“It’s casual, approachable cuisine,” says Clare Hussain of what to expect from her new restaurant, RUNA Bistro, located in the historic structure at 10 Plattekill Avenue most recently occupied by The Village TeaRoom. Open for just a few weeks now, Hussain’s vision for RUNA is “a neighborhood French bistro,” the type of place to meet friends for lunch or go solo for coffee and croissant but equally suitable for a romantic dinner. “And families have been coming in for brunch with their kids,” she adds. “We have a nice kid’s menu and coloring things, and we’re all about letting the kids run around in the grass in the front yard. I think it’s comfortable for everybody.”
Hussain’s lilting Irish accent has had many locals wondering if she is related to Agnes Devereux, the former owner of the property and proprietor of the now-defunct TeaRoom. She is not, as it happens. “It’s been a bit of a running joke with customers that I’m ‘the new Agnes,’” Hussain notes with a laugh. “And it’s definitely an honor to be in this space that was such an institution in the town. She [Agnes] definitely gave her blood, sweat and tears to this place, and it’s not an easy industry to be in, for sure. It’s not something that you do to become a millionaire; you do it because you love it, you do it because you’re passionate about entertaining and giving people a nice experience.”
Patrons of the old TeaRoom will find some things in the new place familiar, with Hussain putting to use or upcycling as much as possible of what she inherited in buying the property. The flatware and coffee cups are from the former establishment and the butcher block tables are the same, though Hussain herself hand-sanded and varnished them to a lighter finish. The nearly ceiling-high, rustic-framed specials blackboard in one room remains, as does the faded old sign that reads “A. Schoonmaker,” a relic of the property’s early history as the mid-19th century tailoring shop of Alderd Schoonmaker.
But the interior feels fresh and inviting, with elegant new light fixtures, two shades of gray paint adding the effect of height to the walls and new black-and-white checkerboard flooring. In putting her own touches on the décor, Hussain says she wanted to remain true to the historic aspects of the building — it dates to 1833 — but “lighten it up and give it some touches of ‘modern farmhouse.’ And I am really pleased with the space; I think it’s cozy but bright and airy.” The intimacy is reinforced by small details like the dish towel napkins folded on tables awaiting diners and the tiny handcrafted vases on the tables commissioned from a local potter friend, currently holding bits of eucalyptus branches.
The name of the bistro comes from Hussain’s middle name, which is Runa (Roo-na). “It was given to me by my Bangladeshi grandmother,” she says. “My father is from Bangladesh, and my biological mom is Welsh. They eloped before they had me, and my father was no longer welcome in the family because he’d married outside the culture. When I was born, my mom tried again, and they totally accepted me. But when they named me Clare, my grandmother said, ‘I want to give her a middle name; she should have a Bangladeshi name.”
Hussain was born in Bangladesh and lived there until she was ten, when she was sent to boarding school in London. Her mom died when she was just eight, and her dad thought he was fulfilling her late mom’s wishes by sending her there. In the years Hussain was in England, her father met and married her stepmom, who is Irish. “That’s where the Irish cultural influence started,” she notes.
RUNA Bistro is Hussain’s first restaurant of her own, but she has more than 25 years of experience in the industry. After college and then hospitality school in Dublin, she went first to San Francisco, where she managed a restaurant and met her Irish husband — whose accent reinforces her own, these days — then worked in banquets and group sales for the Marriott Corporation, first at a waterfront property in Baltimore and then the Marriott Marquis hotel in Time Square. Her husband, Pere Duignan, owns his own media production business and will not be a part of the bistro management (though he’s been very helpful with troubleshooting technical things like the restaurant’s sound system, Hussain says). Having moved up to the area from Brooklyn a few years ago, the couple are raising two daughters here, Rezia, 10, and Alék, 5.
Hussain’s original plan for the restaurant was to open an American bistro with a few French bistro staples like steak frites in the mix. But in looking for a chef, after meeting Ryan McClintock, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef with expertise in classic French cuisine, who had apprenticed in Paris, Hussain switched gears. “I also studied in France, and I speak French, so one and one became two and we just decided, ‘Let’s capture something that is definitely going to be a niche in New Paltz,’ and here we are.”
McClintock specializes in charcuterie, with a particular interest in making terrines and pâtés. Hussain is the sole owner of RUNA Bistro, but says she considers the chef her partner in making the restaurant work. And they’re open to feedback from restaurant patrons, both positive and negative. “I’m making very apparent to my customers that we are gathering intel, so we are not going to be offended if you tell me something is a little dry or over-salted. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, and we’ve gotten some things to work on. But when I go to the chef, he changes it straightaway, and we send the food back out, waiting to get feedback again. In general, he’s just really a perfectionist when it comes to doing the right thing to please the customer. He’s really receptive.”
Another business ethos important to Hussain, she says, is to operate RUNA Bistro as “green” as possible, using compostable coffee cups for to-go customers and contracting with Community Compost Co. in New Paltz to pick up organic waste and with Buffalo Biodiesel, Inc. to recycle cooking oils.
RUNA Bistro is open five days a week. Lunch is served on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5-9 p.m. “But people are welcome to come in from 3-5, during the break between lunch and dinner, to have a glass of wine or a cheese board,” says Hussain. Brunch is served on Saturday and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with dinner service from 5-9 p.m. on Saturday and 5-8 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The brunch menu includes bistro classics such as crêpes, omelettes, croque monsieur, a quiche of the day and a goat cheese salad. Most items are priced at $13, with burgers, charcuterie and cheese boards slightly higher. Lunch entrees range from $12-$15, with a beet salad, smoked salmon tartine with capers and curried chicken salad profiteroles as options.
Duck confit, escargot, and a grilled endive apple salad with spiced walnut brittle and blue cheese dressing are some of the starters on the dinner menu, with entrees including a fish of the day at market price, steak frites with garlic herb butter or green peppercorn sauce at $26 and duck breast au poivre at $28. Vegetarian options include ratatouille served with cous-cous for $20 and a mushroom and vegetable bourginon served with an apple puree at $22. Dessert choices include flourless chocolate torte, meringue pavlovas and apple and pear tarte tatin. The children’s menu offers a choice of mac-and-cheese, a mini chicken breast au jus, burger on mini brioche or charcuterie and cheese with crudité, each option priced at $10 with an ice cream sundae included.
As RUNA Bistro becomes established over the next few months, Hussain plans to turn the property next door into a guest house. “I think New Paltz needs a quaint little guest house in town for people to stay. And I’m definitely about trying to enhance the visitor’s experience. They can come here on the bus and walk down, eat here or at the other restaurants, and go down to Water Street Market and rent a bike, do the River-to-Ridge or their climbing or hiking, and never have to rent a car. New Paltz is cute and quirky, and has so much history, and I’d like to add to that.”
Anybody can do a quick Airbnb, she notes, “but I don’t think that gives back to the community. And becoming a part of the local community is important to me. I lived in Bed Stuy for 15 years and made incredible friends, and I enjoyed being part of that community. And moving up to New Paltz is definitely starting over, doing that all over again. But we’re setting down roots for our kids here and I want to do something that is beyond just owning a business. Obviously, it is a business, it’s not philanthropic, but it’s definitely giving back to the community and being part of it. And people have welcomed us here.”
Hussain references the neighborhood French bistro she discovered in the city when she first moved there in 2004, the kind of place where the same people came in all the time and the staff knew all the small details of their everyday lives. “And I love that; I love creating relationships with people. And that’s why I asked Angie [staff member Angela Iahn] to come on board; she’s perfect for that. She just knows how to make people feel at home, and as the Irish say, ‘has the chat.’ I want people to feel they can come in here and just shoot the breeze while you’re having lunch. You can come in on your own, or with a group, and feel comfortable. And not go broke; there’s no minimums. I’ll turn the table if I need it for brunch, if I’ve got lines out the door! But beyond that, I’m saying you don’t need to spend a certain amount, you can have your table and read your book and have a coffee.”