Johnny Ray's Milford
Johnny Ray's ★★★ (Superior)
1015 Bridgeport Ave., Milford (203/877-2200)
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 4:30, Saturday noon to 4:30. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday till 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $23 to $32, desserts $6 to 7.50.
Before hip and cool there was glamour and sophistication, the epitome of which was the supper club seemingly designed (judging by old movies) to provide tables for Fred Astaire to tap-dance on while William Powell and Myrna Loy, aka Nick and Nora Charles, slid into an upholstered booth the size and shape of an enormous clamshell, to exchange rapier-sharp barbs over a dry martini.
In Milford, restaurateurs Johnny Dicrosa and Ray Cruciani have re-created the supper-club concept, bringing it up to date with hot-ticket entertainment and adding a crucial missing ingredient: fine dining. Supper clubs of yore gave food short shrift. At Johnny Ray's, it's the star of the show.
A word to the wise if you go: Trust your GPS. If it says you're there, you're there-hard as it may be to believe that fine dining could be located across the street from an auto-body shop, a car wash and a pizza joint. Have faith, the kitchen is in good hands.
More about that later. First, a little mood adjustment. Shed uptight. Don debonair. Step into a bar with a waterfall and a mile-long onyx bar and wait for the show to begin-which it does every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
If you come early or at the beginning of the week, it may look a little bare but there'll be dancing in the aisles later on. In fact, Johnny Ray's back story has it that the co-owners, who are cousins, were dining out with their wives and felt like a drink and a dance before calling it a night. They couldn't find a place to go so they created Johnny Ray's, where food and entertainment can be enjoyed without moving the car. How prescient they were!
If you go for the show, grab a seat in the bar. If dining is your priority, ask to be seated behind the bar, where upholstered clamshell-shaped booths line a dining room so retro-glamorous you expect Frank Sinatra to come walking in with Ava Gardner on his arm.
The food is the same in both dining areas, modern American with Mediterranean and a few tropical accents. The chef is Michael Mastrianni, who was the opening chef at Jeffrey's in Milford, cooked at Luna in Westport and made a name for himself at Pamela's in San Juan. His cooking is adventurous but not weird, complex but not frou-frou.
Two visits enabled me to sample the summer and winter menus. Not everything worked but quite a few dishes sang out. Chief among these were roasted oysters with spinach and Fontina cheese. I'm a devotee of oysters Rockefeller in all their guesstimated variations (the original recipe has never been divulged) and I rank Johnny Ray's, with snippets of crisped Serrano ham and a heady drench of Pernod, among the very best.
Equally outstanding was an appetizer of sushi-grade tuna tartare tossed with a zingy dressing spiked with sesame, wasabi and soy.
Chef Mastrianni is noted for his crab cakes and it was easy to see why. Plantain-encrusted, delicately fried, they were grease-free and crispy on the outside, moist within and garnished with blood-orange beurre blanc. Two for $14 would have made a pleasant main course.
But the main-course lineup needed no augmentation. The winter menu is more opulent (half a roast duckling as opposed to sliced duck breast, for example), but some entrées appear on both menus year-round. Among these popular favorites was an outrageously decadent filet mignon stuffed with prosciutto, spinach and Fontina cheese and blanketed with cream brandy and Bordelaise sauce. Beautiful meat, it needed nothing by way of adornment but sometimes a little excess is, as the British say, a bit of all right.
Salmon, another crowd-pleaser, appeared in full regalia, lightly encrusted with ginger and garlic, with a soy-lime glaze and a garnish of tropical fruit-we tasted pineapple and mango but the mix varies. The fish flaked silkily from the fork, suggesting that it was wild salmon, but I won't swear to it. So far, so very good. Unfortunately, the fish was served atop a mound of mashed potatoes. Served this way, a piece of fish or meat is impossible to cut without engulfing it in potato and thereby obliterating any seasoning and soaking up any sauce the chef may have chosen to provide.
Organic, free-range chicken suffered a similar fate-a pity because the chicken was wonderful, strewn with fresh herbs, crisp-skinned and running with juice. Next time I'll ask for mashed potatoes on the side. Dare I suggest that we all do?
Aside from this design flaw, all of our entrées were delicious, with imaginative glazes to enliven and delight.
Johnny Ray's serves a complimentary green salad, a commendable gesture that has gone by the board elsewhere. Six larger salads are on offer for those who want to make a meal of them, with optional add-ons of shrimp, salmon, chicken or duck confit.
The dessert list was a welcome departure from the usual suspects. Chocolate fondue came with fruit, marshmallows and graham crackers-adult s'mores! Banana-and-white-chocolate bread pudding was unexpectedly light and fluffy, a hit at our table. My favorite was the warm apple tart, with a wonderfully short, crumbly crust filled with caramelized apples and pistachio crème topped with vanilla gelato. I loved it. The same cannot be said for the bittersweet chocolate torte, which was leaden, almost hard in the center and curiously lacking in chocolate flavor.
But when it comes to dessert in Italy and at Johnny Ray's, there's always gelato. Try the rich vanilla bean and intense espresso, a scoop of each. Or toast the decor with a snifter of Courvoisier VSOP. Nick and Nora would.Johnny Ray's Milford