Lepri's Grill, Tolland


★★★ [Superior]

The 1750s farmhouse with its good bones and wide floorboards looks refreshingly un-done-up. The interior is clean and uncluttered, the floorboards gleam. No ruffled curtains, no paintings of bucolic scenes—just a few pieces of monochromatic modern art propped casually on the mantelpiece or against a wall, as if we’re in the workplace of an artist, which, in a way, we are.

Frank Lepri, who created Lepri’s Grill in this antique building in Tolland (that once housed Zest and, before that, Monet’s Table), is a talented chef and a paragon of versatility.   

When he opened Pastis in Hartford, he put French bistro food on the city’s hot-places-to-dine-out map. When Pastis closed, in 2006, he moved to Ellington, where he opened Trattoria da Lepri, with an Italian menu, a French menu and a sushi bar and, in short order, a burger bar nearby. Soon, he began exploring still other options. With good reason, Lepri says.

While Trattoria da Lepri’s menus are built around fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries grown locally, he kept wanting to open a steak and seafood grill where he could feature the excellent beef, pork and lamb raised on “the wonderful working farms in the neighborhood.”

When the perfect location presented itself, Lepri’s Grill became a reality. Fans of Trattoria da Lepri will feel at home, with the chef-owner’s wife, Deb, and sous chef Michael Yarnot, formerly of Pastis and Elmwood’s Corner Pug, on board, the familiar chalkboard ensconced over the bar where Mr. Lepri’s father inscribes the daily specials, and a sit-up-and-take-notice small plate menu that showcases the creativity of the chef.  

Among the most appealing small plates is a brilliant confection of butter-poached lobster (recognizable pieces of tail and claw) layered with tequila guacamole and bound with margarita vinaigrette.

Terrific little filet mignon lollipops arrive—carpaccio wrapped around balls of herbed Boursin on toothpick sticks. Served with egg salad, shaved Parmesan and truffle oil, they instantly become my favorite appetizer.

Warm frisée salad with potatoes, bacon and a fried egg is more of a mini-meal, a delightful one that will remind you of Paris—or perhaps Pastis.

House-made steamed dumplings are more problematic. Plumped with a very sweet ground-pork filling, they’re served with a sweet soy-chili-lime sauce. Too saccharine for my taste. Lobster bisque, however, is all pleasure, pleasingly intense with just the slightest afterkick of peppery heat.  

Grilling is a fine art that depends in large part on the quality of the basic ingredients. Here’s where Lepri’s Grill shines. Chef Lepri gets his hormone-and-antibiotic-free beef from a small, family-owned farm literally down the road. Dry-aged, these steaks are so flavorful they need none of the tricks of the trade (sugar-laden spice rubs, melted butter added before serving) to make them appealing. Dry-aged New York strip, rib-eye and filet mignon are on offer, to embellish—or not—with Lepri steak sauce, Béarnaise, rosemary demi, lemon caper, mushroom truffle, lemon aioli, blue cheese cream or horseradish sauce.  

I settle for a 14-ounce rib-eye with Béar-naise sauce. The steak, medium-rare as ordered, is a little chewy, with a bit of fat around the edges, which I like. The Béarnaise sauce is excellent and goes perfectly with the steak. I could wish the rib-eye were a tad thicker but then it would cost more than $28, and price is one of this place’s considerable attractions.

Lamb loin chops are another. A frequent chef’s special, they also come from a nearby farm—four thick, juicy chops, with the distinctive flavor of American lamb, expertly grilled and served with rosemary-glazed potatoes and garlic spinach.

The menu, with its multitude of alluring choices, can be confusing, but it’s also flexible. Red snapper, for example, is listed as a chef’s special, pan-seared with pistachio rice pilaf, spinach and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with balsamic glaze. Alternatively, we discover we can have our snapper grilled with a choice of sides—and what choices: mashed, roasted or “twice-loaded” baked potato, wild rice, broccoli, caramelized onions, French beans, spinach sauteed with garlic or creamed. One starch and one vegetable are included in the entrée price.

Unlisted chef’s specials are recited by the staff. Our waitress raves about the Martini Shrimp, and we’re glad we took her advice.Marinated in vodka, vermouth, lemon juice and olives, the shrimp are huge, tender and mysteriously marvelous: a martini you can chew. Will wonders never cease?

Not here and now, when our wonderful desserts arrive. It’s hard to pick a favorite. The bombe of crustless chocolate cheesecake drizzled with caramel sauce and strewn with Oreo cookie crumbs? The white-chocolate bread pudding served with black-cherry ice cream? Lemon curd paired with limoncello crème brûlée? Definitely not your same-old, same-old steakhouse desserts. We’re not surprised. By now we know that we are in the hands of a chef who knows what he’s doing and does it in his own intriguingly delicious way—without attitude.   

While urban restaurants adopt rustic themes, and rural eateries try to look like chic bistros on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Lepri’s Grill looks, feels and tastes like what it is—a comfortable farmhouse where a creative chef is throwing a barbecue and inviting friends and neighbors to come on over.

Lepri’s Grill
167 Tolland Stage Rd., Tolland, 860/875-4444
Open Wednesday and Thursday 5 to 9, Friday 11:30 to 10, Saturday 12 till 10, Sunday 1 to 10. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $7 to $9, entrées $20 to $28, desserts $6 to $8.

Lepri's Grill, Tolland

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