Artisan, Delamar, Southport
Historic seaports dot the Connecticut coast but few have guarded the architectural integrity of their seafaring heritage more assiduously than Southport. Greek Revival houses built by ship captains face the harbor, cottages with picket fences and rose gardens line narrow lanes, and quaint little shops beckon in what locals like to call “the village.” Malls, high-rises or anything resembling a modernistic office building? Perish the thought.
So it’s a minor miracle, or more likely a sign of the times, that when the Delamar hotel—with 44 guest rooms, residential facilities, a spa and restaurant/tavern—opened to the public this summer a five-minute walk from the village, it ruffled very few feathers. In fact, having discreetly checked it out, the old guard gave it their equally discreet approval. The young crowd packed the tavern three deep to the bar.
Artisan at the Delamar Southport is where it should be (behind the Post Road in the shadow of I-95) and what it should be, casual but smart, lively but not raucous, striking but not flashy. With a muted color scheme and 18th-century Scandinavian decorative elements, Artisan is what it aims to be, a bellwether of the way we eat today.
The menu—fresh, farm-driven and fun—is on-target, too, thanks to executive chef Frederic Kieffer. Chef Kieffer was born in Paris, cooked at top restaurants in France and New York, and in Connecticut at L’escale and Gaia, and now lives in Fairfield with his wife and children. Somewhere along the line he fell in love with New England cuisine, which at Artisan he interprets with sensitivity and Gallic flair.
New England seafood chowder, for example, is a two-act drama: first, a shallow white soup plate with choice morsels of seafood nestled in the bottom; then a pitcher of creamy chowder, fragrant as it’s poured over the seafood in the bowl. In the mouth, the soup is velvety, multinuanced and not overpowered by clams (which in my opinion deserve a chowder of their own). I taste mushrooms in the chowder, and the oyster crackers in it are house-made and flavored with fennel.
A stickler for ocean-fresh seafood, organically grown fruits and vegetables and hand-crafted cheeses and charcuterie, Kieffer had his sources lined up before the architectural drawings for Artisan were even completed. So a soup-to-lemon-donuts romp through the menu is a veritable tour of New England farms, fields and shore.
Two of my favorite things are Thimble Island oysters and Cape Cod clams. At Artisan they’re paired as an appetizer. They may not showcase the chef’s creativity but some things, seafood especially, are best assessed undressed. Both bivalves live up to expectation—the oysters with their brisk, bold, iron-y taste, the clams distinctively salty-sweet.
Bomster scallops are famous but we also have Stonington scalloper Bill Bomster to thank for discovering a lesser-known deep-sea delicacy, royal red shrimp, Pleoticus robustus, aka Stonington Reds. Found only in the deepest parts of the ocean (from Stonington that’s 12 hours out to the Continental Shelf, 100 miles southeast), they don’t often appear on restaurant menus. So I’m delighted to find Saffron-Fennel Risotto & Stonington Red Shrimp on the menu at Artisan. I’m less pleased with what we’re served, a slightly soupy risotto with bits of shrimp. Pleasant enough, but it doesn’t do justice to royal reds’ voluptuous size (4 to 10 inches), exceptionally sweet flavor and surprising color, ranging from pink to scarlet before they’re cooked. The Tiffany of crustaceans, these beauties are expensive, but couldn’t we have at least one whole and entire on top?
This, however, is almost a quibble because what is notable about Artisan’s seafood is that across the board it is top-quality and outstandingly fresh, and more often than not beautifully presented. Tuna crudo, for example, with watermelon, avocado and tomato, is a delicious pink-and-green mosaic.
Salads and entrées are equally attractive. Grilled cantaloupe chunks wrapped in prosciutto are served on skewers bathed in a mellow sweet-and-tart Ximenez-and-muscat-wine sauce. Bibb lettuce with French beans, blue cheese, bacon and walnuts make a prettier, more delicate salad than the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce wedge inundated with blue cheese dressing.
Entrées are robust without being heavy. Berkshire pork chop is a case in point—it’s tender and juicy, sauced with a sparkling hard-cider jus and served with fingerling potatoes and asparagus. Crispy duck breast served with apple rutabaga purée is equally lean and just as succulent. For me, the stars of the show turn out to be perfectly cooked local black bass and Rhode Island fluke. Both are enhanced with inspired garnishes—the bass with tomato-squash gratin and lemon sauce, the fluke with parsnip purée and a sparkle of roasted red and green grapes.
With the exception of a luscious chocolate ganache cake and a bombshell of a banana split (caramelized banana, maple syrup, rum raisin ice cream, fudge and almonds), desserts are light and bright. Not everything works (rice pudding ice cream is a dud), but the house-made sorbets and ice creams are brilliant, especially when they’re combined. A concoction called “Delight” consists of cheesecake ice cream, raspberry, blueberry and strawberry sorbet with a muscatel glaze. And even lemon donuts are light little bites—donut holes, actually—freshly made and served warm. My favorite is coupe cassis, made with black-currant and vanilla ice cream, crème de cassis and whipped cream.
The good news is that as the seasons roll on, chef Kieffer will be unfurling a panoply of delicious new dishes featuring seasonal fruits and vegetables, so there’ll always be something to look forward to.
275 Old Post Rd., Southport (203/307-4222, artisansouthport.com)
Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Sunday brunch 11:30 to 3:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $15, entrées from $22 to $38, desserts $8 to $9.