“Fusion” is a term that occasionally inspires a bit of trepidation. Jazz fusion has stood accused of combining the sounds and rhythms of jazz and rock music, losing the soul of both, and creating something less than the sum of its parts. A jack of all trades is a master of none, the thinking goes. Pleasant surprise, then, that Ansonia’s Crave is a Latin fusion restaurant that really does everything well, combining a tremendous amount of flavors and cuisines into an exciting menu that has breadth without losing depth.
Crave has been around for some 10 years, and we usually reserve this space for newer restaurants. But in the service of our special issue on the Naugatuck Valley, we thought it appropriate to profile one of the premier restaurants in the region. Crave occupies a prominent position on Main Street in the former Ansonia Opera House, a stately building where Ansonia boxer Pinky Silverberg fought Frisco Grande in 1927 on his way to the world flyweight championship. Crave is housed in an elegant space that pays tribute to this grand history, with live music seven nights a week, a sprawling menu, and a piano lounge to boot.
Owner Libby Meissner grew up in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. as a teenager, bouncing around from Buffalo to Miami to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Dallas before settling in Ansonia. “I’ve taken something from each place I have lived.” Her head chef, Fabian Delgado, is Ecuadorian, and so the menu brings together an impressive mix of cuisines. Meissner says the top three sellers at the restaurant are mofongo, paella and short ribs, the former two a perfect tribute to Meissner’s background. Two of Meissner’s grandparents were from Spain, where paella is a common dish, and mofongo — with smashed plantains, pork rind, garlic, olive oil and either shrimp or churrasco — is announced as a Puerto Rican classic.
The menu is divided into two main sections, “cravings” and the “main event.” The cravings section can be treated as an appetizer, as the plates are cheaper and smaller, while the main event is, as you might guess, more of a main course in the $20-$30 range. In a recent visit, myself and a companion decided to treat the cravings as a sort of tapas-style selection platter, ordering four items to sample. (Full disclosure: if a restaurant new to me has calamari, I will order it.) Crave’s calamari is quite good: lightly breaded and served with cherry peppers and sweet chili sauce.
For those familiar with Latin American food in its infinite varieties, many of the options will be comfortingly familiar. Empanadas are there. Tacos are there. The tacos de carne came with beautifully seared strips of steak, sautéed peppers and onions, and avocado crema served on corn tortillas. (Much of the menu is friendly to the gluten intolerant.) Shrimp is everywhere, and the camarones diablo,or devil shrimp, are excellent, with an array of properly spicy Cajun spices and a mango salsa. A lot of times chefs will overdo a spicy dish, slaughtering it with spice and creating a dish that is more confused than intense. Crave does not overdo it.
A highlight of the cravings menu is the pulpo a la parrilla con chorizo,an artfully presented array of grilled octopus with chorizo, potatoes and pearl onions. For those unfamiliar with octopus, get familiar. Crave’s version, alone, is worth a visit. Though it was a special, part of a selection that changes weekly, a rigatoni dish with jalapeños and a tequila cream sauce must be mentioned. The creativity of the dish is commendable, representing the best of the fusion concept. “Everybody has to have a pasta dish, because there’s an Italian restaurant on every corner,” Meissner says. “How do we take an American staple and make it our own?”
The main event section sees some Italian-inspired dishes sneak in, as well, with a shrimp and chorizo risotto.
Stepping into Crave on a Monday night, one gets the sense it is very much the place to be on Ansonia’s Main Street. There is a singer and a guitarist who, while loud enough to be heard throughout the establishment, are not the center of attention. Meissner, for her part, has “nothing but fantastic things to say about Ansonia,” while pointing out that Crave pulls in diners from a 50-mile radius.
Even though the food is of a quality one might expect in a place accompanied by a certain amount of snobbery, there is no such posturing at Crave. “Valley folk, we’re real people. There’s no pretenses. We’re just real. Everybody knows everybody,” Meissner says.
It has been a long journey over the 10 years Crave has been open, and Meissner says the area has changed quite a bit. The origin story is reflective. “We just got sick of driving elsewhere to eat,” she says.
In addition to the extensive menu, there are drink specials every night. On Sunday, bottles of wine under $50 are half price. If everything goes according to plan, there will be an outdoor patio deck for open-air dining in the warm weather, Meissner says.
More stories from our tribute to the Lower Naugatuck River Valley: