Review: The Cottage, Westport

At this small but impressive Westport restaurant, chef and owner Brian Lewis prepares a variety of delicate dishes with complex flavors and compelling visual flare. It’s all done in a setting which, though fancy, does not require you to iron your best shirt —- think plaid shirts, not suit jackets.

Lewis’ new venture opened last December in the unassuming space previously occupied by Bill Taibe’s popular restaurant LeFarm. The Cottage has wasted no time in becoming a favorite of the Fairfield County foodie crowd, even earning the highest possible rating of “Excellent” from New York Times’ Connecticut food reviewer Patricia Brooks.

During a visit on a Tuesday evening in June, it lived up to its reputation without either surprises or slipups, providing exactly the type of food and service you’d expect.

The standout dish was the lobster spaghetti (above): tasty, well-cooked house-made pasta served with East Coast sea urchin (Lewis prefers East Coast sea urchin for this dish because it is more “briny”), fresh San Marzano plum tomatoes and Calabrian chili peppers. The chilies provided a slight spice kick that was the icing on the cake for this clean and light entrée worth ordering again —- and again.

“It’s my favorite dish on the menu, that and the duck fried rice,” Lewis says of the lobster spaghetti. The pasta is made daily, the lobster is as fresh as possible and every time he tries to rotate it off the menu customers complain, Lewis says, so it is almost always available.

Dishes such as these are complemented by the restaurant’s robust cocktail program. The Bourbon N Bash is a must try for bourbon lovers. Angel’s Envy bourbon is combined with port and ever-so-slightly sweetened by house-made rhubarb purée, resulting in a smoky, excellent concoction. For something more summer-appropriate and sweet, but not ridiculously so, try the refreshing Cottage lemonade, vodka infused in-house with black tea and peach, with Meyer lemon and honey.

Getting back to food, another favorite was the chioggia beets appetizer. Chioggia are striped, extra-sweet beets; here they are served over local burrata cheese with nasturtiums and their flowers, creating a beautiful plate that tasted even better than it looked, which is saying a lot.

The spicy squid and broccoli was also a strong appetizer. Intriguingly seasoned with black garlic, chorizo aioli and red chili, the dish is elevated by its excellent white dipping sauce. Lewis says one of the secrets to the sauce was the use of mayu, a garlic oil made from burnt black garlic. Counterintuitively, burning garlic to this extent gives it “this ultimate savory quality without any bitterness to it,” he says.

Entrées were rounded out by Maine halibut in fig leaves, served with guanciale (cured pork cheek), chanterelle mushrooms and vegetables; and the prime burger, to which you can add bone marrow. The latter was excellent but only worth ordering if you’re really craving a burger, as many of the other dishes at The Cottage are of the can’t-get-anywhere-else variety.

For dessert we sampled three of the four available, including the peach tart, strawberry pavlova, and hot fudge and peanut butter sundae. Each was serviceable, but did not quite live up to the expectations set by earlier courses.

Though small, the restaurant’s space is not cramped. Behind the service bar, instead of the standard mirror there is an open wall that looks into the kitchen, a nifty design touch. The place seats about 46 people, and that along with its popularity make reserving a table in advance a good idea it is, after all, called The Cottage, not The Palace.

Due to poor reconnaissance before the visit, I did not order the wagyu (Japanese cow) brisket steam buns, a delectable-sounding dish featuring brisket cooked for three days in a seaweed brine, and which Lewis says is one of the most popular dishes. I still bitterly regret this mistake, but as they say,  the “of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are what might have been (ordered).”

The Cottage

256 Post Road E., Westport

203-557-3701, thecottagewestport.com

Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat. 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.

Price range: Appetizers $7-$21. Dinner entrees: $21-$35.

Wheelchair accessible

Ambiance Small but roomy and open. Design is meant to evoke the feel of a seaside cottage and does just that.

Service The attentive staff is well versed in the menu and its many intricacies. Detailed questions about a cocktail’s preparation received thorough and thoughtful answers.

Food High-quality ingredients are combined in intriguing ways, creating visually appealing dishes with various cultural influences.

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

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