Southeast Asian Flavors Shine at BackBar in Hudson, NY
347 Warren St | Hudson, NY
Only in Hudson is it possible to while away an afternoon in the garden of a revived ’40s-era gas station with a local “kimchi-lada” and vibrant Southeast-Asian inspired bar food prepared by a James Beard Award-winning team. Welcome to BackBar, a casual boîte opened by chef Zak Pelaccio, co-chef Kevin Pomplun, and their business partner, Patrick Milling Smith. The open-air eatery is tucked nonchalantly into the back of a Warren Street antiques shop that Patrick owns mere blocks from Fish & Game, their first — and much more formal — upstate venture. Though conceptually distinct, the two projects are an expression of the same inspired team, much of which has now been in place for the better part of a decade.
“We had been talking for awhile about doing something in Patrick’s space,” says Zak. “It had always seemed pie in the sky, as many things do. But one day we were like, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?'” The collaboration has enabled the former Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue frontman to re-engage with a cuisine he has always loved, but with an eye toward a Hudson palate. “This is less about me and what I think the most incredible representation of what I learned from cooking in Malaysia or Thailand might be. It’s about trying to draw from that experience and put together something that will please people.” The breezy exoticism of BackBar’s menu finds aesthetic expression in Fish & Game architect Michael Davis’s treatment of the space — whose serendipitous assortment of pieces both found and collected, local and far-flung, somehow manages to feel inevitable: a market cart from southern India, a door that belonged to a bygone tenant, an antique pier mirror salvaged from a renovation project in the city.
As communal picnic tables fill first with patrons, then with small plates served on cheerful melamine, you begin to appreciate the outfit’s come-one, come-all ethos. “A friend of mine came in the other day with his mother-in-law, who’s in her seventies, and his daughter, who’s four,” says Zak. “His whole family could find something on this menu.” Among the best-selling dishes are Chef John Petry’s riff on a traditional northern-style laab (which involves chilling the pork in order to slice it paper-thin), and the fried chicken, which the team subjected to rigorous taste tests. At BackBar, the winning version is served with turmeric pickles and chili honey vinegar featuring honey produced by the team’s proprietary bees, who reside at Patrick’s home a few miles away.
BackBar is still a work in progress, which is just fine with its creators. Inclined to let the project evolve organically, they’re planning its next phases eagerly, but without urgency. “We still feel like we’re just inching along,” says Zak. “But that’s Hudson. Nothing happens too quickly. You don’t move up here because you’re in a hurry. The idea is, ‘Okay, it’ll happen. Now, let’s go have a drink.’”
Michael’s classic mahogany bar, rescued from a defunct roadhouse tavern in Kingston, provided the premise for what would eventually become BackBar. At the time, the idea of an on-site restaurant collaboration was merely a glimmer in his eye. Once it was restored and installed inside the garage, it became the centerpiece of both the physical space and the developing vision. “It turns out to have been built in 1940, the very same year that my gas station was built,” he says. “In a way, it felt like it was coming home.”
“I came around to this idea I’d had years ago called Bakar,” says Zak. “I wanted to make it a Malaysian grill, a Malaysian drinking joint.” Malay for “burnt” or “griddled,” the project’s name is a reference to ikan bakar, a popular Malaysian charred fish — and the ubiquitous roadside grills that serve it. Ultimately, the menu wouldn’t confine itself to Malaysian or even Southeast Asian cuisine. “We did get the griddle, a nice big plancha, on which we cook a lot of the food,” says Zak, “but after that it doesn’t hold to anything that is strictly authentic other than some of the seasonings and flavors. The idea was that the food would be bright and fun to eat.”
When Patrick acquired the building in the early 2000s, it was being used as an auto glass and locksmith shop, and had been parceled into a handful of smaller utilitarian spaces. “It was the most hideous property on what was then a rather unfashionable stretch of Warren Street,” he says, “a sea of broken concrete.” Now, with its views of the surrounding rooftops and a magnetic buzz that spills over ivy-clad walls, the old gas station’s backyard is a place one strangely feels both removed from and immersed in the life of the town.
The 19th-century piano was recovered from a home not far away. “It’s occasionally played, and once in awhile my wife will sing,” says Michael. “We’d thought early on about having the bar or restaurant act as a music venue, and we may still explore that.”
After opening in 2015, the team ran BackBar for an entire season with no kitchen. Everything had to be made at Fish & Game and assembled on-site. “We used, literally, my toaster oven from my house,” says Zak. Now that they have the luxury of a proper (albeit tiny) kitchen, the focus is on embracing the challenges of a small space that demands restraint — the goal being dishes that are “just ambitious enough to be flavorful in a way that’s unique in the area, but not to a point where you might falter in the execution.”
“What’s better than really salty, spicy mayonnaise?” asks Zak, “Especially with potatoes?” Bakar’s vinegar-brined fried potatoes are trimmed with cilantro and served with salted chili aioli, a longstanding Pelaccio-Emde pantry staple.
Nowhere is the spiritual kinship between Fish & Game and BackBar so evident as behind the bar. “Both wine programs are rooted in minimal intervention,” says Mike Rice, who started as a food runner at the former and now oversees beverages at both establishments, “but obviously here the focus is on fun, easy things you want to drink a lot of while sitting outside on a patio eating spicy food.” At BackBar, where every wine on the natural-only list is available by the carafe, it’s very easy to do just that.
BackBar’s cocktail menu, like Fish & Game’s, is informed by the ever-evolving cast of small-batch bitters and vinegars issuing from Zak’s wife Jori Jayne Edme’s ‘fermentation barn’ in Old Chatham under the name Lady Jayne’s Alchemy. “The drinks I do at Fish & Game are a lot more technique-driven and unique,” she says. “At BackBar, they’re more fun.” By all accounts, the Gin Jewel, a gin and absinthe-based concoction incorporating her homemade falernum (a spiced almond and ginger liqueur), is the cocktail to sip this fall. “It’s bright enough that it’s refreshing on a sunny day but also has enough depth and body to be comforting on a cool night. It’s a big hit, even with Zak, and he doesn’t really like cocktails!”
Jori, who has spearheaded whole-utilization efforts at Fish & Game from the restaurant’s inception, developed a pickleback that elegantly contends with BackBar’s abundant pineapple and cucumber scraps. Cores, peels, seeds, and ends are conscientiously saved by the staff. “I pick it all up on Thursdays. I turn it to vinegar. I balance it with a little bit of salt and sugar, and drop it back off,” she says. “There’s always something created from what’s strained out of something else. It’s all usable over and over again.”
At BackBar, the luxury of a draft system has afforded Mike new freedom to explore selections from fledgling area brewers unable to afford bottling or canning. “We’ve kept it regional if not local for the beer program, really, because we can,” he says. “I didn’t enter into it with any sort of dogma. There are just so many incredible local breweries, like Suarez Family Brewery, which just opened down the road.”
“It’s still coming together,” says Michael. “It has a long way to go. It will be more and more beautiful over time, as the restaurant and space grow together.”