Restaurant L & E, Chester

 

★★★ (Superior)

For almost 20 years Restaurant du Village in Chester was Connecticut’s romantic dream—like the fabulous little restaurant you wandered into on your first trip to France and returned to every year, finding it always magically unchanged. Now, where Restaurant du Village used to be, there’s Restaurant L&E, a different restaurant with different owners. Is the sky falling? It’s time to go and see.

You still enter through a scrap of garden where in summer a few tables are set for outdoor dining. The bar, cozy before, is cozier than ever, rechristened French 75 Bar, nostalgically honoring an elegant cocktail, the French 75 made with a half-jigger of Cognac topped off with Champagne in a crystal flute. We have one, of course. The quality of the glassware prompts a look at the wine list. It’s impressive, especially the Burgundies and a lovely list of rare Californians. Lots of affordables, too. With dinner we enjoy a nice Malbec, Huarpe, for $29. 

From the bar, you go through a sort of pantry with a view of the kitchen to get to the dining room, which has been transformed from auberge to Paris bistro. Not Hemingway’s bistro, nor James Joyce’s, but a romantic little French restaurant that speaks to our day and age the way Polidor spoke to theirs.

A case in point: little plates. L&E grabs the trend and runs with it. Anything and everything is presented in miniature, a do-it-yourself tasting menu. When our waitress suggests that four of us order three courses apiece plus dessert, we demur. She persists. We acquiesce. We order foie gras, pot au feu, squid, snapper, soft-shell crab, “steak and potatoes,” quail, a chowder of buttered lobster, pork belly and fingerling potatoes. Stop, already! Never in a million years will we eat all this.

But we do, because L&E’s small plates are as delectable as they are diminutive. A morsel of pan-seared red snapper, for example, is  topped with two curried shrimp. Skate wings are served with Jerusalem artichokes and pancetta. Desserts are combination plates.

The kitchen sees to it that dishes arrive in a sensible order—starters and lighter food first, sturdier fare later, fish and poultry preceding red meat. The menu and the recited specials change frequently so there’s always something new to taste.
I start with, and fall for, a Waldorf salad of poached lobster claw meat mixed with finely diced celery and apple, held together by a gossamer-light mayonnaise-type dressing. Judy’s crispy pan-fried (not deep-fried) fresh squid packs a wallop when dipped in the smoky remoulade alongside. On the same small plate, a Tasso-ham-and-orange salad stands ready to cool the mouth. Soft-shell crab with cabbage slaw pales in comparison, but Hudson Valley foie gras is heaven, on toasted fig bread accented with zingy kumquat, orange and ginger preserves.

The chowder of buttered lobster, pork belly and fingerling potatoes, however, needs a bit of adjustment. There’s plenty of lobster in it but it’s overpowered by the smoky saltiness of the pork belly.

While pot au feu is traditionally made with beef and a marrow bone, L&E’s version is a lovely, light dish of chicken poached with spring vegetables and fennel. Flavors here are subtle—too subtle, perhaps—for folks like me who favor the swoon-inducing intensity of the original French recipe.

Halibut, on the other hand, with a piperade of clams, chorizo and Spanish pimento, is vibrantly delicious, like something you’d encounter in the Basque region of Spain.

Among so many tasty contenders, two dishes stand out. A gorgeous piece of flounder is so fresh and mildly sweet that if the menu didn’t say it was Stonington flounder, I like to think I would have guessed. I’ve watched that fishing fleet come into port and unload, sort and grade its glistening bounty while buyers stand ready to whisk it away. Maybe our flounder was caught today. A plump little oven-roasted quail is equally winsome—burnished to a high sheen with red-wine glaze, filled with herb-brioche stuffing, and liberally strewn with dark, loamy forest morels.

The dessert menu is illustrated with a cunning (yes, cunning) rhinoceros and alligator painted by local artist Leif Nilsson, whose studio is a few blocks away. Desserts here are on the wild side. A lemon verbena and gingered strawberry tart singing with flavor comes with a shot glass of strawberry-rhubarb wine. Then there’s chocolate pot de crème with Devonshire cream, coffee-flavored panna cotta and crumbled caramel-cashew brittle; and, now hear this, a trio of ice cream soda floats served in martini glasses—root beer with vanilla ice cream, orange soda with chocolate, and cream soda with banana toffee. Are we having fun or what?

Restaurant L&E 
59 South Main St., Chester (860/526-5301; restaurantfrench75bar.com)

Dinner Monday and Thursday through Sunday 5 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: small plates $9.75 to $16, sides $4.50 to $7, desserts $9.50.

Restaurant L & E, Chester

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