Eating Out Circa 2012
Doing it differently Yes, restaurants have closed in Connecticut but new ones are opening and we’re still eating out. We’re just changing our ways—and having fun doing it. Silly extravagance is out, bang-for-the-buck is in: Half-price wine nights, prix fixe bargains, restaurant weeks, burger bashes, ethnic eats. With time out for special-occasion splurges, the word on the street is affordable treats.
Menus on iPads The future is here. Connecticut restaurant-goers can see mouthwatering photos of what they’ll get before they order it, scroll through a hundred wines to find the one they want, check ingredients, get nutritional information and food-and-winepairing recommendations—all with the tap of a finger on an iPad or other electronic tablet. Treva in West Hartford was one of the first restaurants here to use tablet menus. Chef-owner Dorjan Puka says they make it easier for guests to envision the wonderful dishes with Italian names that are Treva’s specialty. He also likes being able to update the menus so easily, and even change them instantly when the kitchen runs out of something.
Sold and maintained by MaxxMenu in Stamford, the tablets are designed not to replace servers but to supplement them by providing additional information. With over 250 tequila varieties available, Geronimo Tequila Bar and Southwestern Grille in New Haven quickly saw the beauty of an electronic menu. After all, how could the staff keep track of the individual characteristics of so many tequilas? When Edgar Ortiz, chef-owner of La Luna in Branford, introduced tablets, he worried that less computer-savvy diners might balk, but they took to the idea immediately. For hospitality entrepreneur Sayed Bokhart, in the midst of a $1.5-million renovation of the Hawthorne Inn in Berlin, tablets were a quick way to communicate that this was not the same stodgy old inn. “We want to change perceptions,” he says. “Restaurants need to launch their classic appeal into the 21st century.”
Nuevo Mexicano heats up South of the Border, down Mexico way the culinary scene is evolving, becoming more sophisticated, more reflective of regional specialties, more exciting—and Connecticut restaurants are quick to pick up on the trend. Forget same-old with melted cheese on top. No less a chef than Arturo Franco-Camacho recently opened Tacuba, a taco bar in Branford that serves pork with pineapple tacos, BBQ ancho duck nachos and mole-marinated pork loin. Bodega in Fairfield serves seared ancho-chili shrimp tacos with cucumber-mango salsa and chipotle mayo. On the menu at Besito in West Hartford: empanadas with wild mushrooms and goat cheese, and roast salmon with crispy bananas and pineapple pico de gallo. In New Haven, Prasad Chirnomula departed from the Indian cuisine he’s famous for to open a beautiful, upscale Mexican place called Oaxaca Kitchen. Here the tortillas are filled with lobster and the ceviche includes shrimp, jumbo crab, roasted tomato salsa and avocado topped with a dollop of mango sorbet. Cactus Rose Cantina, new in Wilton, uses only all- natural beef, free-range chicken, line-caught fish and organic vegetables. Welcome to the New World, Mexican-style.
The Great American Road Trip From maple sap pinging into a bucket in Vermont to the spicy smoke of a Bayou fish fry, Connecticut chefs are revisiting their American culinary roots with an enthusiasm and exuberance you can taste. Top toque Noel Jones, executive chef of Hartford’s four-star On20, leads the way, pairing smoked blackfish with Berkshire pork belly, dishing up luscious soups made with heirloom varieties of pumpkin and squash and turning rhubarb cobbler into food for the gods. Meanwhile, the chef at The Old Post Tavern in Fairfield serves cedar-planked wild salmon with a maple syrup glaze, and Matthew’s Restaurant in Farmington makes the best Bananas Foster north of New Orleans.
Chefs as gardeners Connecticut’s best chefs are taking farm-to-table to the next level and growing their own. Garden clubs trek to Winvian in Morris to see and taste four-star-chef Chris Eddy’s four-star organic garden, an acre going on two where he grows everthing from beans to burdock for his restaurant table. At Community Table in Washington, Joel Viehland yearned for exotic fruits and vegetables, eyed the back yard and started planting. Now his garden includes peach, apple and two kinds of pear trees, more than 30 berry bushes, rare radishes, purple carrots, even sea-buckthorn, a berrylike fruit with an intense citric taste. Chef Tim Labant’s passion is herbs and to share his pleasure he lines the path to the front door of his Schoolhouse Restaurant in Wilton with chives, opal basil, hyssop, lavender and lovage.
Connecticut bites the burger Food trends develop slowly, from a trickle to a river to a flood to “OMG, enough already.” The current burger blitz, a case in point, shows no sign of letup. We’re used to the idea that wherever you go in New York there’s a burger joint a few steps away. Now you can do the same in West Hartford, tiny compared to the big city but sporting (at most recent count) four emporiums devoted primarily to burgers—Plan B, Max Burger, Red Robin and The Counter—plus Grants and Fleming’s, where you can get a great burger, too, all within walking distance of one another.
Elsewhere in the state, established restaurants are adding burger bars or opening burger places nearby. In Woodbury, Carole Peck opened Zeeburger a stone’s throw from her upscale Good News Cafe, serving succulent burgers of grass-fed beef on buttery brioche rolls. In Ellington, Trattoria da Lepri has added a burger menu with a build-your-own option. Burgers have even invaded the realm of fine dining with gourmet burgers like the foie gras burger with Grûyère and house-made ketchup at Bar Bouchée in Madison. Are burgers the new pizza? Could be.