Heirloom at The Study at Yale, New Haven
Heirloom ★★★ (Superior)
We drive by New Haven's Study at Yale Hotel three times before I realize that it is not, as I thought, near the old Colony Inn. It is the old Colony Inn. Wow! If that tacky, tired, frequently face-lifted retread could be turned into this sleek, chic, urbane edifice, anything is possible. We might even find a parking place.
We do. Mirabile dictu! The same goes for our destination. Seven stories of floor-to-ceiling smoky glass reflect the goings-on on Chapel Street. The entrance is discreet, so discreet it's easy to miss. The Study at Yale Hotel and Heirloom Restaurant state their presence in block letters to the left and right of a glass vestibule.
The minute you step inside, you are struck by the stark beauty of empty space. It surrounds, startles, lures, entices you to touch its satiny surfaces. Lobby, halls and restaurant, unimpeded by doors, drift together, and so can you.
It's called Heirloom as in heirloom tomatoes and mod mac 'n cheese, and is as way-cool as its ultra with-it cuisine. In a city long noted for Italian food, and with a chef who trained with Todd English of Tuscany fame, one might expect the menu to lean discernibly toward Italy. It doesn't. Sure, there's spaghetti and meatballs on offer, but executive chef John Nordin is decidedly New World. Contemporary American is his genre, with an emphasis on simplicity. Old-fashioned flavors arrive in crisp, clean versions-everything interesting, nothing in excess.
Our waitress, commendably into her job, wants to bring us-pause for effect-bacon-wrapped dates. She's so delighted with the idea, I order them and decide not to tell her that years ago when young marrieds entertained each other at home, bacon-wrapped dates were de rigueur. But as it turns out, even I have something to learn; Heirloom's are stuffed with pistachio nuts-delicious.
Continuing on new-old ground, we find mac 'n cheese listed as an appetizer. It's a generous portion, too. At first it seems a little dry, but we dig down: There's a layer of luscious sauce on the bottom.
A Maine crab cake delights me with its mild purity. Fire eaters might like more spice, but with roasted tomato, fennel and vermouth butter, this crab cake is a class act.
An appetizer of roasted beets, Old Chatham goat cheese and spiced walnuts couldn't be better, utilizing top-of-the-line ingredients to create a perfect balance of taste and texture. For the same reasons, I love grilled asparagus with buffalo mozzarella and truffle vinaigrette.
Entrées are individually created compositions, each involving its own sauce, garnish and vegetable chosen to enhance. Alaskan salmon, for example, goes from mundane to marvelous when paired with oyster mushrooms and sorrel sauce. Sorrel. Now there's an heirloom! Popular in 14th-century France, in England in the time of King Henry VIII, in America at the turn of the century. Dark green leaves, refreshingly acidic in the mouth. Back by popular demand? I hope. Herbed gnocchi with rapini is also a memorable creation.
Monkfish bouillabaisse is less successful. It's almost too dry to qualify as bouillabaisse (where's that saffron broth that winked at us from the menu?) and overwhelmed by mushroom risotto. The monkfish embedded within is pleasant enough, but a decorative shrimp is too iodine-tinged to have been allowed on the premises.
Short ribs smothered in flavor-rich sauce are so good they might well be Heirloom's signature dish.
For dessert we order a silky crème brûlée made with brown sugar instead of white, its crystalline topping thinner than the world's thinnest glass. Four piping-hot apple beignets, like golden-brown golf balls rolled in cinnamon sugar, arrive snugly fitted into a square porcelain dish with a layer of caramel sauce on the bottom. The idea is to pluck and dip, laving your beignet with as much or as little sauce as you wish. Warm chocolate cake, a menu cliché these days, is also hard to resist. We order it "for comparison" but actually because we hanker for it.It's tender and satisfying but not over the top, fastidiously embellished with a dollop of white chocolate ice cream and a smidgen of chocolate sauce. Blond spice cake sings with ginger under a snowcap of Frangelico sabayon and a rain of finely diced poached pear.
Throughout our meal, our waitress is conscientious and helpful.
You can dine in the restaurant or the adjoining bar. The glass-walled wine rack is fun to peruse, and I love being able to get high-end wines by the glass. For a corkage fee, you can even bring your own.
Like the architecture and ambience of this exciting new space, dining at Heirloom is at once elegant and exciting, a little bit edgy and more than a little street-smart. It's a big-city experience. Hooray for New Haven.
Heirloom in the Study at Yale Hotel
1157 Chapel St., New Haven (203/503-3919)
Breakfast 7 to 10. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 2:30, Sunday brunch 11 to 3. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday till 9. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $4 to $14, entrées $19 to $36, desserts $7.Heirloom at The Study at Yale, New Haven