burrata at the soft opening, but almost a week later I shared a serving with the rest of my party and discovered its delightful creaminess. The soft cheese is served on crunchy crostini and accompanied by arugula and apple-ginger relish in a balsamic reduction.

The Baby Kale and Squash Salad ($11) is also fresh and delicious. Besides the kale, there are cubes of squash, thin slices of apple and crunchy almonds topped with crispy fried shallots and blended with a lovely sherry vinaigrette.

The Sloppy Joe Sliders ($12) brought two large sliders made with spicy Wagyu beef (the American version of kobe) and house pickled jalapenos on brioche buns for a meaty flavor with just the right amount of zing.

The Carolina Style Shrimp and Grits ($16), a "large plate," consisted of six medium tiger shrimp in a flavorful sauce of green and red bell peppers and pieces of Andouille sausage served over cheddar grits, similar to mashed potatoes with a loose consistency, for a comforting combination.

I only sampled but my husband raved about the BBQ Beef Brisket with Carolina style BBQ sauce, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and braised greens ($24). The meat is rubbed and let to stand for 24 hours, then cooked in a slow oven for 13 hours and finally smoked a short time to make it soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside. You get two good-sized strips of meat, a dish of thin Carolina style barbecue sauce made with onion brulée, homemade chipotle chilies and distilled white vinegar for dipping, a too small mound of mashed potatoes and either collard greens, spinach or kale.

The Tortilla Salad ($15) is listed under large plates because it is definitely a meal. On first glance this salad doesn't look too appetizing- just like romaine with finely grated cheese on top. But upon delving in there are crispy tortilla strips, red onion, avocado, tomatoes, cilantro and warm, seasoned Wagyu beef on the bottom, all topped with Mexican cotija cheese. A pleasantly warming combination is achieved once everything is mixed together.

Boiled Peanuts, Fried Pickles (both $6), Truffle Grilled Cheese ($14) and the RH Burger with hand cut fries ($13) are some of the other offerings.

Not just bread and butter

If you're having a meal, a bread pan arrives with two kinds of tasty, fresh bread from The Kneaded Bread bakery just down North Main Street-fresh country loaf and multi-grain. Skiba is proud to serve this locally made bread as well as ice cream from Longford's and coffee from Waterfront Roasters, both also in Port Chester.

Not only is the bread a highlight but also the house-made butter. I can only vouch for the maple butter with raisins, which my husband found as much of a treat as dessert, but other varieties on tap will include garlic and herb and sundried tomato. "They may continually change or we may fall into something we like," Skiba said. Assuming the others are as good as the maple, I think the adventure of not knowing which one is up each time you go would add to the anticipation.

Desserts in development

So far there are three desserts--individual warm apple pies made with three varieties of fruit and served with a large dollop of house made whipped cream either on the side or on top (nice!), devil's food cake criss-crossed with a marshmallow topping (disappointingly dry) and cheesecake in grape reduction (untried). Others are being added to eventually make five, one that will rotate and change twice a week.

After having worked at Rye House in the City, McKinney is surprised by the number of desserts Port Chester is selling.

Great service

From the managers (besides General Manager Skiba, Nick Messina of Norwalk is the manager) to the hostesses to the wait staff, my experience at Rye House has been nothing but positive. The servers are patient, pleasant and knowledgeable about the food and beverages.

Comfortable, rustic décor

Problems with the contractor who failed to get the required inspections from the village during the construction process led to delays which pushed back the opening of Rye House from what had originally looked like September to late December.

John Nyomarkay, who also designed Rye House NYC in 1999 and all of Jannetta and Lombardi's restaurants, transformed the 3400-square-foot raw space which had previously been offices into a modern and inviting restaurant and bar that celebrates America past and present.

Red brick and multi-color reclaimed American woods--from the white oak floors to tabletops and the ceiling grid work of beams connected with 150-year-old distressed hemlock--represent the past while the neutral palette of warm olives, steel blues and mustard yellows juxtapose a modern, contemporary feel.

Upon entering the space, guests are welcomed by a bar and lounge area which showcases high top, window and bar seating and highlights a hand-carved late 19th century wood centerpiece behind the 24-foot dark wood and granite countertop bar. The large dining area features warm brown banquettes, an open window to the kitchen and mood lighting created by smoke-tinted and hand-blown Murano glass pendants which, combined with small candles in glass holders on the tables, create a romantic atmosphere. Originally too dark, the lighting has been turned up a notch.

Outdoor seating along busy North Main Street and Willett Avenue is anticipated in the spring.

The 2,700-square-foot lower level space is reached via a long staircase. There is a second bar downstairs where seating is exclusively at couches and low tables. This space will be used for private events, live music such as a singer-songwriter, folk group, acoustic guitar or even a small jazz band and eventually spillover from upstairs. It will open as a second bar at a later date.

"We want to make sure we are not spreading ourselves too thin," Skiba said.

Hours will be expanding

For now Rye House is open for dinner only from 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday with the bar open till midnight daily except Friday and Saturday when it remains open until 2 a.m.

Saturday and Sunday brunch will be added by mid-February followed by Monday-Friday lunch starting in early spring.

Parking

Parking is on the street or in the nearby shopper's parking lot on Willett Avenue where meters are enforced until 9 p.m. Marvin Place behind the restaurant is often a good bet for parking after 6 p.m. when permit spaces open up and can be used at no charge.