by Linda Viertel
Red Zebra – not only the catchy name of a beautiful heirloom tomato, is now also the notably memorable restaurant appellation that represents co-owners David Starkey’s and Neil Benson’s farm-to-table take on fresh local ingredients. Together, with their Culinary Institute of America (CIA) trained chef, Beau Widener, they have combined a love of Italian street food with Widener’s passion for fresh homemade pastas, pizzas, grilled entrees and distinctive salads.
Starkey has already made a name for himself as a local restaurateur, beginning with Tomatillo in 2004 (Dobbs Ferry), Sweet Grass in 2009 (Tarrytown), and now Red Zebra (Sleepy Hollow), with plans to open Grass Roots Kitchen in the spring of 2017 (Tarrytown). All of his “sister restaurants” have been created with a founding mission based on locavore integrity. Starkey’s well-established relationships with a multitude of local farms and purveyors, 17 in fact, coupled with the owners’ continued commitment to look for artisanal ingredients and the freshest edibles, make Red Zebra a memorable dining (and let’s not forget drinking!) experience.
Housed in the former Finalmente location on Sleepy Hollow’s upper Main Street, diners may enjoy the familiarity of the previous restaurant whose generous and inviting bar gives a street-side welcome as you enter. And, Benson has curated the wine and beer selection with an eye to a variety of moderately priced Italian reds, whites, sparkling and dessert wines. A dazzling selection of cocktail originals invites customers to linger at the warmth of the bar where the full menu is also served. But, just settle down with such cocktail inventions as an Ichabod’s Lament, a Warwick Basil Gimlet or a Jack Rose and you may be enticed to hang out on a weekly basis. Benson has also made it a point to serve locally distilled liquors such as Comb Vodka distilled from honeycomb at Stilltheone Distillery in Port Chester or Stillhouse Whiskies, hailing from Red Hook, Brooklyn. Craft Italian beers are served in bottles, American beers in cans, and several beers are always on tap.
When home cooks or chefs like Widener use the freshest, organic ingredients, customers taste the difference, appreciate clear, clean tastes and feel a healthy goodness even after a generous meal. At Red Zebra, you can be sure that’s the case. Soups such as roasted butternut squash or Tuscan white bean with escarole and parsley, accompanied by grissini (in-house-made pencil thin breadsticks) provide culinary comfort perfect for a chilly winter’s night.
For “noshing” a la Italian street food, try the lightly breaded and fried calamari with RZ marinara – a healthy take on this favorite appetizer. An early popular signature offering on the “nosh” list are castelvetrano olives stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese, flash fried and served with lemon aioli. And, the salad diners can’t get enough of the shaved Brussels sprouts, tossed with toasted almonds, preserved lemons, and grana padana. Salads can be served vegan or vegetarian, or be topped with chicken or shrimp to make a healthy meal all-in-one. Other vegetarian, vegan or vegan-possible entrees are always available – just ask your server.
The “artisanal board” features a selection that includes charcuterie from Campbell’s Meats (The Hudson Independent, “Food for Thought,” September, 2016), cheeses from Chaseholm Farm, and locally sourced honeycomb from Tousey Winery. Ciabatta, focaccia, breadsticks and all desserts are baked daily in-house.
Widener’s expertise shines in the deftness of his hand-cut, perfectly al dente pastas. Lobster ravioli arrives tableside filled with meaty chunks of fresh lobster and served in a tomato cream sauce. His pappardelle, topped with a rich-tasting, comforting braised oxtail ragu and poached egg has become another early signature dish – rightly so. Gnocchi gets an unusual treatment with roasted root vegetables, demi forest mushrooms and kale chips.
Red Zebra’s grilled pizzas feature a definitive margherita, the forager (earthy forest mushrooms, plus whipped feta and parsley), and the aristocrat (gorgonzola, pine nuts, charred onion and prosciutto).
For seasonally created entrees, though there may be daily specials, this winter you will find: the RZ burger, a brisket and sirloin blend; a stuffed poblano pepper; a half roasted organic Hudson Valley chicken; or a whole branzino served with a pan sauce of wilted local greens, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, olives and white wine.
Lunch service features soups, grilled pizzas, salads, several pastas, paninis, and the justly popular trapizzino – meatballs, in a marinara sauce with broccoli rabe and a melted mozzarella topping. All lunch specialties are served with a choice of side salad or french fries.
Benson and Starkey’s sustainability mission extends to their use of soft glowing LED lighting, for an enhanced warm interior atmosphere. And, they often feature the work of local artists Maureen Shields, whose whimsical pieces are sure to spark conversations, and Mary Lindsay, whose paintings are for sale.
Benson, just exiting the music business, met Starkey standing on the sidelines at their children’s soccer game. He was already a fan of Tomatillo and Sweet Grass Grill, and “ …I knew David knew what he was doing.” Benson was right. It turns out to have been a fortuitous encounter with a unique result: Bensons’ consummate talent as host, defined in combination with the freshness of Red Zebra’s ingredients, Chef Widener and owner Starkey’s culinary mission, and the intimacy of its setting, creates a cozy, comforting local culinary delight.
Readers and customers will be pleased to know that Starkey, Benson and Widener’s kitchen mission extends even beyond three restaurants in our rivertowns. Their new catering operation – Eats, Roots, Leaves Hospitality (ERL) provides event and catering hosting with the same conscientious dedication to delicious food as they provide in their restaurant. Design your own menu and drinks for small or large groups and create your own Red Zebra experience with the help of experts: http://erlhospitality.com.
If You Go
31 Beekman, Sleepy Hollow 914-909-6151 (call for reservations) redzebrasleepyhollow.com
Mon.-Sun.: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.: 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m. Brunch coming soon in January. Outdoor pizza oven on the back patio coming this spring.