Diner: Food for Thought

York Street's savory menu encourages patrons to camp out and talk

There we were, a chef's worst nightmare — a diabetic, a lactose-intolerant celiac and a vegetarian. I wondered how this little experiment in restricted diets would work. But as I salivated past the homemade desserts and my veggie friend eyed the fish entrées, I saw the writing on the wall. We were about to fall off the proverbial wagon.

"Everything she touches turns to gold," our server said of York Street Café's new chef, Amy Rifkin, when we asked for recommendations. And since gold has no fat, sugar, dairy, wheat or meat, we silently conspired to take the tumble and trust in our server.

While our server came dangerously close to gushing about Rifkin's food, she knew all the ingredients for dishes and sounded like she had actually tasted things. There's nothing worse than asking about a menu item and getting a shrug and non-descriptive "it's good." Any chef worth her apron strings should let the servers taste the food, because if they really have a passion for the food — and how Javita did — they are extraordinary kitchen ambassadors.

Tucked away from the mallish glare of Newport on the Levee, York Street's comfortable dining room has an eclectic feel.

Its puffy couches and soft lighting invite you to settle in for the evening. The white linen-topped tables and Victorian lamps gave me the feeling I should keep my eyes peeled for a gypsy fortuneteller, but one never showed. The original wood wall-to-wall bookcases house everything from old pewter dinner pieces to books to an oddball knick-knack collection worthy of a museum — including a velvet Elvis hanging, floating baby manikins in top hats and religious figurines.

York Street's historic home, built in 1880 as a pharmacy, was transformed into a restaurant in 1994. Its current owners, Betsy and Terry Cunningham, acquired it eight years ago. Along with its intimate dining area and patio on the first floor, the space includes a bar and entertainment space on the second floor and an art gallery on the third. The second floor has been under construction for several months, but the Cunninghams plan to reopen it as a music venue after the first of the year.

Like its ambiance, York Street's menu encourages patrons to camp out and discuss philosophy, art and politics. Appetizer options include conversation platters such as a Brie en croute ($16) — Brie baked in puff pastry and with amaretto sauce and toasted almonds — and a Mediterranean board ($18) with hummus, tabbouleh, baba gannoujh, Greek salad and spanakopita. To help get the conversation flowing, the restaurant also offers "Bottle-for-a-Buck" night on Wednesdays and Sundays with selected wines for only $1 for a bottle if you purchase two entrées.

Already in the thick of one of our usual political rants, we needed no help with dialogue, so we started with the Grilled Summer Shrimp ($10) and the Roasted Vegetable & Goat Cheese Tart ($8). The shrimp was, in a word, fantastic. We quickly gobbled up the little crustaceans with their sweet-and-sour vegetable slaw and red pepper aioli. The tart was only explored after several minutes of poking our forks around to make sure we had gotten every bit of shrimp. The free form puff pasty crust was not what we expected. The topping — eggplant purée, roasted summer squash, shallots, red pepper goat cheese and provolone — was good with the spicy harissa sauce, but it was definitely the less popular of our two appetizers.

Our dinners were a culinary tour de force. My allergy-laden friend played it safe with the evening's special — a Grilled Filet ($29) with roasted potato wedges and broccoli. I made up for any lack in the dairy department with my choice of the free range Amish Chicken Breast ($20) stuffed with apple wood smoked bacon, Gorgonzola and onions and topped with a hard cider cream sauce. Our vegetarian went with sea flesh — the Spinach & Artichoke Encrusted Halibut ($23) with a Marsala buerre blanc and basmati rice. And after eyeing my plate for several minutes, she had her first taste of chicken in 14 years.

Stopping short of the wafer-thin mint stage of fullness, we visited the dessert bar to pick our poison. I conned Javita into a bite of the French lemon meringue tart. The thing was absolutely gorgeous with its lightly browned, cracked meringue. And though the sweet pucker of the lemon filling beckoned, we ordered the flourless Hazelnut Chocolate Torte ($4.95) and the Strawberry Buttermilk Cake ($4.95).

"Oh my god," said my friend after one bite of the torte. I nodded and continued moving between the two desserts. I couldn't decide which I preferred, so I just kept eating. Our friend had a more primordial response. Pounding his fist on the table as the chocolate fired his brain's endorphins, it was obvious the high was worth it. ©

York Street Café
Go: 1738 York St., Newport

Call: 859-261-9675

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Fish, pasta and salads

Accessibility: Several steps up to the main entrance on Eighth Street. There is a small parking lot, but your best bet is the street.

Grade: A

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