The Garden House restaurant is finally fully open for business, inside and out, and it has been a long time coming. Downtown Rosendalers have watched, listened and sniffed the air with interest as Uval and Lisa Sterer — already well-known to them as the proprietors of the Big Cheese — busily renovated the former house on the northeast corner of Main Street and Hardenburgh Lane, right across from the former Town Hall, and then started baking incredible pizzas this past summer in a brick oven in the property’s huge front yard.
“We bought it three years ago. There had been a 95-year-old woman living downstairs, and no one upstairs for 35 years,” recalls Lisa Sterer. “It was a very nondescript building that held lots of possibilities.” But after running the cheese shop for over a decade, and seeing how it turned into a popular lunch spot once they started offering sandwiches and cooked fare, the Sterers were looking for a place to branch out into the restaurant business. Lisa says that she’d had her eye on the unusually situated building for a long time, thinking that its big garden fronting right on Main Street a few steps from the Rosendale Theatre would be the perfect site for an outdoor café: “I just knew that Rosendale was ready for a nice green gathering spot.”
Built in the 19-teens, the building had last been renovated in the 1950s and essentially needed to be gutted in order both to restore its vintage feel and to accommodate a commercial kitchen and two spacious dining rooms. “We put down new flooring and banged down a lot of walls,” says Lisa. The front entrance, widened into a pair of French doors, opens on a warm, cheery bar area with wooden wainscoting. “We found that beautiful bar at a yard sale, and added a brass footrail.” Built-in cabinetry and other period woodwork has been approximated to match the bar — often repurposing old materials, like a pair of discarded doors jiggered into a wall niche to create a lockable wine cupboard.
Out front, the Sterers added a shady respite in the form of a 14-by-20-foot porch: “an excellent place to sit and have a glass of good wine,” in Lisa’s words. It also serves as a fine stage for bands to play music for celebrations in the front yard, which has already hosted a number of fundraisers and other events for community organizations.
But it’s the fenced front garden itself that was the clincher on the deal. “Uval was very excited about having a wood-fired oven, and this yard seemed able to accommodate one,” Lisa recalls. The yard had become somewhat wild and overgrown, but the couple had three years to landscape it, with Lisa planting edible fruit trees whose produce she hopes to be able to serve in the restaurant sometime in the future. She scavenged sections of vintage wrought-iron fencing and pieced them together in place of an ugly old chainlink fence.
“I think that we’ve been successful in creating a warm and welcoming garden space,” she says. “We saw a tremendous response in the summer…Rosendale’s popularity is growing, and people are happy to have another place to hang out, someplace to go before and after the movie.”
Though winter has taken the bloom off the newly planted shrubs and flowerbeds, the garden still beckons passersby on sunny late fall days to sit at the scattered outdoor café tables. Or maybe it’s just the seductive aromas of whatever James Quicksell — the Garden House’s “prime wood-fired pizza chef,” webmaster and jack-of-all-trades — has cooking in that big brick beehive oven.
Yes, location matters; but for a restaurant to succeed, great food matters more. Though the Garden House has served reasonably priced, bistro-style fare outdoors since its soft opening early in the summer, the long process of renovating the building interior and equipping a new kitchen to earn Health Department approval gave the Sterers several months to find the right configuration of employees for the indoor operation. Uval, an Israeli native who is fluent in Arabic, has traveled regularly down to Paterson, NJ to buy cheeses ever since he took over the mobile cheese operation from the former Schneller’s Market in Kingston. Paterson has a burgeoning Middle Eastern community, and there Uval met the woman destined to become the Garden House’s chef and to shape its menu. She goes by the name Naheda, and Lisa can’t say enough in her praise.
“At first I had imagined the menu very differently,” she recalls. “But before I knew it I had a Mediterranean chef… Now the menu represents a fusion of Mediterranean cooking with some of the healthy food ideas that our community has come to expect, to need, to want…. Like the cheese shop, we’re slightly unconventional. I think it’s okay to have a certain flexibility — especially in Rosendale.”
Born in Jordan and trained at the Dubai Hilton, Naheda “really understands Arabic spices,” according to Lisa. She uses the outdoor oven to bake Turkish pide bread and grill meats, fish, potatoes and vegetables. And the menu keeps evolving to reflect the kinds of dishes and ingredients that Naheda grew up eating: kebabs, lamb and chicken dishes, a chickpea tagine, couscous, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and unusual Middle Eastern salads, including one with slices of grilled Greek halloumi cheese.
“Naheda makes her own pickled condiments, from unusual things like beets and turnips,” Lisa enthuses. “And she’s really great at making desserts,” like baklava, malabi and kanafeh. Mideastern specialty drinks like sachlab have made it onto the menu, and Lisa predicts that the next addition will likely be quail: a “wonderful, exotic” type of poultry unfamiliar to most Americans but widely enjoyed in Jordan. “Stuffed, it’s fantastic.”
Vegetarians and vegans will find plenty of choices on the menu. The Sterers try to source their ingredients locally and sustainably as much as possible, and the care that goes into food preparation here is apparent in the satisfaction of diners who have patronized the Garden House since the indoor dining areas opened about a month ago. “We just finished the most extraordinary dinner,” said Tammi Price-Lall of Kerhonkson on a recent Sunday afternoon when the New Paltz Times visited. “The fig-and-goat-cheese pizza was outstanding. So was the mujaddara. And the coffee is an experience you should have if you come here.”
The Sterers, who don’t have much of an advertising budget, are relying heavily on positive word-of-mouth to launch their new operation. Lisa wants people to know that the restaurant can be rented for private functions, with or without catering. She’s looking for artists to hang their work on the dining room walls and for acoustic musicians to perform. Most of all, she wants you to come by and give Naheda’s fabulous cooking a try, indoors or out. “Short of seven-foot storms and impassible snow, we’ll try to keep the outdoor oven going all winter!”
The Garden House’s regular hours of operation are from 5 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and from 2 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. But sometimes it opens earlier — especially when the Rosendale Theatre has a live performance or special screening scheduled — so Lisa recommends phoning the restaurant at (845) 658-3131 first. A $15 chef’s choice pizza and craft beer buffet on Wednesday nights is likely to be “happening pretty soon,” she adds.
Parking is ample in the rear of the building; the dining area is handicapped-accessible via a ramp from the rear, and when snow is on the ground patrons are requested to use the side entrance from Hardenburgh Lane instead of the big iron gate on the Main Street frontage. For more information about the Garden House, including a peek at the ever-evolving menu, visit https://thegardenhouse12472.wordpress.com or www.facebook.com/thegardencafe12472.