Community Table, Washington
★★ [Very Good]
It would be hard to find a chef more dedicated to natural, sustainable, locally based cooking than Joel Viehland, who opened Community Table in New Preston last year. His vision was heartwarming: a restaurant where the community could gather around a communal table to dine on dishes he would prepare from ingredients grown, raised or foraged within a 200-mile radius of his kitchen.
Pie in the sky, we thought, but he pulled it off. The cottage-restaurant he rescued from dilapidation has wild ramps in the back yard, a picture-perfect dairy farm nearby and a rural community that cherishes farm, field and forest as much as he does.
I knew the building when it was Thomas Moran’s cozy Petite Syrah. It’s stylishly modern now, with poetic intimations of a farmhouse in the country. A sheepskin flung over a chair. Red-and-white kitchen towels for napkins. And, taking pride of place, a communal table 10 feet long, made from black walnut hewn from a 200-year-old tree felled in Kent.
Small, and an immediate hit, Community Table may not be for everybody (the menu is limited, as is the wine list) but there’s almost always a line waiting to get in on weekend nights. I hate the fact that it doesn’t take reservations. It’s out in the country and a pleasant drive, but if you get there late, be prepared to wait.
But this is a chef who marches to his own drummer, cares not a fig for trends and delivers what he promises without compromise. When he says local, he means birch soda made by tapping the birch trees in his back yard, doing his own smoking, pickling, freezing, drying and curing. Mangoes, no. Fresh peaches, yes, as in peach iced tea, the distillation of summer in a glass.
Seasonal is the order of the day here, so what we had may not be on the menu when you dine, but that’s the fun of it. Like a walk in the forest, you never know what you’ll find. House-cured organic salmon, for example, served with pressed cucumbers, lemon verbena, pea shoots, horseradish and nasturtium blossoms—a garden on a plate, gathered with love and care and arranged while you wait. No pre-prepped foodstuffs here.
Even the gossamer-light, silky white cheese served with salad was made in the kitchen an hour or so earlier. Further embellished with tasty pickled radishes, this modestly listed “green salad” put your standard mesclun to shame in terms of variety, freshness and flavor. What’s this? What’s that? Dandelion. Sorrel. Chive.
Vichyssoise was equally pleasing, smooth, earthy and served with grilled-ramp vinaigrette. But the star of the appetizer roster was a composition of Stonington scallops with bacon, sage, apple cider reduction and pumpkin—musque de Provence pumpkin to be precise, an heirloom French variety with a complex sweet flavor and a romantic nickname: “Fairytale”—a word that could easily apply to the dish as a whole.
The menu is short, very short: four appetizers, four entrées and two desserts. Elsewhere we sometimes feel bewildered by too many choices, but this may be too few. However, the fillet of trout was lovely, pan-roasted and served with quinoa and pine nut salad, pickled red onions and preserved lemon relish. Skate wing was more elaborate and less successful. Although it was wonderfully fresh, the delicate white flesh of this interesting fish did not take kindly to heavy breading and a blanket of “puttanesca” vinaigrette, an oily mishmash of finely diced vegetables.
Vegetarians would be in heaven here. When one of my guests, a vegan, asked the kitchen to prepare a plate of vegetables for him, he lucked out with a cornucopia of sautéed spinach, red onions, field salad, pickled radishes, mushrooms, peas and more, plus what looked like mashed potatoes but turned out to be polenta with smoked paprika stirred in for a baconlike flavor.
For carnivores there were only two options, flank steak or porchetta. We chose the latter, a shoulder cut of pork, usually boneless, and marbled with ribbons of fat that keep it moist and deepen its rich, satisfying flavor. Community Table’s porchetta chop was large, huge, monumental. Diners at adjoining tables looked up from more ascetic plates with an envious gleam in their eyes. Had they been the ones cutting into the chop they coveted, they would have been as surprised and disappointed as we were to find more fat than meat. Okay in a barbecue place, perhaps, but almost shocking here. We left most of it on the plate.
Two desserts were on offer. Both were exquisite. Grilled rhubarb, tart and tangy, with white chocolate yogurt sauce, meringue and sweet woodruff, was enchanting. But chocolate cake took the cake—dark as devil’s food, layered with a crunchy, nutty filling we loved but could not identify. We kept guessing until one of us sang out: “Fifth Avenue Bar.” Bingo. There it was, the exact taste of the milk chocolate-covered peanut butter bar we ate when we were kids. Or our parents did. Some of us even remembered Rocky and the Rockettes melodically extolling the candy bar with “the bite that’s right.”
Community Table opened at the start of a tough winter for home-grown sourcing but chef Viehland made it through the way our grandparents did—with root cellers, windowsill herb gardens, home canning and, a recent innovation, freezing summer berries for winter delight. Now, when Mother Earth is most bountiful, this dedicated chef pays tribute—foraging, planting and cooking new things in new ways as the season unfolds. He feels lucky. So do we.
223 Litchfield Tpke., Washington (860/868-9354)
Dinner Thursday through Monday 5 to 10. Sunday brunch 10 to 2. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Wine and beer only. BYOB, $8 fee. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $21 to $30, desserts $8.