Dishes To Try Before You Die

Grab a fork, it's time to explore Connecticut's most notable dishes.

 

So much good food, so little time! We all know that when it comes to dining out, Connecticut is one of the great places to explore. Whether your taste runs to hot dogs or haute cuisine-or to both and everything in between, as is the case with most of us-there is no shortage of new and great things to try.

But some of the state's culinary gems stand above or apart to such a degree that they virtually require us to give them a taste. Can you live in Connecticut and never try a New Haven pizza? It's possible, of course, but far from advisable. Can you get by without at least once digging into the delicious backhendl while looking out across Lake Waramaug from the terrace at the Hopkins Inn in New Preston? Again, it can be done, but why would you want to? And do you really want your tombstone to read: "She never tried a steamed cheeseburger"?

It is with these experiences in mind that we have compiled the following list of Connecticut's dining imperatives-dishes that for one reason or another demand our attention at least once, and quite possibly more than once, before we "leave the room." Is the list complete? Of course not. There have to be at least 100 such experiences out there, and we had room for only 50 in this feature. In that respect, we welcome your input. Let us know what Connecticut dishes you think we have to try while we've still got the chance, and we'll share the info with all our readers.

For now, these Connecticut treasures, listed in no particular order, will have to do. And in our opinion, they do very nicely indeed.

1. The white clam pie at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven. This is a delicious Connecticut invention served at a genuine world-class dining destination (Pepe's now has branches in Fairfield and Manchester, but New Haven remains the mother ship). The white clam pie is fresh littlenecks, olive oil, oregano, grated Parmesan cheese and chopped garlic-all sitting atop one of Pepe's crunchy, chewy, blistery thin crusts.

2. The Seafood Feast at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough, Noank. This is one very good version of the New England shore dinner. The meal begins with clam chowder and shrimp in the rough followed by a heaping bowl of steamers and mussels, topped off with an Abbott's steamed lobster-accompanied by potato chips, coleslaw and drawn butter. All with a water view, too!

3. The hamburger at Louis' Lunch, New Haven. Was the hamburger invented here? That's the claim, and it'll seem that way when you step inside Louis'. The burgers are made with fresh-ground beef that is broiled vertically in the original cast-iron grill and served between two slices of toast. Cheese, tomato and onion are the only garnishes available-no mustard or ketchup.

4. The wok shrimp at Carole Peck's Good News Cafe, Woodbury. Described as "Always Good" on the menu, this is the go-to dish at one of the state's top restaurants. It's an inspired mix of wok-seared Gulf shrimp, green beans, peas, olives, roast potatoes and aioli.

5. The Kobe beef appetizer at Feng Asian Bistro, Hartford. The beef is brought to the table raw in thin strips, along with a flat volcanic rock heated by a small burner. It is up to you to place it on the rock and cook it to your own taste. At $10 an ounce, this dish isn't cheap, but it is fun and delicious.

6. Potage Billi Bi at Ondine, Danbury. The venerable French restaurant makes the most of this cream-of-mussels soup with saffron. The curious name comes from tin magnate William B. Leeds (Billy B.), who often sang the soup's praises at Maxim's in Paris.

7. Seared wasabi and sesame-rubbed tuna at Match, South Norwalk. This memorable and very popular opener includes coconut sticky-rice cake, sweet soy, avocado crema, watercress and spicy saracha, a Thai hot sauce.

8. The New Englander with fries at Super Duper Weenie, Fairfield. There are quite a few really good hot dog spots in Connecticut, but Super Duper Weenie stands out for the freshness of its homemade toppings, the creativity of its offerings and the sublime nature of its french fries. The New Englander, topped with sauerkraut, bacon, mustard, sweet relish and raw onion, is top dog.

9. The whole-belly clams at Sea Swirl, Mystic. Grab a half-pint of these hand-battered beauties and savor the taste of the sea. 

10. Ebibaba at Miya's, New Haven. One of the many unique treats to be found at this remarkably creative sushi restaurant, this sensual dish consists of tempura shrimp wrapped in a potato skin and topped with torch-toasted Havarti cheese and lemon-dill sauce.

 

11. The hot lobster roll at Lenny & Joe's Fish Tale, Westbrook and Madison. This is a Connecticut invention (born at a long-gone place in Milford called Perry's) that was, is and always will be blissfully simple: hot chunks of lobster meat and melted butter served on a sturdy split-top roll. Lenny & Joe's does a particularly nice job of it.

12. A crab cake at Carmen Anthony Steakhouse or Fishhouse, Waterbury, New Haven, Woodbury, Avon or Wethersfield. This generous and spectacular take on a ubiquitous dish consists of Maryland lump crab that's potato-encrusted, pan-fried and served golden brown with a remoulade sauce.

13. Rabbit "Olivier" at Still River Café, Eastford. Good things come in threes at this superb locavore restaurant; take this poached saddle-of-rabbit medallions, roasted stuffed leg and chilled rillette of rabbit served with farm onions and a leek-filled crêpe.

14. Porterhouse for two at Joseph's Steakhouse, Bridgeport. At about $75, this is a beef lover's blowout. Hot dinner plates are set down seconds before a steak platter arrives bearing pieces of beef that were presliced in the kitchen, then put back in place along the bone so you can see exactly which section of steak you are eating.

15. Meat loaf at Dressing Room, Westport. The grass-fed beef for this delicious, comforting dish is from nearby Stonebroke Farm, and it's served with mixed seasonal vegetables, home-style mashed potatoes, caramelized onions and garden herbs.

16. The "hi-rise" of shellfish at Max's Oyster Bar, West Hartford. A wonderful thing to behold, the mountain of shaved ice is imbedded with an assortment of fresh shellfish, oysters, clams, mussels, snow crab claws, jumbo shrimp and other market crustaceans.

17. Cheeseburger at Shady Glen, Manchester. A cheeseburger is just a cheeseburger? Not at Shady Glen, where several slices of cheese are allowed to extend beyond the edges of the burger as it cooks, so the cheese melts onto the grill, and turns crisp and chewy before being folded back onto the burger before it's served. Hard to picture? Guess you'll have to go. 

18. Hot oil pizza at Colony Grill, Stamford. The crust on these pies is so thin that it's actually brittle, creating a delicious crunch unlike any other pizza you've had. Some find it very hard to go back to pizza-as-usual after experiencing the Colony's version. 

19. Italian combo grinder at Nardelli's, Waterbury and Naugatuck. Get back to the roots of the whole grinder thing with this original beauty: prosciuttini, cappicola, salami and provolone, with lettuce, tomato, olives and hot sauce.

20. Paella negra at Ibiza, New Haven. Tuesday night is Paella Night at Ibiza, with a special menu served only then. This spectacular dish (which needs to be ordered by at least two at your table) includes squid ink rice, Spanish prawns, shrimp, mussels, squid, clams, day-market fish and herbs.

21. Caesar salad at Carbone's, Hartford. For those who crave the old-school presentation, this is it: laboriously prepared tableside, with fork-mashed fresh garlic, olive oil, assiduously emulsified anchovies, Tabasco, mustard, a squeeze of lemon, Parmesan cheese, romaine, croutons and, yes, a raw egg.

22. Tomato salad at West Street Grill, Litchfield. Among the many treasures to be had at West Street are these locally grown heirloom tomatoes served on a plate sprinkled with fleur de sel, drizzled with the best virgin olive oil, topped with fresh basil leaves and accompanied by a thick slice of homemade peasant bread. A gift of the season.

23. French toast at O'Rourke's Diner, Middletown. One morning, early, make the trip to the legendary O'Rourke's for a big breakfast of French toast, and be sure it's prepared with the diner's famous Irish soda bread.

24. Beef brisket on rye at Rein's, Vernon. There've never been too many old-fashioned Jewish delis in Yankee Connecticut, but Rein's has been in Vernon since 1972 (a good sign) and its sandwiches meet and exceed every possible test.

25. The Polish Platter at Staropolska, New Britain. Everyone has to go to New Britain for Polish food at least once. Their menu features a good sampler dish that includes golabek, kielbasa, bigos, three pierogies and a potato pancake.

 

26. Dover sole at Thomas Henkelmann, Greenwich. The four-star menu changes from time to time, but Dover sole seems to be something delicious you can always count on. Not long ago, it was poached and filled with saffron mousse and accompanied by lobster medallions in Champagne sauce. More recently, it was Dover sole and sea scallops with fresh pea purée, red wine, shallots and lobster sauce.

27. Apple, walnut and cranberry pancakes at Patty's Restaurant, Litchfield. This is one of those places where it's very hard to choose what to have for breakfast from the extensive menu (not to mention the specials), but when in doubt, go with the pancakes.

28. The garlic bread at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, Mohegan Sun, Uncasville. This is no ordinary garlic bread, oh no, no, no-not even close. This toasty, creamy, transcendent appetizer is made with a Maytag bleu cheese fondue that might make you forget all about the main course.

29. Confit de canard at Union League Café, New Haven. In the mood for French? Don't miss this classic appetizer featuring boneless duck leg confit, crisp potato galette, Granny Smith apple, walnuts and a watercress salad.

30. Orecchiette Juventine at Trattoria Finalmente, Westport. There's lots of great pasta in Connecticut, but this one's a must: fresh orecchiette sautéed with artichoke hearts, fresh plum tomatoes, prosciutto, wild mushrooms, black truffle paste with garlic and extra virgin olive oil finished with shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano.

31. A steamed cheeseburger at Ted's, Meriden. This is a central Connecticut specialty that everyone needs to try at least once. The beef and cheese are steamed in little metal boxes and served on a bulkie roll. At Ted's, the process is on view in its purest form.

32. Amaretto shrimp at Kensington's, The Spa at Norwich Inn, Norwich. Even though you're at a spa (and a great one), you'll feel like you're splurging on this heavenly appetizer featuring crispy shrimp tossed in a sweet and spicy almond emulsion, with walnut crumbs and microgreens. 

33. The Hudson Valley foie gras trio at Bernard's, Ridgefield. This lavish appetizer includes foie gras smoked with apple ginger chutney, sautéed with apple cider reduction and  "torchon" style with Concord grape gelée.

34. The fried-flounder sandwich at Cove Fish Market, Stonington. Simplicity itself, as a fresh piece of flounder is lightly battered, fried and served on a hot-dog roll.

35. Caneton roti sauce bigarade for two at La Bretagne, Stamford. Crispy duck with orange sauce, but far from the sickly sweet sauce you may remember. This is the best way to immerse yourself in La Bretagne's classic French cuisine and atmosphere.

36. Ceviches at Sabor and Bespoke, New Haven. At last look, this meant citrus-cured shrimp and scallops with onion, chipotle, cilantro and tomato, but while the ingredients change, the quality and pizzazz of Arturo Franco-Camacho's ceviches never do.

37. Mesquite-grilled Montana buffalo rib-eye steak at Palomino, Greenwich. A terrific dish at one of the state's best new restaurants. This steak is served with a potato, onion and cheese gratin.

38. Avocado Salad . . . Deconstructed at Shrine, MGM Grand, Mashantucket. This marvelously unique and creative concoction includes avocado, spicy mayo, two types of crab, tobiko (flying fish roe) and lemon.

39. Dagwood Burger at Sycamore Drive-In, Bethel. A big burger with all the trimmings served in the unbeatable atmosphere of a must-visit drive-in from another era. Go on a scheduled Cruise Night for the full effect. Try the homemade root beer, too.

 

40. White mashed-potato pizza at BAR, New Haven. Unusual and delicious, all the elements come together here: the crust, the cheese, the potatoes, the garlic, the bacon. This dish has found its way to prominence even in pizza-saturated New Haven.

41. Lithuanian coffee cake at Claire's CornerCopia, New Haven. Just really good coffee cake whose ingredients include, among other things, coffee, vanilla, brown sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, ginger and raisins.

42. Lapin rôti campagnarde at Restaurant du Village, Chester. At one of Connecticut's most notable country French restaurants, dine memorably and well on this country-style roast rabbit in a whole-grain mustard, tarragon and white wine sauce.

43. Vietnamese chicken at Zinc, New Haven. This dish has been on Zinc's menu from Day One, and with good reason. It's a chicken breast with lemon-pepper dipping sauce, black Thai rice and an Asian vegetable sauté.

44. Backhendl with lingonberries at Hopkins Inn, New Preston. As you dig into this fried-chicken-cutlet dish while gazing out at Lake Waramaug and the surrounding hills, you may, for a moment, think you're overlooking a lake in Austria. You're not, but it's a nice thought.

45. Chateaubriand at the Golden Lamb Buttery, Brooklyn. A 45-year Saturday evening tradition in eastern Connecticut and truly a one-of-a-kind night out. Cocktails in the barn or on the deck can be extended to include a hayride around the 1,000-acre farm. Live music accompanies dinner. Guests are encouraged to linger as long as they like.

46. Creole shrimp at Sharpe Hill Vineyard, Pomfret. This is really all about the experience of dining outdoors in a charming space looking out on a Connecticut vineyard. The shrimp are marinated in a hot sauce and then wood-grilled, served with lemon thyme rice and fresh mango chutney. A bottle of Sharpe Hill's Ballet of Angels makes a nice accompaniment.

47. Roasted littleneck clams at The Place, Guilford. The littlenecks at this classic outdoor grillery are roasted over wood, split open, splashed with hot sauce and then put back on the fire until the sauce and clam juice meld perfectly. Enjoy them with the roasted-in-its-husk corn on the cob.

48. Two soups in one bowl at Rebeccas, Greenwich. A striking presentation of delicious, luxurious soups-in warm weather it's yellow and red gazpacho sharing the bowl; in cold weather, it's butternut and acorn squash with roasted chestnuts.

49. Penne peppered vodka at La Tavola Ristorante, Waterbury. Sometimes a well-known favorite perfectly prepared can be just what you most want and need. Penne with vodka sauce, combining fresh pasta, plum tomatoes, prosciutto, cream and Grana Padano cheese, gets a memorable treatment from La Tavola's wondrous kitchen.

50. Steak au poivre and the prix fixe dinner at Le Petit Café, Branford. One final French fling, this time for the whole meal rather than just one dish. Since 1997, chef Ip at Le Petit has offered a changing prix fixe menu in this charming little spot. The steak,  with its luscious brandy-black peppercorn sauce, is a very good way to go.

Dishes To Try Before You Die

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