The tables and chairs were not designed with eating in mind and, through no fault of its own, Conspiracy is located more than an hour away from my house. Even so, I can’t wait to go back.
One word: Ramen.
OK, three words: Ramen, cocktails and atmosphere.
Let’s start with the atmosphere. Conspiracy is undeniably cool. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack cool. Accessible by an easy-to-miss doorway on Middletown’s Main Street, the second-floor space has the feeling of a secret club straight out of a film noir. Lounge chairs snake around an L-shaped room with painted-white brick walls. Edison bulbs hang from lofty ceilings, casting their warm light over a showstopping square bar. Behind the bar, bartenders twirl, mix and shake various liquids as they prepare alcoholic elixirs, often from historic recipes.
Since opening in September 2017, Conspiracy has been a mecca of true craft cocktails. Owners Mark and Jen Sabo are medical professionals by day (a pediatrician and pediatric dietitian, respectively) and cocktail enthusiasts by night. They are dedicated to the distinctly American origins of their craft, a dedication shared by the bartenders who work here. It’s the type of place where patrons can ask to see the absinthe list or talk about the legendary father of mixology, Jerry Thomas, who learned his trade in New Haven.
This pairing of cocktails and atmosphere made Conspiracy an instant favorite, but initially, the food offered was limited and more of an afterthought. That changed in January when By Moonsong, a pop-up concept by chefs Angeline Chiang and Wesley Barrington, took up permanent residency in the Conspiracy kitchen. Now Conspiracy is home to some of the best ramen in the state. By Moonsong’s steaming bowls of 18-hour broth filled with local, sustainable ingredients compare favorably with ramen hotspots like Kawa Ni in Westport and New York City’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, one of celebrity chef David Chang’s ultra-popular group of restaurants which helped fuel the current ramen renaissance.
At Conspiracy, the chicken paitan has a light, tasty lemon broth and the chicken itself is more flavorful than most. That’s in part because it is made from “Buddha style” chicken from a farm in upstate New York, Chiang explains. It is a Chinese style of chicken in which the bird is sold with the head and feet on and is processed at an older age than most U.S. chicken, so that “their chicken essence is a bit more present,” Chiang says.
Good as it is, the paitan is outdone by the spicy miso ramen, which comes with pork belly and egg in it. A thicker soup with a delicious spice kick, it leaves a lasting impression and longing.
“We’re trying to make a local ramen, really bringing out the true taste of New England in a bowl of soup,” Chiang says. “We are also focused on food waste. We try to reuse everything that we can and find as many outlets of utilization as we can, and we design our dishes with that in mind.”
The two met while working at Brigaid, a school lunch program founded in New London by Dan Giusti, former head chef at Noma in Copenhagen, that aims to revolutionize school lunches. Recently engaged, they were drawn together by a passion for ramen and cutting food waste.
At Conspiracy, one example of their sustainable efforts is using less-visually appealing, but still exceptionally tasty, shiitake mushroom pieces from Sea Coast Mushrooms, a mushroom farm in Stonington. Another example is their use of spent grain from Fox Farm Brewery in Salem to make flour. Barrington adds that they want to do more with brewing byproducts. “We’re currently working on a utilization of brewers’ yeast that is developed in the beer-making process that doesn’t really have an outlet.”
Beyond ramen, the menu is small but diverse with plenty of vegan options. The pork belly bao is a wonderful steamed sandwich, as was the mushroom bao. Other winning apps include the mushroom pickles (also from Sea Coast Mushrooms) and the sweet potato okonomiyaki.
In addition to bar seating, the restaurant has lounge-style seating with comfortable chairs and small tables that are right about level with your legs. Initially, I worry these tables won’t be ideal for the type of serious eating I intend. Despite these misgivings about the setup, my party has no trouble eating. It is somewhat unconventional but not uncomfortable.
During my visit, the drinks match the food well, though due to what seem to be service issues at the bar, our first round of drinks don’t arrive until just after the appetizer course. The drink I order, the Shinjuku, is interesting and features barrel-aged shochu, a distilled Japanese rice spirit that is rare, at least in Connecticut. Had the drink not taken so long, I would have certainly delved deeper into the beverage program. (I’m told by several friends that such a slowdown is uncharacteristic.)
One drink I will be sure to try is the Campfire Old Fashioned featuring a locally smoked maple syrup, bourbon and bitters and topped by a marshmallow that is scorched right before it is served in a crowd-pleasing manner. “It’s not a serious drink; it’s supposed to be fun,” Sabo says. “A lot of the drinks we serve go back to the 1830s and 1860s. We’re history buffs; we really wanted to bring that passion to this area. Middletown is so rich in history.”
Dessert also impresses, with a tres leches cake hitting the right mix of hearty and sweet. I look forward to seeing how the menu evolves with more ingredients that, at other restaurants, might go to waste.
350 Main St., Middletown
Price range: Snacks $3-$8, ramen $15-$17, dessert $5
Hours: Mon., Wed. & Thu. 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri. & Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 3 p.m.-midnight Closed Tue.
This second-floor establishment is up a steep flight of steps with no alternate entrance, and is not wheelchair accessible.
Ambiance Cool as a cucumber and ultra classy. The owners were hoping to open a restaurant with the “feel of an exclusive club, just one where everyone happens to be invited.” They’ve met that goal with a second-floor lounge space with a statement bar, comfortable lounge chairs and good acoustics that made conversing easy even on a crowded Friday night.
Service The restaurant seemed short-staffed or was having some type of bottleneck issue for drink orders during our visit. Our first drink arrived 30 minutes after we entered the restaurant. People sitting near us gave our server, who was clearly not to blame, a hard time. He handled it like a pro. He also spent time helping us choose which dishes to order.
Food Angeline Chiang and Wesley Barrington have created an elevated, ramen-centric menu that is the perfect companion to the drinks. The spicy miso was the favorite, but everything we tried, from the bao to dessert, was excellent.