Millwright's Restaurant, Simsbury
Epicures and authors have been describing the ideal meal for decades. For me, M.F.K. Fisher, one of the world’s great food writers, did it best: “Evanescent, unpredictable, and purely heaven sent.”
But surprise was not uppermost in our minds when we set out for Millwright’s. We remembered the old mill on the waterfall when it was Hop Brook Tavern, and we knew what new chef-owner Tyler Anderson could do. After all, he dazzled us for years at The Copper Beech in Ivoryton. Now, with a restaurant of his own, in charge of every aspect of it (from silverware to service, renovation, decoration, liaisons with local farmers and hip libations from the bar), he’s right where he wants to be—we expected him to shine.
What we did not expect was the quantum leap in culinary prowess evidenced by dish after dish set before us. Hey, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, look at this! And so it went, from start (a jigger of red-plum soup hiding a nugget of feta) to finish (pecan semifreddo in a mini ice cream cone), our meal at Millwright’s redefined the meaning of haut.
The menu of “Inspired New England Cuisine” was an intriguing read studded with tantalizing hints of who-knows-what to come—nasturtium, cracklings, stonefruit jam, pecan purée, black trumpet mushroom crust. We were tempted this way and that but dutifully adhered to my self-imposed rule and chose an entrée from each category—meat, poultry, fish, shellfish—and let our appetizer choices fall where they might.
Then the fun began—with hot cornmeal biscuits, Yankee cornbread’s Southern belle counterpart. According to our knowledgeable waiter, Millwright’s biscuits are made from cornmeal produced by a Pawtucket mill dating back to 1654. How appropriate for a restaurant in a gristmill built in 1680. And how addictively delectable, slathered with honey butter laced with poppy seeds and sea salt.
Corn chowder brought chef Anderson’s creativity (and classic French culinary training) into play, turning a sturdy staple into a multinuanced soup enriched with lobster and a “fresh herb” sauce vierge (lemon balm and anise would be my guess).
As an appetizer to share, we ordered “chicken and dumplings with cracklings.” It sounds heavy but the dumplings turned out to be light-as-air potato gnocchi, nestled with moist chicken confit under a blanket of salty, crunchy crackling crumbs—with a knockout flavor punch: fresh mint.
Rosy slices of beef carpaccio were presented almost unadorned, allowing us to savor their rich beefiness and beautiful color. Lemon, horseradish and Parmesan were on the plate, along with puffed wild rice.
But torchon of foie gras on rounds of molasses-scented Boston brown bread won pride of place, living up to M.F.K. Fisher’s final requirement—and mine. Silky, sensuous, heady with dreamy desire, it was indubitably “heaven sent.”
The playful brilliance of starters like these set the stage for entrées that were seriously good—and recognizably entrées. No confusion here between small plates and large. A “duo of prime beef” filled a dinner plate with New York strip steak, short ribs, twice-baked potato and carrots, all perfectly cooked and blessed with a lovely shallot Bordelaise sauce.
As an entrée, sea scallops filled the bill bounteously, joining ham hocks, chanterelle mushrooms and leeks to form a latter-day surf-and-turf. Trust chef Anderson to give a currently ubiquitous mollusk new umph.
Trust him, too, to leave well enough alone when the occasion demands, as it did in the case of lamb loin, a gorgeous cut of meat simply grilled—no marinating, no crusting, tasting only of itself, to cut into and savor. Alongside were slightly updated versions of dishes that have been served with lamb for generations—eggplant, herb yogurt and an intense tomato confit.
Salmon arrived blanketed with black trumpet mushrooms, a bold move that might have overpowered a more delicate fish. But salmon, with its robust flavor, was a royal treat decked out in its dark velvety coat. Faro, string beans and green goddess sauce completed the retinue.
New and innovative as Millwright’s is, nobody goes home hungry. Roast duck, often sliced too thin, arrived in a thick, rosy slice browned around the edges and as satisfying as steak. For good measure, it was topped with a croquette of duck leg and served with a colorful jumble of succotash and creamy squash soubise.
From where we sat, we could see at the far end of the dining room the open kitchen, where all things marvelous were being made. Moving about among the other chefs was a lithe young woman we learned later was Kristin Eddy, the talented pastry chef who creates Millwright’s desserts: Stone fruit crumble served hot in a cast iron pot; toasted Marcona almond semifreddo in a sugar cone; devil’s food cake topped with salted streusel and toasted pecan ice cream; marinated fresh peaches served with crème fraîche, lemon-basil sorbet and a poppy-seed meringue shaped like a straw.
Or a fairy wand. The thought came to mind when we toured the premises. Surely a bit of magic was required to transform a rambling old mill on a waterfall into a modern restaurant with an edgy menu and a tavern downstairs that manages to be cozy and hip at the same time.
What more could we want? Only what we’ve got: Tyler Anderson.
77 West St., Simsbury, 860/651-5500, millwrightsrestaurant.com
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday 5:30 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $10 to $18, entrées $27 to $29, desserts $9.