Backstage Bistro, Torrington
★★ (Very Good)
Backstage is passionate about three things: music, beer and food. With a connoisseur collection of domestic brews, a menu ranging from wings to lobster potpie, halibut and steak, this functional, focused, no-b.s. bistro in Torrington next to a vintage theater that gets acts like Diana Krall and Steve Martin delivered a dining experience so pleasurable it negated the notion that you have to go to a big city to enjoy yourself big-time.
Backstage likes Torrington, Torrington likes Backstage. Their mutual affection is palpable. Locals and day-trippers stand elbow-to-elbow at the big zinc bar doing justice to Backstage’s premier beer list—70 bottled, 24 on tap.
A menu listing soups and salads, small plates, sandwiches, burgers, big plates and desserts offers almost as many choices. At this point things get exciting. It’s comfort food, yes—sometimes classic, sometimes with a hip, modern twist, sometimes a fanciful riff on international fun food.
On our recent visit we played the field, starting with clam chowder, New England-style, hearty, homey, creamy, loaded with clams, vegetables and potatoes. In contrast, Backstage’s grilled shrimp enchilada was delicate and bright, a tender blue corn crêpe enfolding rock shrimp and diced fresh tomato with black bean sauce—a far cry from the all-too-familiar chunky enchiladas buried under a ton of melted cheese served elsewhere.
The Cobb salad ordered for the table arrived looking like the colorful flag of a country it’d be fun to visit. Stripes of bright red tomato, pale green avocado and yellow-and-white hard-boiled egg alternated with crumbled bacon and blue cheese on a bed of greens along with—stop the clock, attention must be paid—a wide strip of chilled picked lobster meat. For $15, it was enough for four.
While we’re talking price, we should mention that affordability is one of Backstage’s charms. Entrées top out at $26, with many in the $14 to $18 range. Burgers embellished with all manner of yummy stuff (apple butter, bacon, Brie and spinach; feta, arugula, red onion and olives) are 10 bucks—including french fries and traditional sour pickles.
According to the menu, the preparation of PEI mussels varies daily—“your server will explain.” Our server, cheery, chatty and eager to be helpful, had to go to the kitchen to find out. “Wine sauce with capers,” she announced when she returned. Eager to try something new, we dug into the plate of shiny black mussels the minute it arrived, extracting the mollusks from their shells, laving them with sauce and stopping to stare at one another in surprise. “Sweet,“ I said, breaking the silence. Very sweet, too sweet, my tablemates agreed. We tried a few more, trying to guess what made the sauce so sweet. We gave up and inquired. Sweet vermouth was the answer. A matter of taste, I guess, but not mine. The mussels themselves were extra tiny and a couple of shells were closed up tight.
An entrée of pan-seared wild Pacific halibut was an extravaganza, and a bargain, paired with risotto chock-a-block with lobster and rich with flavor. The fish tasted fresh and sweet but the texture suffered from slight overcooking. Short ribs, however, redeemed the day, reminding us how good they can be when made the slow, old-fashioned way. Backstage braised them in porter—we were in beer heaven, after all. Yukon gold potato hash soaked up the rich, dark sauce.
Lobster potpie departed from tradition—and improved upon it. Airy puff pastry stood in for thick piecrust, and the abundance of lobster and cubed potato was graced with a lighter than usual sherry Newburg sauce.
Backstage burgers, the menu informs, are made with fresh-ground, certified Angus beef (eight ounces) on house-baked buns.
We tried the House Classic, made with Cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and red onion—a gourmet bargain we liked so much we vowed to return to sample some of the more exotic burger options. Dry-rubbed skillet-blackened Ragin’ Cajun? The Italian, with pesto and fresh mozzarella? Next time.
We still had fresh tuna to try. Sesame-rubbed and seared to just the right degree, juicy and red inside, this beautiful steak of the sea merited a round of applause.
But shouldn’t there be a Grand Finale? On cue Backstage delivered a razzle-dazzle of lookie-lookie desserts. A cannonball of sticky toffee pudding, warm medjool date cake drenched in toffee sauce and topped with crushed pecan brittle, was so sweet we could not imagine wanting more than one bite but we did. Taste it if you dare. Grandma on the farm could have made the fresh berry shortcake—blackberries and strawberries on a buttermilk biscuit with clouds of fresh whipped cream on top.
House-made pistachio ice cream was a flop, I’m sorry to say—bright green, artificial-tasting and gluey in consistency. Never mind, we all fell in love with the lemon-ginger cheesecake. Who wouldn’t, with that perfect combination of tart citrus and gingery bite enhanced with an amaretti crust?
Aptly named, Backstage adjoins the Warner Theater, but it also has a stage of its own in the back. The entrance doors are painted trompe l’oeil style to resemble a crumbling concrete wall embellished with artistic graffiti. In the theater, illusion is all, but the depth of Backstage’s beer list and the quality of its food and drink is very real. Encore!
84 Main St., Torrington (860/489-8900; backstageeatdrinklive.com)
Open daily 11:30 to 11:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $15, entrées $14 to $24, burgers with fries $10 to $12, desserts $6 to $8.