Music & Food: Perfect Pairings

 
The Fez in Stamford.

The Fez in Stamford.

Pairing music with dining can be a difficult trick. There are so many ways it might fail miserably; the wrong music for the wrong situation has all the makings of an SNL skit. The couple breaking up is constantly interrupted by a violin player sawing romantic ballads . . . grandpa’s birthday celebration is just underway when a Ramones cover band takes the stage . . . a giddy girls’ night out becomes unfun with the appearance of a suicidal singer-songwriter.

Music-loving restaurateurs have to walk a fine line, creating an atmosphere in which music is entertaining, but not intrusive. Can a band be fun, without disrupting conversation? Is it possible to thoughtfully eat and thoughtfully listen at the same time? Is one man’s dinner music another man’s din?

Achieving harmony between music and cuisine is as much an art as pairing food and wine; here are eight state eateries that have found a pitch-perfect communion.
 

At the historic Bee and Thistle Inn in Old Lyme (860/434-1667, beeandthistleinn.com), with its glorious lawns rolling down to the Lieutenant River, owner Linnea Rufo entertains her guests in appropriately vintage fashion: with strolling musicians on Friday and Saturday nights, who softly roam through the inn’s dining rooms and lounge playing guitar, banjo, harmonica or even cornet (with a mute). They also occasionally accompany the musically gifted owner herself, who says she’s in her “Peggy Lee phase.” Visitors can catch her versions of “Look to the Rainbow” and “Am I Blue” while enjoying chef Kristofer Rowe’s wonderful New American cookery, made with ingredients from the vegetable garden outside the kitchen door.

In Stonington, Sunday afternoon jazz is a longtime tradition. For 30 years, Charlie Holland and his five-piece band have been entertaining crowds at The Skipper’s Dock (860/535-0111, skippersdock.com) with tunes drawn from the American standards songbook. Owner Ainslie Turner says that regulars show up year-round, while summer visitors beeline for tables on the water (the place is literally on a dock) and dig into brunch, locally caught specialties or perhaps a steamed lobster, then retire to the lounge to snap their fingers to the swingin’ band, which plays from 11:30 to 4. “The sun and the beach aren’t for everyone,” she says. “Sundays here are classic.” One could say the same about the restaurant.

Another Sunday tradition is welcomed every summer in New Haven, when from 3 to 6 p.m., the Palm Deck at Sage American Grill (203/787-3466, sageamerican.com) is transformed into a tropical hideaway, with colorful drinks, fresh seafood and the mesmerizing sway of live reggae. Whether it’s I.N.I.T.Y. or Ja Movement (the bands trade Sundays), the music creates a party atmosphere with plenty of dancing and waving to the boats that come and go from the Pequonnock Yacht Club (the club is upstairs). Inside on weekend nights year-round, Sage welcomes what owner David McCoart calls “sophisticated jazz you can talk over.” Friday evenings it’s Jeff Fuller & Friends, Saturdays the Emmy-award winning pianist Rex Cadwallader, with bassist Michael Aseda, or on alternative weeks,  88-year-old pianist Ed Cercone. The first Wednesday of every month, the charismatic Andy Rubenoff takes over the grand piano, entertaining his fans with a sort of loose-knit cabaret with guest vocalists. Note to newbies: Try the steaks, they’re juicy and delicious.

It’s possible that the genes that make musicians and the genes that make chefs are one and the same, which would explain why so many professional foodies have musical children or are themselves musical. At the Dressing Room in Westport (203/226-1114, dressingroomrestaurant.com), these genes are rampant. Proof: Every other Friday night, celebrated chef Michel Nischan steps out of the kitchen, puts down his knives and picks up an axe (that is, a bass guitar). He’s joined by vocalist and rhythm guitar player Tor Newcomer—who’s also the general manager—and guitarist Michael Mugrage, best known for his work with the band Orleans. Collectively, they’re called House Dressing. The music, which is mostly classic rock (Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) tends to start out mellow, then pick up as theater-goers from the Westport Country Playhouse next door come in après-show (a late-night menu is served till 11). “Paul Newman [the original owner] always wanted the Dressing Room to be an oasis for the arts,” says Newcomer. “He encouraged local musicians to come and hang out, and this is how it gelled.” What’s more, Newman’s daughter Melissa performs on alternate Fridays. Her vocals are jazzy and bluesy with a bit of cabaret flair; backed by Tony Lombardosi on guitar and Phil Bowler on bass, she’s developed an enthusiastic following.

Over in Southington, retired firefighter Chris Conlon cooks some of the state’s best barbecue at Smokin’ With Chris, his homey eatery (860/620-9133, smokinwithchris.com). Housed in an antique tavern, there are giant barrel smokers out back near the expansive patio, and inside, on weekend nights, there is always music. Here come the genes, again: Conlon is also a guitar player who once worked as José Feliciano’s personal assistant; his daughter, Carrie-Atla DeChamplain, is a noted jazz singer. In fact, it was she who inspired Conlon to feature musical acts in the first place because, in his words, “there was nowhere in Southington to hear live music.” His daughter still performs there when she can (her DeChamplain Trio appears on Aug. 25), part of a booked-solid roster that includes singer/songwriters in the bar on Thursdays, plus rock bands, Irish bands and the occasional blockbuster act in the dining room, including the legendary Grayson Hugh, appearing with wife/vocalist Polly Messer on Sept. 22.

“Everybody waits for me to sing Andrea Bocelli,” says the larger-than-life Claudio San Francesco. “It’s become a big deal, but I don’t think it’s the voice—I think it’s the accent.” San Francesco, you understand, is from Milano; he’s owned the idyllic Jeffrey’s in Milford (203/878-1910, jeffreysofmilford.com) since 2008. In his early days, however, he was in a band called The Wave that enjoyed a big career in Europe, touring extensively and even opening for Whitney Houston. His musicality is very much evident at the restaurant, where acts are featured every Friday and Saturday night, sometimes on the beautifully landscaped patio overlooking the Indian River salt marshes, sometimes in the dining room, at a glowing grand piano. Favorite players include “Guitar” George Baker (Marvin Gaye’s former guitarist) and the Jay Rowe Trio; toward the end of the night, San Francesco, who loves Italian music but also sings U2 and the Beatles, takes control of the mic. Every couple of months there’s Opera Night, headed by opera singer Aaron Caruso, who brings in a band and guest singers—all New York professionals—who raise the roof until midnight.

The charming Firebox in Hartford (860/ 246-1222, fireboxrestaurant.com) is best known for its hyperfresh farm-to-table cookery. But every Sunday at 5, its Tavern Room makes like a country barn and becomes the site of a rollicking hoedown, with fiddles and banjos a-blazing and gutbuckets a-thumping. “Bluegrass night has a solid following,” says assistant manager Sarah Ostapchuk. There are a handful of bands that play in rotation, including Girl Howdy, the Cornfed Dogs and the Whiskey Boys; besides having as many as eight regular players, they’re sometimes joined by guests from the audience who sit in. There’s limited floor-dancing and plenty of chair-dancing, while patrons enjoy creative fare from Firebox’s regular dinner menu or its more casual tavern menu. Sarah recommends the “Cast Iron” entrées, presented in the cast-iron pan they’re cooked in. Right now there are fried oysters and a homey dish of duck fat fingerling potatoes topped with a sunny-side egg straight from the hen. She notes, however, that the menu is constantly changing with the market and the seasons, so the kitchen is always a place of pleasant surprise.

“It is the oceans of the world that separate us, but the foods and wines that bring us together.” So states the menu at The Fez in Stamford (203/324-3391, thefez1.com), which also brings people together with live music, presented seven nights a week. The room has the feel of a jewel-box theater, with lacquered red walls and a stage dominating one end of the dining room. On Sunday evenings the place fills with jazz and blues; weeknights, starting at 7:30, there’s a roster of acts by well-respected but not necessarily famous players. Dennis Collins, for instance, is one of Roberta Flack’s back-up singers, while Joe Criscello is Tony Bennett’s drummer. “We’ve featured everything from classical guitar to a Kiss cover band,” says owner Eric Monte, who had a music career himself as an artist and repertoire rep (aka “A&R guy”). Weekend headliners start later, at 10 p.m. “There are people who come just for the music, and people who come just for the food,” he says. There is much on the menu to love: The Fez is an excellent Moroccan/South African/Lebanese restaurant with fragrant, beautifully presented small and large plates featuring such ingredients as whipped hummus, preserved lemons and spiced lamb. “The marriage of food, wine and song is very important to me,” says Monte, with feeling. That passion can be seen, tasted and heard.
 

Music & Food: Perfect Pairings

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