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A double-cut cider-brined pork chop comes with Frenched ribs and a bed of heirloom carrots, carrot risotto and wild mushrooms, from Cotton Hollow Kitchen in South Glastonbury.

Cotton Hollow Kitchen goes a long way to feeling like the one of the best roadside diners you’ve ever hit. The fact that the road it’s on passes through South Glastonbury, a short stretch of some of the most archetypal old New England byways in the state, informs the quality locals may expect and visitors may unexpectedly find.

The simple building sits in an attractive hollow beside Roaring Brook, and the restaurant calls its seasonal, locally sourced food “contemporary chow.” The menu’s selections — New England clam chowder, a pub burger with cheddar ale sauce and bacon onion jam, a chicken plate with cranberry barbecue glaze, served with sweet potato and Brussels sprouts — are familiar comfort food. As with most of human endeavor, though, the significance is not what you attempt, but how it’s accomplished.

Enter Cotton Hollow Kitchen, as we did on a flawless autumn evening with shadows tracing sunlight to the multihued crowns of tall trees (again with the classic New England), and make your first decision: the window-lined dining room to your left, or the barroom to your right, both equipped with tables and booths. A barroom booth selected, menus hit the table, and we begin.

Cotton Hollow’s menu changes with the seasons, and their cocktail menu is no less susceptible to Earth’s orbit. The fall cocktail list includes a drink called the Lion’s Tail made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, St. Elizabeth Allspice liqueur, lime juice, and orange bitters, and punchy sangrias featuring pomegranate and red wine, or local apple cider, white wine, and Fever Tree ginger beer. 

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Bartender Mario Wongsosudiro puts the finishing touches on a Stars over Singapore cocktail.

Bartender Mario Wongsosudiro, formerly of Forbidden City Bistro in Middletown, started at Cotton Hollow with recipes developed by Khalid Williams, currently at Taprock in Unionville, including the Stars Over Singapore, named for co-owner Joanne Tan’s heritage. 

“For my Asian palate, I needed to make a change,” says Wongsosudiro, who makes the drink with Roku gin, amusingly steeped in butterfly bush flowers. Green Filipino calamansi lime syrup and Choya yuzu liqueur glow under the float of purple overproof gin, grabbing one’s attention immediately. Zipang sparkling sake adds the final touch to the lively cocktail. The Lady Bug carries over from Wongsosudiro’s time at Forbidden City, and includes calamansi, alongside lychee, Stolichnaya Razberi, cranberry and lime juices. 

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Chorizo-laden Prince Edward Island mussels are a world-class take on a New England favorite.

Drinks down, our appetizer of Prince Edward Island mussels arrives in deep, almost mahogany sauce rich with stout and spiked with spicy, chewy chorizo, the plump mussels dusted with parsley. The combination — tomato, chorizo, thyme — gives this otherwise classic seafood dish an aura of a New World moule-frites without the frites. My dining companion and I — having taken a sharp, savory turn from our citrus aperitifs — make the quick, executive decision that we want this sauce on everything now: fish, fries, steak, toothbrushes, inside little bath bottles at hotels, etc. The kitchen meatballs and seasonal Bavarian pretzel elsewhere on the starter menu are tempting, but this is clearly the right choice for us.

She continues with the coastal theme and sees a northern take on the southern classic shrimp and grits arrive next. Large shrimp spotted with brown grill marks ring the plate, and stay firm and sweet to the tooth. Tangy and pungent with goat cheese, topped with bits of kale greens, further enriched with lardon-like bacon chunks, and wild mushrooms, the grits are innovative and beautiful. Deeply brown gravy, a lobster reduction, pools here and there, flowing into each forkful’s divot. Delicious, subtle and with local flair, my Southern-trained tastes nevertheless require a bit of heat to a shrimp and grits dish, even if it’s a bit of tabletop hot sauce on offer. 

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Cotton Hollow puts a fresh twist on time-tested comfort foods like Southern shrimp and grits.

As if to answer the need, the Cotton Hollow Mac and Cheese: twisty fusilli in pale bechamel sauce topped with fresh Parmesan and herbed bread crumbs, delivers a pleasing jolt of sriracha peppers in the throat I was missing in the shrimp and grits. The two dishes, though a bit white and dairy-heavy combined, are great together. I can see why the mac gets the Cotton Hollow branding.

Co-owner Mark Conley (Max Restaurant Group) brought in executive chef Niels Van Galen (Harlan Haus, Bridgeport, and Harlan Publick, sNorwalk; Max’s Oyster Bar, West Hartford; 50 West, Plainville) in late 2019. Van Galen took over and, like every kitchen worker in America, made do with what he could between the springs of 2020 and ’21.

“I worked with Mark to make both our visions happen here,” Van Galen says. “I took what we were doing already before the shutdown and added differences, tweaked, played around, and the menu has really taken on a life of its own from there.”

The fall dinner menu retained hints of summer, offering paella, hanger steak with salsa verde, truffle aioli and fries, with Asian influences popping up throughout. Pork belly tacos with fried rice and kimchi; kimchi oil in the pepper-chunked calamari; Korean short ribs with gochujang vinaigrette, shiitake mushrooms and ramen noodles mix and match styles with burgers, swordfish and salads.

Unabashedly biased, I believe October in Connecticut is possibly the finest time of year, anywhere, globally, and it’s to be celebrated: weather, scenery, food and drink alike. I therefore choose the seasonally appropriate cider-brined pork chop for my entrée, which arrives double cut, with a duo of Frenched ribs standing proud above a bed of heirloom carrots, carrot risotto, and wild mushrooms. 

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The crisp dining room and its window-lined booths help make for a high-end dining experience.

Van Galen says he chose the bone-in double cut to provide a nice, thick chop which could be gently cooked through on the interior, without torching the surface. He’s succeeded. The pork is flavorful and juicy to the end, with a delicious apple glaze provided by cider from The Old Cider Mill, scarcely over a mile away from where we sit. Juices soak into the creamy risotto, complementing the earthy mushroom component, the cider matching with the sweet, resiliently crisp carrots. Add a crisp märzen lager and this is the perfect dinner for harvest season. 

My least likely dessert order — or at least one so far down in the ranking to be at risk of relegation — would be an espresso martini. Noticing eyebrows up across the table, though, I order two. Remember what was said before about not “what,” but “how”? Most drinks of the ilk taste like candy bar milkshakes, but Cotton Hollow’s salted caramel espresso martini hits the nose with fresh coffee, the sweetness cut with tiny rocks of Himalayan salt, and the glass free from embarrassing streaks of syrup.

My attention is mainly dedicated to the peach cardamom sponge cake which rose like a triangular cloud beside a fat lozenge of star anise créme anglaise. Sweet, fluffy and slightly tangy throughout, the caramelized edges where the cake touches the hot pan are particularly engaging. A wedge of fruit here and there adds texture and concentrates hits of flavor.

Seasonally shifting menus aren’t just fashionable these days — they were unavoidable before the advent of greenhouses and global trade. Part of what makes them attractive now is their connection to local agriculture as much as the implication of edible variety, and the converse dullness of eating the same thing, day after day. There are times, plenty of them, when a familiar dish is needed, and satisfying. Providing people with seasonal foods alongside the option of comfort food, done well, seems to be the recipe at Cotton Hollow Kitchen. 


Cotton Hollow Kitchen

840 Main St., South Glastonbury

860-781-8555, cottonhollowkitchen.com, @cottonhollowkitchen on Instagram

Hours: Wed. & Thu. 3–9:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. noon–9:30 p.m., Sun. noon–8 p.m. Closed Mon. & Tue.

Wheelchair accessible

This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.