Restaurant Review: Chamard Bistro, Clinton
★★ [Very Good]
A riot of roses, an elegant wine, dinner in a vineyard. Is this Europe? No, Connecticut. In Guilford, on 38 acres that include the largest single-span greenhouse in the world, Pinchbeck Rose Farm grows 90,000 rose bushes and produces 3 million roses a year. A few miles away in Clinton, Chamard Vineyards, with a microclimate similar to Burgundy, has been growing European vinifera vines since 1986 and producing fine French-inspired wines since 1989. In November, the winerry opened Chamard Bistro.
You need a reservation to tour the rose farm and you’re sure to need one to snag a table in the Bistro on a busy summer weekend, but hey, it’s worth it. The roses are beautiful and so is the vineyard.
The bistro adjoins a tasting room and an outdoor dining porch that overlooks terraced vines in neat rows fanning out beyond a pretty little pond. The interior is sophisticated and rustic at the same time, with clean white walls, modernistic sculptures made of barrel staves and tables topped with slabs of wood from a huge persimmon tree felled by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
The menu, purportedly French, is and isn’t. Onion soup, cassoulet and steak frites share pride of place with mac-and-cheese, pizza with broccoli rabe and a Four Mile River burger. Traditional dishes, salade frisée, for example, turn up with untraditional twists. And why not? We’re in America, after all. On our first visit we decided to go with the flow. In fact, we ordered the grilled flatbread, aka pizza, and liked it a lot. The crust was unremarkable but the topping—broccoli rabe, pork sausage, roasted red peppers and aged Bloomsday cheese—was lively and bright. The cheese, from Cato Corner in Colchester and named for Joyce’s Ulysses, has a nice nutty flavor that goes well with wine.
I ordered Salade de Satsuma because of its intriguing ingredients. It was an eye-popping success: Sweet, juicy segments of satsuma (seedless mandarin orange) and candied walnuts, were neatly arranged on a bed of tissue-thin Serrano ham. Fringed with arugula and garnished with a dab of local honey in the comb, it was a salad to remember.
Chamard’s Frisée salad was made with duck confit, dried cherries, brioche croutons and Dijon vinaigrette. No crispy lardons, no poached egg. Interesting but a far cry from Salade Frisée à la Française.
But authenticity is not the raison d’être here, something for every taste is, and with one of our party barely out of his teens and a rabid carnivore, Chamard’s Five Mile River burger—big and juicy, with coarsely ground grass-fed beef—lived up to the challenge.
Equally hefty in its way, cassoulet de Chamard was a letdown. Listed as “A typical Toulouse-style braise with duck, sausage, pork and tarbais beans,” it looked very French-country-kitchen in its blue enamel-on-iron casserole, but the pork was tough and the sauce lacked the rich succulence of fatty meat and the complexity of long, slow cooking—masked perhaps by what was, for my taste, over-salting.
In contrast, mundane-sounding lamb chops turned out to be a noble pair of thick, tender, perfectly grilled loin lamb chops laved with pomegranate-laced red wine jus and served with a silken purée of celery root and parsnip.
But the star of the show was an elegant preparation of wild steelhead trout: coral-tinged fillets, lightly cooked, crowned with bright green asparagus spears and ruby-red tomato-basil fondue embellished with Mystic oysters in black garlic velouté. Words fail.
The dessert list was less impressive. Redundantly, three out of its four offerings were chocolate: Chocolate truffle cake with caramel sauce, chocolate cup (hazelnut mousse encased in dark chocolate) and chocolate cheesecake topped with a swirl of raspberry mousse. There was also a pear-and-almond tart, which I liked best. None were house-made but all were on the high end of the “brought in” spectrum. According to our waitress, Chamard is looking for a pastry chef. Let’s hope they find one as well-suited to the job as is executive chef Brad Stabinsky, who came to Chamard by way of the Beringer Vineyards’ School for American Chefs and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.
At Chamard in Clinton, we loved the look of the Bistro and its friendly ambience but all did not go entirely well in the front of the house. Our meal was a stop-and-go experience, and service lapses were many. Among them, the table was not cleared between courses, drink delivery was slow, and our waitress was unable to identify the cheeses on a cheese plate, much less tell us where they came from.
But Chamard Bistro is comparatively new and there’s a lot to like about it—enough to overlook a few growing pains while it gets its act together. In the meantime, I’m planning a return visit soon. Perhaps we’ll sit on the terrace. Perhaps there will be a moon. And I can’t wait to taste what chef Stabinsky dreams up next.
115 Cow Hill Rd., Clinton, 860/664-0299, chamard.com
Hours Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday 11 to 6, Friday and Saturday 12 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6 to $16, entrées $22 to $25, desserts $6 to $8.