Review: Come for the drinks, stay for the food at Ticonderoga Club

More than a watering hole, this Krog Street Market addition is a real restaurant
Ticonderoga Club
Paul Calvert pours a drink at the bar

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

When Greg Best and Regan Smith announced in the fall of 2014 that they planned to open a restaurant in Krog Street Market, the only thing we knew for sure was that there would be drinks, and they would be good. After all, it was Best who six years earlier ushered in the city’s craft cocktail renaissance from behind the bar at Holeman and Finch Public House, which he and Smith left in 2013. Then word got out that Paper Plane’s Paul Calvert was joining the team. It was as if the Avengers of the cocktail world were assembling, with this place their central command.

In the months leading up to the opening, the team stayed hush-hush on specifics, like the restaurant’s name or the kind of food they’d serve. They stoked the mystery by handing out wooden coins featuring the face of the Grim Reaper and the words, “You will pay.” And then, on opening day last October, down came the sheets that draped the front door, revealing a makeshift cabana overlooking the market. Furnished with stools and picnic tables, the area works for groups looking to drink and people-watch the crowds. But farther inside is a dim, windowless tavern where you can escape the hustle and bustle. Solo diners can opt for the eight-stool bar; double dates will want the cozy booths. My favorite place is the landing upstairs. Anchored by an eight-person table, it feels far away from the lines and the noise, and it’s where I like to order a few rounds with friends and spy on the people sitting below me.

Ticonderoga Club
Dry-aged roasted duck

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Despite the pedigree of its founders, Ticonderoga Club is more than a watering hole. It’s a real restaurant, with a real chef whose plates aren’t outclassed by the pours. David Bies was the chef de cuisine for Linton Hopkins at Restaurant Eugene for four years. He also spent three years back in the late 2000s traveling throughout Asia, and those influences surface in a menu otherwise inspired by New England’s clams-crabs-and-fish traditions. His dry-aged roasted duck, prepared like the Peking variety, nearly bests those I had in Beijing, where the dish was invented. He salts the bird, pumps air between skin and meat to separate the two, and hangs it to dry for three days. In place of five-spice powder and star anise, Bies boils the duck’s bones to make a rich jus. He finishes the plate with thyme, parsley, and scallions. It’s brilliant, with beautifully rendered fat and skin so crackly that the tables nearby could hear us biting down.

Ticonderoga Club
Chuck wagon with parsley-onion salad

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

If Bies’s duck is the beauty, his chuck wagon is the beast. Forty-eight ounces of sliced chuck glistening in maître d’ butter arrive on a platter that hogs most of the table. It’s a commanding sight, enough to send vegans shrieking out into the food hall. Chuck is a utility cut, typically used in roasts and cooked for hours to break down its tough muscles and fibers. Bies sous-vides his for 30 hours and chars it on the grill. Even on the night when it arrived an uncomfortably chewy medium-rare, wearing out our knives and our jaws, it was hard to stop eating, the meat’s clear flaws masked by, well, all of that butter. On another night, when the chuck was cooked closer to medium, it was engrossing—tender and rich, the fat cut by a sharp side salad of Italian parsley and shaved red onions. At $72 and capable of feeding five, it stands to be one of the city’s best steak bargains.

Ticonderoga is named after the 18th-century French fort in upstate New York, a few hours from Poughkeepsie and Binghamton, the respective hometowns of Best and Smith. A well-traveled diner might have guessed the restaurant’s Northeastern roots based on its sandwiches. The Spiedie is lunchtime-only—a Binghamton specialty of grilled chicken, herbs (including oregano), mayo, and fistfuls of lettuce. It’s fresh, filling, and served on a toasted sesame sub from TGM Bread. But it’s the Ipswich clam roll that you’ll come to crave. Beautifully fried clam bellies, which Bies himself picks up at the airport once a week, are drenched in tartar sauce and set atop a buttered pain de mie. The tartar sauce gets everywhere—hands, napkin, table, maybe your pants if you’re clumsy. Let it happen.

Indeed, Ticonderoga’s lack of pretension comes as the most welcome surprise. Given its all-star lineup, the place could have turned out unbearably pretentious, serving $18 cocktails that take 10 minutes to mix, delivered by starchy servers with mustaches so curly you could hang ornaments on them. But this is a place that likes a good joke. The hostess uses a duck phone that quacks when it rings. Servers clang a small bell whenever they sell a chuck wagon. Bartenders shout “Happy Birthday” across the room. The kitchen serves fish sticks (sometimes good, sometimes mealy and saltless). That casualness, juxtaposed with the place’s unmistakable ambition, makes Ticonderoga feel exponentially bigger than the space it occupies.

Ticonderoga Club
Fisherman’s Friend

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Some dishes come with thick, spongy bread, good for mopping up Bies’s sauces, which demand that level of attention. The tangy, umami pool of fermented black bean sauce with icy blue mussels would be just as good as a stand-alone soup. Shrimp, clams, and grilled swordfish in the Fisherman’s Friend were cooked gently and precisely, but the dish’s highlight was always the bacon-infused basil-sake-shellfish broth. A side of roasted Chinese eggplant—sweet, soft, and cut into coins—basked in a homey Indonesian sauce containing upwards of 20 ingredients, including coconut milk and tamarind pulp. If this gig doesn’t work out, Bies should bottle the stuff. I’d be the first to offer seed money.

Not every dish delivers. Cured salmon rolls were a bore, with no help from a spineless Thai chili sauce. Sweetbreads were overwhelmed with garlic in an arugula puree. Tempura-fried soft shell crabs were soggy, blanketed in a sickly sweet, chunky sauce that tasted like a can of tomato paste. That dish is called Congrejo el Diablo, and it’s about as spicy as a Cobb salad—which Ticonderoga Club also serves and which is unexpectedly satisfying, thanks to a tangy buttermilk dressing.

Ticonderoga Club
Ticonderoga Cup (right) and the Long Henry

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

And the cocktails? Not surprisingly, they’re smart, leaning often on the boozy side, like the belly-warming, bourbon-fueled Buckskin Playmate made with Madeira and Herbsaint, or the Thread & Theory, an unusual blend of apple cider vinegar and amaro tempered by rum and sorghum. I preferred the lighter, fruit-driven drinks that don’t overtake the food, like the Ticonderoga Cup, a beach-ready potion that’s bright with pineapple and lemon and anchored by rum and brandy. Or you could settle in with an Antique Sour, a frothy libation of cognac, lemon, and sorghum. But the drink I ordered repeatedly was the Long Henry, a palate-awakening mix of rum, ginger, and hard cider. Noticeably absent on the list was gin. I asked, and Calvert’s answer reflected the same easygoing instinct and thought that went into the food: Heavier spirits and heartier dishes were more winter-appropriate. We’ll see where their moods take us come spring and summer.

Or just don’t drink the cocktails at all. The wine list is compact—only 15 bottles—but it manages to cover the gamut, with weights and styles from unexpected corners of the world. Bright, refreshing whites like Müller-Thurgau and Grüner Veltliner beg for shellfish. Aromatic reds like Lagrein pair well with duck. I’m partial to the crisp white from Irouléguy, an obscure region in the south of France that gets zero play in the local market.

Doing big things in small spaces—that’s a restaurant model this city could stand to see more of, especially at a time when each new opening feels bigger, splashier, and louder than the last. And the sincere hospitality with which Best and his team pull the whole thing off makes it all the more alluring. It’s the kind of restaurant that would welcome you warmly if you showed up wearing a Hawaiian shirt and one flip-flop. I’m not suggesting that you try, but if you do, see if they’ll seat you upstairs.

★ ★ ★ (Excellent)

Good to know
Unlike a lot of restaurants, Ticonderoga’s day off is Wednesday, not Monday. This is designed in part to keep the Krog market busy on Mondays, when most stalls are closed.

Vital Stats
Krog Street Market

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.