Brasserie Pip, Ivoryton
Brasserie Pip is the fun-loving progeny of the formal French dining room of Ivoryton's lovely Copper Beech Inn. A hard act to follow. But Pip-named for the innkeeper's Jack Russell terrier-performs with tail-wagging enthusiasm and darned near runs off with the show.
American-born, with French parents, executive chef François de Melogue comes from a long line of French chef-restaurateurs. As a boy, he spent every summer at Auberge de L'Etang Bleu, his grandfather's hotel and restaurant in Perigord, France, which he revisits annually for culinary inspiration.
But de Melogue is a chef with multicultural interests. His cookbook library contains 1,500 titles and he's cooked all over the United States. In Chicago, he opened Pili Pili, named in 2003 "one of the top 10 new restaurant openings in the world" by Food & Wine. At the Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino, Calif., he cooked totally organic breakfasts, lunches and high-end wine dinners. In Connecticut, he explores farm markets, exchanges recipes with famous chefs and can't wait to try new things. So adventurous eaters would do well to grab Brasserie Pip's list of specials tout de suite.
I did and I learned something. Pumpkin swordfish-what in the world? I asked the waitress who asked the chef who came out to explain that at certain times of the year schools of wild swordfish get into shellfish beds and gorge themselves on shrimp. The pale orange flesh of these hedonistic swordfish is said to be richer, firmer, juicier and more flavorful. I found it so. Served with mashed potatoes, a medley of vegetables and tomato-and-tarragon hollandaise, it was a bargain at $28, which was the highest price for any main dish on the menu-including Dover sole.
Like most chefs who are excited about what they are doing, de Melogue likes to send out a tidbit of something that's not on the menu. For us it was a spoonful of "cantaloupe caviar" topped with shavings of Serano ham. The golden beads, looking for all the world like fish eggs, turned out actually to be cantaloupe. We spent the rest of the meal trying to figure out how they had been made. "With a special gadget-sort of a grater," our waitress said, and offered to take us to the kitchen for a demonstration. We declined but noticed that we were not the only ones comfortably chatting with the staff. So much for French hauteur!
Oysters (four kinds) from the raw bar were fresh, brisk and briny, hailing from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New England. My favorites were the Wiannos from Cape Cod-clean, crisp and unabashedly deep-sea salty. I also liked the pristine Winter Points from Maine.
Both of the men in our party ordered soup. Soupe au fromage made with cream and four kinds of cheese was disappointing-so rich and intense that it was hard to eat more than a few spoonfuls. It would have been better as a sauce. On the other hand, soupe à l'oignon made from a recipe by Jacques Pépin was gloriously classic, deftly gratinéed with Grûyère and served in an earthenware crock so cute I wanted one like it.
Satisfingly traditional, too, were escargots baked in garlic herb butter and a Burgundy-style poultry liver terrine served with cornichons.
Curiously, steak tartare-a huge portion of hand-chopped raw Hereford beef tenderloin with capers, cornichons and cognac-was served as an entrée. Delicious but daunting, I suspect, to even the most intrepid carnivore. We all took a taste and opined that it would be better in a smaller portion as an appetizer.
After years of dining abstemiously on paper-thin slices of duck breast, to receive half a duckling, drumsticks, wings and all, sautéed with local apples and cider, was an old-fashioned treat. Crispy skin, rich, tender meat, thick slices of apple caramelized in the baking. Yes, the leg meat was a tad stringy. But free-range birds run around. And what are knives for?
Hanger steak, once ignored, is now appearing everywhere, gussied up every which way. Brasserie Pip does it simply as brasseries in France do-grilled with frites. Plus a side of sauce béarnaise. Hooray!
But it was the blanquette de veau that brought it all back to me: the cozy bliss of roaming the Left Bank arm in arm, and ducking into a brasserie where the prix fixe included a half bottle of wine and veal stew like the one I got to savor again at Brasserie Pip. It's a simple dish, or should be-just veal, cream, onions, carrots, perhaps a handful of mushrooms. The secret's in the cooking-slowly, slowly, slowly. De Melogue, who knows the brasserie repertoire inside out, cooked it that way-in fact, probably could have done so in his sleep.
I could have stopped right here, without dessert, but when the soufflés Doug ordered arrived, they were irresistible. Passion fruit, lemon and blood orange, each baked and served in its shell. An order of something called "Maui Wowee" brought a ring of grilled pineapple topped with coconut sorbet and rum and vanilla sauce. A bombe of dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate mousses was indulgence times three.
It was cold outside, but in Brasserie Pip it tasted like Paris in the springtime.
Brasserie Pip at the Copper Beech Inn
46 Main St.,Ivoryton (860/767-0330)
Dinner Thursday to Sunday 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $20, entrées $16 to $28, desserts $8 to $9.Brasserie Pip, Ivoryton