Summer Delights

The precious days and nights are here at last, with breezes off the water and long purple dusks. It's time to enjoy them-with just the right food and drink, of course.

 

Summer in Connecticut and out we go. To picnic on the beach, dine on a Victorian veranda, fly a kite, grab a bite, sip a watermelon cosmopolitan at a table on the roof.

 Where? Consider a river. Connecticut rivers are like empty stage sets in winter. In summer, the show begins. Motor boats, sailboats, rowboats, ferries and excursion launches zip, glide or chug about on the water, and river towns primped, painted and at their prettiest welcome summer visitors with delightful diversions and delicious places to dine. 

For romance with a river running through it, the Grist Mill on the Farmington is hard to resist, especially in summer, when you can dine outdoors under a huge canopy amid birdsong and the rustle of trees. If the weather drives you indoors, a wall of windows overlooks the rippling river and a waterfall. Among the specialties of the house: phyllo-wrapped lobster beggar's purse and genuine Dover sole.

The glory of the Connecticut River is the Goodspeed Opera House. A few steps away and marvelously convenient for theatergoers, the Gelston House restaurant in East Haddam, a Victorian charmer built in 1853, has had its ups and downs. As recently as 2007, it was reportedly in a slump. Visitors in 2008 disagree, praising the breathtaking views of the river, the prime rib and the friendly service that "gets you to the show on time."

Across the river, so close to the water you can touch it, The Blue Oar is a totally different kettle of fish. Wear shorts and a sweatshirt, bring booze and a bathing suit, come by boat if you wish. Dine at a pastel-colored picnic table or on a porch that feels like a treehouse. Place your order, take a number and gaze at the river (or into your sweetheart's eyes) until your food arrives: seafood, baby-back ribs, hot dogs and burgers, Jamaican jerk pork and yummy desserts. BYO; corkscrews provided.

Wraparound windows and an open-air patio assure every table a view of the Saugatuck at River House Tavern in Westport. In summer, it's like being at a rowing regatta with scullers from the Saugatuck Rowing Club streaking by, long oars flashing. The good news here is that Jean-Pierre Rudaz (who burnished La Colline Verte in Fairfield to stardom) has taken the place in hand and the difference is palpable. Glassware sparkles, as does Rudaz himself, gliding about greeting every guest, scanning every dish. The menu, still American and familiar, has been updated to include entrées like miso salmon with jasmine rice and baby bok choy. Word's getting around. Better reserve.

And let us not forget the mighty Thames River and the port of New London, where since the renovation of the waterfront, restaurants and shops lining the harbor are expanding balconies and building decks to take advantage of a river view. My favorite is a side-by-side double feature: Brie & Blue, a gourmet cheese shop, and Thames River Wine & Spirits. Both are marvelous and magical, with a shared door so you can order lunch or a light supper from the cheese shop, select a bottle from the wine shop, and sip and sup on the dramatic open-air deck overlooking the harbor. Besides cheeses, Brie & Bleu serves soups, charcuterie, chocolate, cheesecake, bruschettas and summery salads like "Vermont Star" made with Grafton cheddar, apples, apricots and maple-glazed pecans served over field greens with balsamic dressing. There are wine tastings on Friday nights, wine dinners now and then. But don't leave without exploring the cellar, set deep below grade in the original granite foundation. Voilà! You're in one of the great wine caves of Europe.

Then there's Long Island Sound, with its meandering shoreline indented with inlets, bays and alluring little coves like the one between Sherwood Island State Park and Compo Beach in Westport. Here Positano Ristorante nestles so close to the water you can stroll down, take your shoes off and wade. Inside: Amalfi on the plate, as in pappardelle and zuppa di pesce. Italy can wait.

Inland, flower gardens and porches beckon, idyllic places to dine. One of the prettiest is the wide old-fashioned porch overlooking the lawns and gardens of the Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan. This venerable golden oldie always manages to greet summer looking fresh as a daisy-with a menu to match. The signature salad of greens, cucumber, tomato and figs in a tor­tilla basket is perfect summer fare. Mahi-mahi baked in puff pastry might follow, then chocolate soufflé, which always rises. This is that kind of place.

Adrienne's in New Milford serves dinner in a rustic, terraced garden shaded by huge trees with an herb garden alongside. Chef Adrienne Sussman was growing her own and cooking seasonally long before the current trend. In the summer she likes to add fresh-picked sliced strawberries to the endive salad, fill ravioli with roasted eggplant and wild mushrooms, and give duck breast a blackberry glaze.

But wait just a honeysuckle minute. Let's not get carried away with the gourmet side of summer. What about riding around in cars? What about '50s-style drive-ins? What about carhops and curb service, Dagwood sandwiches and homemade root beer? All the above and more can be found at the Sycamore Drive-in in Bethel, where everything comes with fries and a double helping of nostalgic memorabilia: Formica and chrome tables and chairs, gas pumps with character (Texaco Fire Chief, Sinclair Dino) and Elvis large as life on the wall.

And what would summer be without a refill or two at the Lake Zoar Drive-In in Sandy Hook, where we can count on chef Mike Basso's devotion to the foods we hate to admit we adore. If it's salty and greasy, or sweet and outrageously yummy, he'll cook it and it will taste like it used to in the good old days: the Zoar Burger, the superthick milk shake, the foot-long hot dog to eat on a paper plate at a table or on the dashboard of your car.

Speaking of cars, summer's the time for long drives in the country, dining in a sylvan setting, coming home by starlight or staying the night. Why fly to Europe when Connecticut towns and villages are as quaint as anywhere and nobody's measuring carry-ons.  

Kent, with five art galleries, three museums, one waterfall, a historic iron furnace, antiques shops, restaurants and proximity to the Housatonic is a good place to start-precisely what we have in mind when we get behind the wheel and head for Connecticut-the-quaint. The Fife 'n Drum on Main Street makes a great base. Family-owned for decades, it's a dining destination (duck à l'orange, blueberry buckle, scallop satays in Thai peanut sauce and live piano music on Saturday nights) and it's an inn as well, offering pretty guest rooms with private baths in the Main House and in the Victorian House next door. 

New to Kent but not new to the area is Doc's, which used to be a tiny, much-loved pizza-plus eatery in New Preston. This year Doc's moved to Kent, where it occupies a commodious 1840s Federal-style building with an awning-covered terrace overlooking a courtyard shaded by a massive maple tree that dates back to the 1700s. How sylvan is that? Expect a more extensive selection of gutsy trattoria food plus the thin-crust pizzas Doc's is famous for. And don't forget Oliva in New Preston, where chef Riad Amaar, formerly co-owner and chef at Doc's, has created a charming restaurant with terraces for outdoor dining and a menu spiced with Mediterranean intrigue. Sweet potato gnocchi and Moroccan eggplant come to mind.

For swimmers and boaters, Lake Waramaug takes the cake-or the apple strudel if you choose to dine at the landmark Hopkins Inn, where you can sit on a flagstone terrace shaded by an ancient chestnut tree and pretend you're in the Alps. Backhendl with lingonberries or live trout bleu go well with a glass of red or white from the Hopkins Vineyard up the hill. 

The Boulders, too, has sweeping views of the lake from a tree-shaded terrace and a circular glass and stone dining porch. Over the years, a number of chefs have presided here, some of them exceptional, virtually all of them good. Summer is lovely on a lake.

But what if we're stuck in the city and can't get away? Not to worry, there's always a sidewalk café, the perfect place to watch the passing parade and contemplate writing the great American novel. Ask Fitzgerald, ask Hemingway. 

In New Haven, almost before the last snowflake has fallen, Claire's Corner Copia has tables outside because that's where Claire's veggie-loving customers like to eat-Mexican lasagna when it's brisk, salad and quiche when it's balmy, fabulous Lithuanian coffee cake forever.

But down the street next to Yale Repertory Theatre, Scoozzi's equally famous outdoor courtyard is in the midst of a major restoration. Last I looked the planters, trellises and leafy vines were gone, the idea being to return the space to the original vision of world-famous architect Louis Kahn. In the meantime, all over New Haven new outdoor dining venues are popping up.

Geronimo on Crown Street is literally up. With a large patio at second-floor level overlooking the street, it feels like Santa Fe: wood-burning fire pit, terrific tequila menu, homemade cornbread and "hatch green oxtail stew." 

On the corner of Crown and Temple a new Italian restaurant called Marius has created a flower-and-shrub-defined sidewalk café that could be in Rome. The menu, inscribed "Pax per Vinum," suggests fusilli sauced with Grey Goose vodka, zucchini blossoms, an eight-ounce cheeseburger.

At the new Temple Grill it's hard to get a seat at the handsome outdoor courtyard café-any night, any day. Fans love the prices (appetizers under $10, entrées under $20), the half-portion option and the make-your-own salads. They even supply customization ballots and a pencil on every table. Signature dishes include meat loaf, seafood pie, crab-and-corn wrap and waffle fries.

But the coolest hot spot in New Haven is the newly opened rooftop café where Arturo Franco-Camacho is serving the four-star cuisine we learned to love at Roomba and now at Bespoke and Sabor. Choose from either or both menus and count the stars in the sky. It's a first for New Haven.

In West Hartford there's rooftop dining at the Elbow Room and lots of sidewalk cafés below. At Restaurant Bricco, Barcelona, Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan, among others. And on Bank, Bedford and Summer streets in Stamford, one sidewalk café drifts into another. "Musical Chairs" is the name of the game. Play it at Duo, Market, Dragonfly et al, but don't forget to follow your bliss. In Europe, passionate gourmets do so at the drop of a chapeau, following a favorite chef to a tiny restaurant in the wilds of Catalonia or a perched Provençal hill town. Scenery is incidental, convenience inconsequential. Food is the point.

Connecticut has brilliant chefs elsewhere, too. James O'Shea at West Street Grill in Litchfield is one. From day one, Manhattan foodies beat a path to his door. Back then, his restaurant was a simple storefront. It still is. Food was, and continues to be, the draw. Never trendy, always au courant, imaginative but classically grounded, marked by O'Shea's sternly disciplined idiosyncratic talent.

Pastorale in Lakeville has an outdoor patio for summer dining but it's almost beside the point because world-class French chef Frederic Faveau's inspired New American bistro cuisine is the major attraction. It's surprisingly sophisticated fare for this neck of the woods, French to the core but with a clean simplicity that makes it as refreshing as country air.

Woodward House is an art gallery disguised as restaurant in a 1740 Colonial on the green in Bethlehem. Each of several small dining areas is devoted to the work of an important contemporary artist. But as interesting as the paintings are, the artful cuisine of chef-owner Jerry Reveron is what brings discerning food lovers from afar. Nothing is too much trouble for this talented chef with a passion for food, wine and art.

The most thrilling out-of-the-way dining destination in recent years is Still River Café in Eastford. Here at a white-clothed table under hand-hewn beams you can dine on organically grown vegetables and greens grown 200 yards away and picked a few hours earlier in the day. This exceptional restaurant is the creation of Robert and Kara Brooks, two lawyers who made their dream come true: to live close to the land, cook what they grow and share it with friends. The culmination of their efforts is this serenely sophisticated barn-restaurant where farm-fresh ingredients are cooked and presented with exquisite finesse. As I said when I reviewed Still River Café when it opened in 2007: Words fail. Taste tells. Eastford calls.

Oh, the places we can go, the restaurants we can try, the food we can enjoy here in Connecticut without ever leaving the state.

Europe, eat your heart out.

Summer Delights

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