Fraiche, Fairfield

 

★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)

When I find a restaurant I love, I want it to stay what it is and where it is, well, forever. At the same time, exploring new restaurants is one of my favorite pastimes. Since even restaurant critics can't have their cake and eat it, too, I have learned to go with the flow. 

But La Colline Verte was hard to let go. Oh, those sumptuous French meals, the Grand Marnier soufflé, the romantic wall painting of a sidewalk café in Arles à la Van Gogh, fresh flowers on every white linen-clad table. Oh!

When La Colline Verte closed and reopened under new management as Fraîche, variously described as casual, modern, American and rustic, I was dubious. Casual? Rustic? In Greenfield Hill? Really?

Really. Fraîche is all of the above in a crisp,  contemporary way that somehow manages to be both elegant and hip. Wall coverings suggest a shadowy forest of young aspen trees. No white tablecloths, but everything on the polished barnwood tables is an example of good design.

The vestibule smells of apples, real apples, two bushel baskets of them. A couple of pitchforks nearby may be a tad corny, but they send a message. You don't have to dress up here. Or speak in whispers. In fact, if you're seated in the front room next to a noisy party of eight as we were, you may have to shout. The back room is more serene.

The food is serious, sophisticated and focused-urban farmhouse fare as reimagined by French-trained chef Marc Lippman, who has cooked at top restaurants in Paris, New York, Miami, Mexico and, most recently, at Ocean Drive in SoNo. The menu, which changes seasonally, reflects this worldliness and is admirably specific. Tennessee paddlefish caviar, free-range South Texas antelope, Trader Joe's apple juice. Appetizers and entrées fit on one page so it's easy to compose a congenial meal.

Perusing the menu on my first visit to Fraîche, my eyes lit on wild steelhead "salmon," which is actually river-running trout, and a favorite of mine. A helpful waiter said that these steelheads came from the state of Washington. Of course, I ordered it and the lovely fish lived up to its reputation. The flesh, bright red when caught, cooks up pale pink, rich and deep-flavored.

On my second visit, I would have been tempted to order steelhead again but before I could do so, our waiter volunteered the fact that it was so popular that "we ran out and are temporarily substituting salmon from New Zealand." I appreciated his candor and ordered Texas antelope. 

But first we sampled the appetizers. The most unusual was "ricotta gnudi," which is, in effect, a giant cheese-stuffed ravioli in a state of undress. Balls of handmade ricotta mixed with Parmigiano Reggiano were moistened with brown butter, scented with sage and garnished with guanciale, Italian cured pork cheek. Pastaless pasta for the carbophobe, sheer indulgence for the rest of us.

Chopped autumn vegetables, slow-roasted to the point of caramelization and mixed with filberts and goat cheese, comprised an appetizer so rich and satisfying a vegetarian might want to order a larger portion for an entrée. Butternut squash soup was pleasant and interesting, spiked with coconut, cilantro and maple syrup. 

Sea scallops snapped us all to attention before they got to the table, preceded as they were by the heavenly scent of black truffle sauce. Served with sunchoke confit, they were the unexpected star of the appetizer show.

I said fine when our waiter announced that the chef likes to serve antelope medium-rare. But when the antelope arrived in thickish slices, slightly seared on one side, blood red on the other, it was not fine with my tablemates who declined even a taste-too raw. Withal, the flavor was excellent and distinctive, set off nicely with quince jam and a smoky hash of brussels sprouts, butternut squash and bacon.

Chatham cod was fresh and mild but overwhelmed with an odd mélange of sofrito, chorizo, cockles and cocoa beans. Striped bass fared better, splashed with Kaffir lime-red pepper emulsion and lavished with rich, woodsy maitake mushrooms. 

But there are times when even ultrafussy gourmets get a yen for the foods they gobbled with abandon as teenagers. Milkshakes and fries and burgers. Oh, for a big, fat, glorious, no-holds-barred burger right now. Fraîche has it. Made with 100 percent Kobe beef, Grafton Village cheddar and caramelized onions, and served with french fries, it was the "best burger in the world," according to Judy. "Obscene," a fellow at the next table murmured, with a blissful expression on his face, as he took another hefty bite of his own "Fraîche Burger."

A chocolate tart on the dessert menu (named for figure skater Peggy Fleming) was less successful than its namesake. It's an odd concoction with a layer of sea salt between a dollop of milk chocolate ice cream and a disc of sticky fudge-filled cake doused with caramel sauce-for my taste teeth-achingly sweet. The salt was supposed to cut the richness but I found it jarring. An assortment of sorbets sounded promising but it turned out to be two scoops of Concord grape (with an artificial, almost metallic aftertaste) and one of blood orange (very good). Green apple sorbet turned up on a tasty little "apple confit terrine," a sort of open beggar's purse with just a wisp of crust and slices of juicy baked apple. A pleasing variation on tarte tatin. 

Butterscotch panna cotta with roasted peaches and Mathilde Peche liqueur was-like Fraîche itself-classic with a spirited, contemporary twist.

Fraîche
75 Hillside Rd., Fairfield (203/256-5744)

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to "late." Price range: appetizers $11 to $39, entrées $23 to $39, desserts $9. Prix fixe children's menu $12.

Fraiche, Fairfield

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