Restaurant Review: Gifford's, Kent
All images by Julie Bidwell
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
Kent is a country town with an artistic bent and residents who want to keep it that way. Gifford’s restaurant, which opened in February, couldn’t be more sensitive to the town’s way of thinking. In a plain dove-gray clapboard building on Maple Street, it features a fireplace for winter, and for summer, an awning-shaded dining terrace facing a sort of pocket park with green grass, garden paths and an occasional sculpture, all tucked away so that you come upon it suddenly with delight.
Kent’s like that. So is Gifford’s, its redesigned interior itself a piece of modern art with color-block walls in sunflower yellow, lemon and lime. The food is equally artistic and bright. The chef, who is also an owner, calls it New American melting-pot food, and evocations of Thailand, Tuscany, Vietnam, Morroco, France and local farm fare pop up all over the menu.
We began with a French onion soup so multi-nuanced and deeply delicious, spiked with just the right amount of apple brandy and sealed with good Gruyère, we knew its like would be hard to find elsewhere. A simpler dish, pan-roasted shrimp with roasted red pepper and saffron dipping sauce was equally pleasing. But crispy flash-fried oysters trumped all. Served hot, with a crunchy crust and creamy interior, their fresh ocean-bright flavor with deep rich undertones whispered seductively, “Come back for this dish.”
Three brick-oven pizzas were on offer, and we shared one made with prosciutto, dried white figs, gorgonzola and mozzarella. On the page it sounds heavy but the pie was a little gem, with the saltiness of the prosciutto balancing the sweetness of the figs and the two cheeses providing a creamy richness highlighted by a film of balsamic glaze.While Gifford’s appetizer list offers a fair number of vegetarian dishes (especially for those who eat seafood) the entrée list is a bit more limited. But not to worry, the chef says that almost any dish can be modified to meet dietary restrictions. We had none, but we would hate to have missed the vegetarian entrée on offer the night we were there: An aromatic ragu of Indian spiced chickpeas, roasted eggplant and tomato with turmeric-roasted cauliflower and English cucumber raita. Even carnivores might be tempted.
For them, however, there’s an excellent New York Strip steak on the menu—lean and not noticeably marbled, but tender and juicy with the distinctive clean flavor of grass-fed beef. It came topped with roasted cipollini onions and a Cabernet veal glaze reduction that only a talented chef is likely to provide. Creamed spinach served alongside looked and tasted freshly chopped. Topping it with Gruyère was arguably a bit much—but not for the steak and cheese fans I know.
In contrast, Chicken Madeira was the soul of dietary discretion, consisting of thin-sliced, pan-roasted chicken breast and mushrooms in a Madeira reduction served with mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus. Okay but nothing to write home about.
On the other hand, we loved Gifford’s creative deployment of Asian techniques, ingredients and sometimes whole recipes. In fact, my favorite entrée was Black Pearl Salmon prepared with a deep bow to Vietnam. A pretty little fillet, oven roasted medium-rare, it arrived with warm cabbage slaw, bok choy, carrots, celery, peppers and mushrooms and thread-thin glassy rice noodles in a classic Pho broth. For me it conjured visions of Halong Bay which I visited years ago—but with or without the food memory, this fish dish was worth a shout out.
So was the evening’s special, pan-roasted skate over parmesan spinach risotto with roasted caper, tomato and olive tapenade. It’s been said that a chef is only as good as his (or her) sources. Gifford’s chef James Neunzig bears this out. A Connecticut native and resident who has cooked at the best restaurants in his immediate vicinity, Mayflower Inn and West Street Grill, he knows where to get the best local produce and products, and his overseas connections are equally impressive. Legend has it that he once ordered fresh mahi mahi from Hawaii and his supplier got it to him by air in 24 hours—in time to cook and serve it for dinner. I thought of that as I savored the sparkling freshness of a delicate morsel of snowy white skate.Desserts consisted mostly of “somethin’ lovin’ from the oven,” to paraphrase the Pillsbury Dough Boy. This was not surprising because the owners of Gifford’s restaurant, Michael Moriarty and James Neunzig, are also the proprietors of J.P. Gifford Market and Catering Company around the corner on Main Street, Kent’s go-to place for addictive cookies, irresistible croissants, big, fat Italian breakfast sandwiches and incredible edibles of all kinds to take away or nosh on at a table in front of the store. With a bakery’s worth of goodies to choose from, Chef Neunzig rolled out an interesting dessert roster ranging from a mild mascarpone cheesecake with a homey graham cracker crust to toffee sticky pudding, a cake-like confection in a pool of molten butterscotch sauce, sinfully alluring and sweet enough to induce a sugar high. A lemon-lime tart (right), citrusy and tangy, provided a piquant alternative. But the sybaritic bread pudding made with Gifford’s famous brioche, was, we decided, the perfect ending to dinner on a terrace on a soft summer night.
9 Maple St., Kent, (860) 592-0262, jpgifford.com
Dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5 to 9, Sunday from 4 to 8. Price range: appetizers $8 to $13; entrées $23 to $35; desserts $7 to $9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.
(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)
This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Connecticut Magazine
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