Osianna Taverna, Fairfield

 

★★ (Very Good)

A Mediterranean seafood restaurant in a barn-red clapboard house behind a white picket fence? Anachronistic, perhaps, but not atypical of Mediterranean ports of call, especially in Italy and Greece, where restaurants flourish in fishing shacks, on rooftops, on ferry docks, almost anywhere as long as the food is good. And the food is good at Osianna Taverna in Fairfield. The chef is Italian, his wife Greek, and both countries inform the menu and the decor. Osianna is also doing something that made me sit up and take notice.

I've eaten at tavernas all over Greece but not until I dined at Anthos in Manhattan did it occur to me that the time has come for traditional Greek dishes to be redesigned, made over into something light, bright, exciting and new. Nuevo Latino has arrived. Why not Nuevo Mediterraneo?

In small, delightful ways, Osianna's chef Piergiorgio Nanni is trying out the idea. Not to worry, authenticity and abundance still apply. What we find are additions, not subtractions. For example, you can still get linguine with mussels, clams, scallops, calamari, langoustine and shrimp in a spicy garlicky tomato sauce. But among the small plates there's "petite veal osso buco" and a nuevo-style moussaka made with a baby eggplant (the size of a small pear) stuffed with caramelized onions and melted Kasseri cheese.

For a small restaurant, the menu offers a great many choices, all reminiscent of the Old World and sensitive to the new. Fish are steamed or baked, very little is deep-fried, nothing is swimming in oil. Flavors pure as primary colors are combined with an eye to tradition and a practiced hand. No Mediterranean-Asian fusion confusion here.

When I picked up the menu, the word "Carnaroli" jumped out, telling me that Osianna cares about quality and knows where to get it. Carnaroli rice, grown almost exclusively in the Po Valley of Italy, is famously good for making risotto, and there it was, Carnaroli risotto, the first small plate listed on the menu. Enriched with mushrooms and leek and sea-salt-roasted hazelnuts, it was as good as its reputation. It's available also as an entrée and I was tempted. 

But there were 16 small plates on offer plus specials and salads, and I also had my eye on fried Halloumi cheese. Oh, the pine-scented, sea-washed memories of hiking on north Cyprus where this soft but firm white cheese is made, with a mixture of goat and sheep's milk. Halloumi is often served cold with fruit but it's best grilled, poached or fried. Chef Nanni pan-sears it and serves it piping hot, on the verge of melting but still firm inside, topped with capers and lemon oil. It's salty but so is feta. Halloumi is a bit more complex, richer, and definitely worth a try.
 
Tiny, seedless red grapes, luscious loads of them, in an arugula and romaine salad, were sweet and juicy enough to suggest that a pleasant meal might be made of small plates followed by this salad as dessert. As a starter it's a bit too sweet and filling-unless, of course, you order one to nibble and share.

Osianna's entrée list is long but I immediately zeroed in on loup de mer. I love grilled whole fish served head and tail intact the way it's done on beaches all around the Mediterranean, and it's hard to find in restaurants here. Osianna's Mediterranean sea bass arrived whole, perfectly grilled, moist, flaky, resting triumphantly on a bed of dandelion greens that were a pleasingly bitter foil for the delicately sweet flavor of the fish.

An entrée special of halibut with shallots, tomato and chorizo sausage from Portugal was equally successful. The inch-thick slab of tender white fish was served on a bed of tiny black lentils mixed with pale green fava beans. A topknot of sprouts supplied the obligatory eye appeal, but it was the quality of the ingredients and the inspired combination that made the dish outstanding.

"Jumbo shrimp stuffed with crabmeat" was, well, shrimp with crabmeat stuffing-acceptable but nothing to write home about. A bouillabaisse of sea bass, clams, mussels, scallops, langoustine, calamari and shrimp was much more exciting, in a fresh tomato, lemon and garlic broth, piled high in a glass bowl.

While desserts are not a big deal in Italy or Greece, Osianna makes a rich chocolate cake, a nice crème brûlée, occasionally an interesting orange mousse and, as a matter of course, Greek cookies and baklava. But if you ask me, Greek yogurt with tart black cherries is the way to go.

As you can see, there is a lot to like about Osianna. What I do not like is this: You can make a reservation for lunch but Osianna does not take reservations for dinner. And there is no place to wait-no bar, no lounge, no benches outside. The welcome is warm and the food is worth waiting for. But standing around in a cramped hallway is not my idea of R&R. Please, please, Osianna, take reservations for dinner. Efharisto.

Osianna Taverna
70 Reef Rd., Fairfield (203/254-2070)

Lunch Monday through Saturday 11 to 3. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 10:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7 to $13, entrées $22 to $37, desserts $8 to $12.

Osianna Taverna, Fairfield

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